ONE of the world's leading climate change experts yesterday called into question the green credentials of the First Minister, branding his energy policy a "sham".
Click here to read the letter in full
Nasa scientist Dr James Hansen called for Alex Salmond to abandon any plans to allow new coal-fired power stations to be built in Scotland.
He urged that any such stations should be built only if they were fitted with technology – which does not yet exist – to capture and store carbon dioxide, the dangerous greenhouse gas.
The Scottish Government has said it is intending to allow new fossil-fuel power stations, as long as they are "ready" to add the technology at a later date.
In a strongly worded letter seen by The Scotsman, Dr Hansen warned such an approach would not guarantee that a "single tonne" of would be prevented from entering the atmosphere, and would do nothing to halt climate change.
Opposition parties responded by criticising the First Minister's green credentials, and environment groups called for Mr Salmond to act on Dr Hansen's advice. But energy experts warned that new fossil-fuel power stations were essential to prevent the lights going out, particularly as the Scottish Government had rejected new nuclear plants.
In a letter to the First Minister yesterday, Dr Hansen, the head of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said: "Carbon capture and storage readiness is not an adequate solution. It is a sham that does not guarantee that a single tonne of carbon will be captured in practice. Alternative approaches must be considered which ensure an effective moratorium on new unabated coal power."
Carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations accounts for almost 20 per cent of Scotland's emissions. Scotland has a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
The Scottish Government has said it is planning to base the future of its electricity supply on "clean" fossil-fuel power stations and renewables. However, in a consultation that closed yesterday, it put forward a plan requiring new fossil-fuel power stations only to be "ready" for carbon capture and storage, rather than adopting the clean technology from the start.
This has led to fears from environmental groups of new "dirty" power stations pouring emissions into the atmosphere before carbon capture and storage technology becomes viable.
Danish firm Dong Energy has already announced its ambition to build a new coal-fired plant in Hunterston, Ayrshire, which would be "ready" for carbon capture and storage technology, but not kitted out for it from the start.
Duncan McLaren, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, strongly supported the views in Dr Hansen's letter and agreed a moratorium on new coal-fired power stations was vital. He said the letter revealed a "fatal flaw in the Scottish Government's climate change policy, which requires a different stance in their energy policy".
He added: "The climate change implications of new unabated coal-fired power stations are unthinkable."
Mr McLaren said Mr Salmond had to take notice of the letter if he wanted to retain his green credentials. "He would be very unwise to ignore it if he wants to maintain a credible stance that he wants Scotland to be a world leader in tackling climate change.
"My advice to the First Minister would be to accept graciously the input from one of the world's leading experts on climate change and be grateful that he's showing an interest in Scotland's potential for world leadership in these matters."
Mr McLaren said there was no need for new fossil-fuel power stations, and that enough capacity existed to provide Scotland with an electricity supply until 2020, by which time carbon capture and storage technology would be available.
Scottish Labour's environment spokeswoman, Sarah Boyack, said: "The SNP are quick to make big announcements that sound green, but they are not yet serious about putting Scotland on track to meet the big carbon reductions we urgently need to deliver. There is a real danger that if coal-fired power stations are built without carbon capture technology, they will just add to our growing carbon emissions."
And Green MSP Patrick Harvie said approving new coal power capacity would make Scotland "the dirty man of Europe".
However, industry experts argued there was little choice but to have new fossil fuel power stations, particularly as the Scottish Government had ruled out nuclear.
Professor Andrew Bain, an economist and energy expert, stressed that with nuclear power ruled out, there was no option but new fossil-fuel power stations. "It's very dangerous to wait until carbon capture technology is available," he said. "If we wait, there's a considerable risk of power cuts in ten years."
Former Labour minister Allan Wilson agreed new coal-fired power stations would lead to high emissions, and said nuclear was the only option to meet climate change obligations, have a secure supply and keep electricity affordable. "There's no alternative to new nuclear – there's no such thing as clean coal," he said. "There's a place for coal-fired power stations but it has to be in conjunction with nuclear, or emissions will go through the roof."
A Scottish Government spokesman insisted the SNP was leading the way, with the strongest climate change bill in the world, and the Saltire Prize for innovation in marine renewable energy.
He added: "As part of a balanced energy mix, carbon capture and storage has the potential to cut emissions from fossil fuels by 90 per cent and we also need new power stations to play their part.
"Any investment designed to last 30 years will need to be compatible with our ambitious climate change targets and that's why we consulted on whether new fossil-fuel power stations should be ready for carbon capture technology.
"We have the capacity to store carbon in the North Sea and can build on the scientific and engineering expertise in our oil and gas industry and our universities."
Opposition surrounding new coal-fired power stations in Scotland mirrors that in the rest of the UK. A decision on controversial plans to extend Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent is expected later this month.
Dr Hansen took the unprecedented step of testifying on behalf of six Greenpeace activists who vandalised the power station.