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Coal on the global market is so cheap that it threatens government attempts to tackle climate change, the chairman of the Environment Agency has warned.

Lord Smith says the UK’s share of electricity generated by coal is up to 40% – the highest since 1996.

Unless this trend is curbed, he says, the UK will miss its targets on curbing climate change and sulphur pollution.

The price of coal has been driven down by the dash for shale gas in the US.

Gas is much less polluting than coal, so carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have fallen in the US. But European power generators have gobbled up the resulting cheap coal, driving carbon emissions up in several nations.

The EU's statistical agency Eurostat estimates that from 2011 to 2012, CO2 emissions increased by 3.9% in the UK. The rise is most likely to be due to increased coal burning.

UK emissions of sulphur, which is damaging to health, have risen when they are supposed to be falling.

Lord Smith urges the government to commit to long-term targets to remove almost all carbon pollution from electricity generation by 2030. MPs are due to vote on this issue next week.

He also urges ministers to resist any attempts by power generators to keep open old coal stations which are due to close under an EU directive on air pollution.

Lord Smith said “There’s lots of talk about a dash for gas but in effect we’re in a dash for coal that’s completely unsustainable. The government must ensure it doesn’t continue.”

Lord Smith says it is important the UK develops its own reserves of shale gas, so long as gas power stations are able to store the resulting CO2 emissions in the future.

"If we lock ourselves into gas generation for the next 40 years without capturing the CO2 emissions, we will never meet our targets on climate change,” he said.

"At the current rate of progress we will miss our future carbon budgets."

A government spokesman said measures were in place to ensure new coal power stations could not be built unless they captured their carbon emissions.

There were no plans, he said, to extend the life of old coal power stations

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