At a time when the world's top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, European countries are slated to build about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades. The fast-expanding developing economies of India and China, where coal remains a major fuel source for more than two billion people, have long been regarded as one of the biggest challenges to reducing carbon emissions. But the return now to coal even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible. 

The European Union had pledged to develop 12 pilot carbon capture projects for Europe, but said that was not enough. There is a new coal-fired plant going up in India and China every week and most of those are not constructed in a way that is amenable to carbon capture, even if it were developed.  European power-station owners emphasize that they are making the new coal plants as clean as possible. But critics say that "clean coal" is a pipe dream, an oxymoron in terms of the carbon emissions that count most toward climate change.  

The European Union, through its emissions trading scheme, has tried to get power plants to consider the costs of carbon by forcing them to buy "permits" for emissions. Stephan Singer, head of European energy and climate office of the environmental group WWF in Brussels, says that math is shortsighted: The cost of coal and permits will almost certainly rise over the next decade. "If they want coal to be part of the energy solution, they have to show us that carbon capture can be done now, that they can really reduce emissions" to an acceptable level, he said.

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