The strange tale of two fuels

Christiana Figueres Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Christiana Figueres: into the lion's den

It was a strange day at the UN climate circus in Warsaw.

Much to the dismay of many environmental activists, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres agreed to speak at a World Coal Congress meeting in the Polish capital.

For greenies, it was as ridiculous a thought as say, Al Gore selling his TV channel to a network backed by an oil-rich Middle Eastern state (whoops).

Undaunted by the eco-hissing, Ms Figueres strode into the coal bunker and unleashed fire, brimstone and a little carbon dioxide.

Bituminous is too numerous, she said.

It's time to go light on the lignite - the brown is going down.

Leave the coal in the hole!

The boys from the black stuff were agog.

Didn't she know that coal was soon to overtake oil as the largest source of primary energy in the world?

Hadn't she heard about clean coal, the modern alchemy that turns lumps of dirty anthracite into gleaming knobs of gas-free green fuel?

In response to Ms Figueres, Milton Catelin, chief executive of the World Coal Association said that they were serious about changing the role of coal

"We want to open a genuine dialogue between the coal industry, governments and NGOs about these issues. We want to focus on what we can do in practical terms to meet the climate challenge," he said.

New type of fuel

Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of the UN's Conference of the Parties (COP), located at Poland's national football stadium, there was talk of a big announcement from the UN Environment Programme.

A press notice went out, brimming with excitement about a "potential new fuel source" that would produce 40% less CO2 than coal.

UNEP seemed set to release a report on methane hydrates, sometimes referred to as the ice that burns.

It is a mixture of methane and water ice that forms a type of fuel-rich, slush puppy on ocean floors. There has been much excitement about this since Japan began exploratory drilling for the product earlier this year.

"An abundant, untapped and potentially viable source of energy rests deep within the Earth's polar soils and sea floors," sang the excited press invite.

"Encased in ice-like deposits, rarely glimpsed by human eyes."

Rarely glimpsed by human eyes? We're definitely back in the carbon circus now.

This was all getting quite exciting until the ice that burns burnt UNEP's fingers.

The press conference was quenched at the last minute.

UNEP's spokesman Nick Nuttall said in an email, that it didn't go ahead because "in the end the report was not quite in the right shape".

But in the long halls of the stadium, there were a few sniggers from insiders. According to a couple of long standing COP watchers, campaigners were appalled that UNEP would release a report promoting a fossil fuel on the day that UN's top climate officer would condemn another one.

So emails were written, and the sustainably sourced, midnight oil burned bright as the full wrath of the green machine was unleashed.

And the fossil fuel story melted into thin, hot air.

If only environmentalists could make other fossil fuels disappear in the same way, we wouldn't need a huge meeting each year, whose major achievement seems to be self-replication.

But that's another story.

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