Environmentalists in the US have halted a huge new wave of coal-fired power stations. What lessons can Europe learn from them?
One day, historians might speculate that it was the ambition of the companies that sought to profit by building coal-fired power stations that triggered the beginning of the end for humans' most polluting habit.
Four years ago, campaigners in the US raised concerns over plans to build 150 coal-fired power stations nationwide. Today, nearly half those plans have been defeated in the courts or abandoned, while half of the remaining proposals are being actively opposed. Just 14 of the 150 plants are being developed, and environmental lawyers are all still pursuing them.
"The enormity of what they were proposing to do provided a platform to have that whole debate about pollution, including global-warming pollution, " says Bruce Nilles , director of the national coal campaign for the Sierra Club, America's biggest grassroots environment group.
In a few years, the backlash against coal power in America has become the country's biggest-ever environmental campaign, transforming the nation's awareness of climate change and inspiring political leaders to take firmer action after years of doubt and delay. Plants have been defeated in at least 30 of the 50 states, uniting those with already strong environmental records, such as California, with more conservative areas, such as the southern and central states.
The success of the US campaign is also now inspiring a global wave of protests, many in Europe, against similar schemes that plan to build coal-fired generators before carbon capture technology exists. If the European protesters succeed, Nilles believes US legislators will be likely to support presidential candidates' promises to join international efforts to cut emissions. By implication, though, if the protesters fail in Europe, the impact on a US or international deal would be disastrous.
The US anti-coal campaign is being linked to protests against similar plans in Australia, Germany, Italy and the UK, where there are demonstrations at almost every public appearance by E.ON, the company that plans to build Britain's first new first new coal power station for two decades in Kingsnorth, Kent, where protesters set up a protest camp against the new development in August.
US campaigners say they are concerned that if the UK and other European countries go ahead with new coal plants, the momentum to tackle climate change will be lost. " The rest of the world has been leading on this, particularly Europe," says Nilles. "Building new coal makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet [emissions] targets, so it's critical the European community countries do not fail."
Coal power returned to the US political agenda when vice-president Dick Cheney's 2001 energy policy lifted key pollution restrictions. It took two years for environmental groups to see what emerged: state by state, project by project, a total of 150 new plants were put forward, almost all of them not to replace old coal but to augment it. Individually, some plants would have emitted more CO2 than some African countries. Together, the plants would have emitted an estimated1bn tonnes of CO2 annually - more than the total emissions cuts by countries that have signed the Kyoto protocol.
That realisation mobilised an incredible national campaign, led by a few national groups including the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and others, but driven by state and local membership of these and many more organisations and employing a wide array of tactics. The first job was to raise public awareness that the cumulative threat was far greater than each local project, says Nilles. "The projects were moving through the public process and nobody was paying any attention."
Using town hall debates, local media and political connections, they stirred up interest and recruited new supporters to the cause, including powerful hunting and fishing interests and religious leaders in the Appalachian mountain states, where opencast coal mining is often affecting the poorest communities. Then the campaign began. State politicians were persuaded to legislate either against emissions, as in the case of California, or in favour of alternatives such as renewables and energy efficiency, in Minnesota. Campaigners targeted banks, telling them that investing in coal might be too risky because of the threat of international emissions caps and high carbon prices, prompting the banks to set tougher conditions on lending.
Then the environmentalists highlighted a little-noticed Federal grant fund that gave billions of dollars for new coal power; following their publicity six planned plants were dropped. Legal challenges successfully blocked more plants on the basis of local pollution in Illinois and Montana. It was also proven that burning coal was not the cheapest method of generating electricity, breaking state rules in Minnesota and Florida.
In 2007 the US Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases were a pollutant under the clean air act and so could be regulated. In July this year for the first time a coal plant in Georgia was blocked by a local court using this ruling. Meanwhile, concrete and steel prices have escalated so high that other projects have been dropped on cost grounds.
It is not only energy policy that has changed: public opinion on climate change has been transformed during this time, thanks in part to extreme weather events across the US, says Nilles.
"The sceptics will say that you can't say one flood is down to global warming. That's right, but we can see an up-tick in extreme and unprecedented weather patterns: wildfires sweeping across California, the drought that stretches [across] the southern tier of states, extreme flooding up in the mid-west, and an up-tick in tornados across the Great Plains."
Public opinion, in turn, has helped persuade at least six states, directly or through emissions limits, to put an effective moratorium on new coal power - California, Washington, Oregon and, perhaps more surprisingly, the conservative southern and midwest states of Florida, Idaho and Kansas. Governors of states that have taken action are also now putting pressure on their peers to stop them building generators that would wipe out their own hard-won emissions reductions. Nilles believes new coal power is now doomed in the US. "My sense is less than 10% [of the 150 plants proposed] will ultimately get built," he says. After this campaign, protesters will turn their attention to existing coal power and the mining industry, he says. "Ultimately, we need to phase out coal entirely .We don't need it and it's very expensive. The US has some of the best [renewable energy] resources in the world."
In Germany, where 25 plants have been mooted, campaigners are winning local referendums and blocking the proposals. India has also had some resistance to new coal, for example in Chamalapura near the city of Mysore. China is facing a fierce public response to pollution caused by coal and other industrial sites: an environmental official in 2006 estimated there had been 51,000 pollution-related protests the previous year. In Australia, protesters kicked off six planned climate camps around the world this year by chaining themselves to a coal train and blocking access to two plants.
Source: European Climate Foundation