Britain's plans to build new coal-fired power stations as part of the country's efforts to address its looming energy crisis will completely undermine the Bali agreement on climate change and discredit Gordon Brown's commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, according to one of the world's leading climate scientists.
The warning will be made directly to the Prime Minister this week in a letter from James Hansen, the director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, who will urge Mr Brown to block plans to build up to eight new coal-fired power stations - the first in 30 years.
Dr Hansen, one of the first scientists to warn of climate change 20 years ago, said that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and that building new power stations that burn it without capturing waste carbon dioxide will tip the planet towards irreversible warming.
He said that coal presents the biggest challenge in the fight against climate change because governments around the world appear to be dead set on using it as a cheap and easy source of energy without thinking about the long-term consequences.
In an interview with The Independent, Dr Hansen said Britain has a special responsibility to lead the world in banning new coal- fired power stations - and dismantling those already in operation - because of the country's long history of burning the fuel.
He claims that Britain, followed by the United States and Germany, has the highest per capita responsibility for climate change based on the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the start of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago.
Dr Hansen warned that if Britain, Germany and the United States go ahead with their plans to build new coal-fired power stations it will undercut attempts to convince India and China to build cleaner, more expensive power plants that capture carbon dioxide emissions.
But the technology of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from power stations chimneys - where the waste gas is caught and then buried underground for thousands of years - is still decades away, Dr Hansen warned. Until it had been shown to work there is could be no justification for burning coal because of its potential contribution to global carbon dioxide levels.
Gordon Brown, who supported the Bali agreement last week, needs to understand that his entire strategy on climate change will unravel if he ignores coal, Dr Hansen said. "If he doesn't understand this, then he doesn't yet get it," he said.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Dr Hansen says that the energy departments of governments take it as a "God-given fact" that they can sanction the mining of all fossil fuels from the ground before moving on to other sources of energy.
If that is done for existing coal deposits, we would end up creating a different planet to the one that has nurtured the development of human civilisation over the past 10,000 years with a relatively stable climate, he added.
"Frankly, it's difficult to exaggerate the importance of phasing out coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered because there is no viable strategy for stabilising climate without doing that," Dr Hansen said.
"There is much more CO2 in coal than there is in oil, and oil is going to run out. There is enough CO2 in coal to take us far beyond the dangerous level to produce a different planet," he said.
The Prime Minister is considering a call from his own advisers to build up to eight new coal-fired power plants over the coming decade. …