Old King Coal, Your Days Are Numbered

Posted by Greenpeace UK — 18 November 2015 at 3:43pm - Comments
by-nc-sa. Credit: Steve Morgan / Greenpeace
The government has announced that coal power stations, like Drax pictured here, will close by 2025

There is news worth celebrating coming from the Department of Energy and Climate Change today.

The UK has just become the first G20 economy to stamp a clear expiry date on coal, one of the main drivers of climate change. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd has pledged to phase coal out of our energy mix entirely by 2025.

This is hugely important, both in terms of the emissions saved by ending our use of the dirtiest fossil fuel, and the symbolic importance of the country which started the industrial revolution evolving beyond the need for coal.

Back in the early nineteenth century, the coal industry helped establish the UK as economic power. It gifted us a dominant position in many trades. It produced London’s famous smog, and named the Black Country, where the theory of evolution was demonstrated by moths darkening their wings to remain camouflaged in the increasingly sooty countryside.

Coal made us a rich nation, but it has been cutting short the lives of thousands of us every year with its pollution. And now, years on from the Industrial Revolution that coal fueled, we know that coal is one of the greatest drivers of climate change – if not the greatest.

Public pressure paid off

Eight years ago, thousands of us campaigned to prevent E.ON from building a new coal power station at Kingsnorth in Kent – the first of what could have been a wave of coal power across the country.

After repeated protests at the proposed site, and after a high profile court case where six Greenpeace activists successfully argued that they were justified in trying to shut the power station down, E.ON rolled back its construction plans.

The decision to drop the Kingsnorth expansion, and subsequent government reversal on plans to build other coal plants, was a substantial step toward avoiding a huge spike in CO2 emissions from our energy system.

Yet it's only now, after years of further protest and public pressure, that the UK has gone further, committing to shutting down our old, highly-polluting coal plants completely.

It's taken the best part of a decade to get to where we are now, and it’ll take the same again before the last plant closes, but it's clear that the emails, letters and petitions you signed and sent, and the pressure you've piled on politicians has paid off.

Now Britain gets to attend this year’s climate talks with at least one significant sign of progress under this government. We may not be leading the way on the newest technologies, but we are doing the right thing when it comes to the oldest.

Moving away from dirty coal is a crucial milestone on the way to a cleaner energy future, but is by no means the end of the journey. Our government is moving us out of the nineteenth century, but not quite into the twenty-first.

What will fill the gap?

Ministers are planning to fill the gap left by coal by throwing away billions on the world’s most expensive power station at Hinkley and launching a new dash for gas. But a fleet of new gas plants will be virtually redundant decades before the end of their functional lives if we are serious about meeting our international obligations, and our legally binding emissions targets.

What would the 19th-century British engineers and industrialists who changed the world from its deepest mines to its darkening skies do in our place? Would they turn to on onshore wind, currently the cheapest, most efficient way to generate electricity in the UK? Would they see beyond that, and seek to lead the world in solar, the energy technology which will dominate this century? Would they be intrigued by the regular, predictable power of tides, would they identify the gap in energy storage technologies as the key strategic opportunity?

Or would they look back to what was popular in the previous century - as it appears the UK government will - and give that another try?

Our current energy policy is sadly lacking the visionary drive of the Victorians. And so there's a big risk that the second industrial revolution will not be led by Britain, but by Germany, China and the other nations willing to face up to today’s energy realities and invest in tomorrow’s energy solutions.

Today's announcement on coal shows that people power can force even reluctant governments to bring about the change we need. Together made this happen, against the current of Westminster lobbying. And with your help we'll now be double our efforts to will drag Britain’s energy sector into the twenty-first century. Join in here.

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