By Matthew Knott

Amid all the hoo-hah about Julia Gillard’s proposed citizens assembly on climate change and the cash for clunkers scheme, her idea of implementing “tough new emissions standards” for coal fired power stations has received little scrutiny.

When Labor announced its climate change election policies last month, most media outlets breathlessly reported Gillard’s promise of tougher emissions standards: “Julia Gillard to ban dirty power stations” (The Australian), “Gillard to crack down on coal” (SBS), “Gillard announces coal cackdown” (Sky News).

On Monday night’s Q&A program, the PM pushed the policy hard, saying that “we’re going to have national standards so that we don’t ever again see built in this country a dirty coal fired power station”.

The only problem? Labor’s proposed emissions standards don’t exist.

As the party’s policy announcement shows,  Labor’s “best practice” standards would be decided at an unspecified moment in the Gillard Government’s second term, following consultation with “stakeholders”.

(These stakeholders are not named, but the big polluters are sure to be among them).

At this stage, Labor can only guarantee that the amount of co2 coal fired power stations could emit would be lower than 0.86 tonnes per megawatt hour of electricity – that is, lower than the current average emissions intensity of fossil fuel power plants in Australia.

The Climate Institute’s Erwin Jackson has slammed it as the “standard you have when you do not have a standard” and said such an approach is 15 years too late.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s Owen Pascoe told Crikey that emissions standards for coal-fired power stations are a good idea — but only if they are truly tough. Pascoe said that unless the standard is 0.6 tonnes of co2 per megawatt or lower then it will have a negligible impact on pollution levels.

In 2006 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger implemented an emissions standard of 0.5 tonnes per megawatt for baseload power plants.

The unspecified standard would also only apply to new coal-fired power stations – not existing ones or the 15 coal-fired power stations awaiting approval.

Labor’s policy also mandates that all new coal-fired power stations must be “Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) ready”.

But what exactly does “CCS ready” mean? Again, this will be worked out after the election, following consultation with stakeholders.

Many wonder how useful it is to demand electricity generators take CCS into account when when designing power plants given the controversial technology may prove to be a fizzer.

Even the technology’s most passionate advocates admit that it will not be commercially viable until at least 2020. Earlier this year, Tim Flannery withdrew his long-standing support for CCS, saying he now believes it will be economically unfeasible compared to geothermal, solar photovoltaic and nuclear energy.

The ACF’s Owen Pascoe said, “CCS ready isn’t really worth much at all. It’s not credible unless CCS is shown to be effective and safe.”

Tony Abbott has quipped that Kevin Rudd “hit the ground commissioning” as Prime Minister. It seems, when it comes to climate change, a re-elected Julia Gillard would govern much the same way.

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