The strange tale of two fuels

Christiana Figueres 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.

Follow Matt on Twitter.

Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent

Will Kerry strike gold at Lima climate talks?

As US Secretary of State John Kerry joins UN climate talks in Lima, we look at some of the hurdles on the path to an historic global deal.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @73 J Hoovers

    Considering net energy has already been extracted from fusion in a H bomb & controlled fusion can even be achieved on workbench equipment I daresay the comparison with fantasy metals isn't a good one.

    This isn't a overturning the laws of physics problem its an engineering one & if just if we can crack it then that's our problems solved forever. (no really I mean forever)

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    We should invest more in green energy and not rubbish journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    @73 The J Hoovers Witnesses

    There is a vast difference

    We know fusion works

    In fact they have even achieve stable fusion

    All that remains is to maintain the fusion for a longer period, and a million other small obstacles

    ITER costs each British taxpayer less than 2p a week, considering the benefits if it does work surely that is a pittance to pay

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Isn't it really about time we started doing some intelligent things. Methane is apparently more of a greenhouse gas than CO2, so start piping the methane (or maybe other stuff?) from the worlds sewers and rubbish tips and burn that. In fact you could probably directly burn the rubbish (as they used to in Cambridge) to provide power. More humans, more waste, more power... not as bad as the current.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "That is a pittance"


    Given the soberly assessed prospects for success, it's extremely generous I'd say.

    We could equally throw money pointlessly at trying to find lighter-than-air metals for aircraft, for instance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Total ITER annual budget is less than the annual budget for BBC1 alone

    That is a pittance, just ask the BBC to run TV for China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States for less than the budget of BBC1

    And the ITER budget does detract from other fusion research

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    #63 Granted that the molten salt reactors would be safer and more efficent, but there are problems with the design (nothing that couldn't be solved with a decent research budget though). I'd prefer to see plans with technology which is already there, and also using solid fuel thorium reactors as a component would help make use of the stockpiles of nuclear "waste" that we have already

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I thought what set us humans apart is how creative/ingenious we are?appears not? Maybe our obsession with current political/economic model (in dire straights may I ad) is the reason 4 this, dirty fuel including nuclear is "Old School" come on folks, lets get back 2 normal, get creative in our thinking? here's an example:

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    "we need to research fusion, properly with real money thrown at it"


    It is researched properly, and huge money has been thrown at it, probably enough to have solved many of our problems if diverted elsewhere.

    However, the prospect of making compact fusion bombs, without the need for fission means that cash will be spent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Research into thorium reactors would be a good idea, as well as proper research into fusion

    We're building a first test prototype commercial reactor, you can't get much more proper than that, it needs more money if we're to accelerate this stage & move onto a full prototype commercial reactor though. Funding for thorium development would only ever come from the fusion budget.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Matt, you're in a position of some influence and potential importance. Don't waste and abuse that privilege. We need an homme serieux reporting from Warsaw, not a circus clown. Someone with passion, which doesn't preclude humour in its place but this neither the time nor the place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    @62 The J Hoovers Witnesses

    Which is why I said we need to research fusion, properly with real money thrown at it rather than the pittance that is spent at the moment

    @60 andyg

    Building fossil fueled power station while researching thorium may sound a good idea but politics will mean that money will not be spent on research while the oil companies still control the energy markets

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.


    Yes: comes under (a).

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Molten Salt Reactors are still far safer and more efficient than solid fuel thorium reactors which would have many of the problems of solid fuel uranium ones.

    @62.The J Hoovers Witnesses,
    As well as developing an economically viable aneutronic fusion source so you don't keep destroying the tokamak lining.
    I wouldn't exactly call lunar Helium 3 as being competitive with thorium.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.


    "Of course fusion trumps everything else"


    Not yet it doesn't. There are two huge problems and neither are solved:

    a) obtaining and containing a sustained, stable reaction.

    b) taking the energy thereby contained in a very small amount of matter, at immense temperatures (billions C), and converting that to usable form.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    #59 It should be possible to build plants with a transition to mainly thorium in mind. There are trials underway for using a mix of thorium and nuclear "waste" in current reactor designswhich seem to be going well.

    Also we should probably be building excess capacity with a view to synthesising other fuels as well. Right now we don't have any better energy storage that could go to fuel cells

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I would more likely argue for a strong push to thorium, and rather build low capital cost and reasonably clean power stations like natural gas in the mean time.
    A bunch of new conventional nukes will just get in the way of thorium development, as well as the risks.
    I wouldn't mind a LFTR plant in my back yard, but would definitely object to a PWR.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Research into thorium reactors would be a good idea, as well as proper research into fusion

    But at the mean time we should be building conventional nuclear to replace fossil fuels, until we get thorium reactors operational

    Of course fusion trumps everything else, get that working and the problems go away
    Wasting money on wind, wave and earth based solar is just making matters worse

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    A poor, empty article unworthy of such a serious topic - and unworthy of the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    44.Drunken Hobo
    "Conventional nuclear is only dangerous when built & run by idiots"


    So are banks, hospitals, and almost everything else.

    Happens all the time, doesn't it?


Page 1 of 4



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.