The U.K. will cease all coal-fired electricity generation in October 2024, bringing forward the end date for the fuel by a year, in a bid to boost the country’s climate credentials ahead of an all-important climate summit in November.
In an announcement today, the country’s energy and climate change minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the move would “send a clear signal around the world that the U.K. is leading the way in consigning coal power to the history books.” The announcement also reinforced the U.K.’s call for other countries to accelerate the end of coal power worldwide, saying the government would introduce new legislation to formalize the call “at the earliest opportunity.” Britain will, however, continue to mine coal for export, and to use coal in other carbon-intensive processes such as steelmaking. The move is an attempt by Boris Johnson’s government to re-establish an image of leadership ahead of the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, after months of mixed signals on climate strategy. Last week, the government was taken to task by the country’s climate watchdog for failing to implement coherent plans to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or to take measures to prepare for the accelerating effects of climate change. Yet the very same week it was announced that government ministers would approve a new oilfield in the North Sea, while a controversial new coal mine in the north of England is still under consideration. MORE FOR YOUCan Tesla Really Do Without Radar For Full Self-Driving?Hydrogen Should Be Focused On Cement And Steel, Not CarsVegan Orders Are Surging, Delivery Services Report MORE FROM FORBESU.K. Acting ‘Too Slow’ On Climate Measures, In Week Of Dire WarningsBy David Vetter Nevertheless, the move on coal will be appreciated by climate researchers and environmental advocates. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel: the IEA calculates that coal-fired electricity generation accounts for some 30% of carbon dioxide emissions globally. It is also a leading source of air pollution: a major study published in April found that the burning of fossil fuels—in particular, coal—killed as many as 8.7 million people worldwide in 2018. Cameron Hepburn, director of the Smith School at the University of Oxford, welcomed the move. “Coal deserves a dignified death. It served us well but it is yesterday’s technology, dirty and uncompetitive compared to cheaper, new, higher-tech renewables,” Hepburn told me. “This would have happened anyway, soon enough, so the applause should be muted. The crazy thing is that in some countries, governments are subsidising coal to keep it running. Why waste taxpayer money on propping up an industry that still, every year, leads to more silent deaths than a major war?” That criticism will be felt most acutely in countries like Australia, where prime minister Scott Morrison recently stated that coal had “10, 20, 30 years to run,” even as demand shrinks and other countries commit to ending support for the fuel. China, the world’s largest consumer of coal and Australia’s largest export market, is aiming for peak carbon emissions by 2030, which will necessitate a wholesale move away from the fuel. The decline and fall of British coal has been in the making for decades, but has accelerated in recent years. Britain was home to the world’s first coal-fired power plant, built by Thomas Edison in London in 1882, and by 1950 coal was generating 97% of the country’s electricity. This fell gradually throughout the 20th century as fuels such as fossil gas came online, yet coal was still generating 40% of British electricity in 2012. But the U.K.’s 2008 Climate Change Act had sealed coal’s fate: with a legal commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, the government began introducing new regulations and carbon pricing to favor other sources of energy generation. In 2015, the government named 2025 as the last year coal would be used to generate electricity. MORE FROM FORBESThese Four Plastic Items Make Up Almost Half Of All Ocean TrashBy David Vetter Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, said that the announcement was “a welcome milestone of big symbolic value and an important signal to other coal-dependent nations,” but that, “it is not a game-changer for UK climate policy. The phase out date merely formalises a development that has all but been secured already through a combination of market forces, renewable subsidies and climate and environmental policies.” As part of the announcement, the U.K.’s COP26 president-designate, Alok Sharma, said he hoped the step would send “a clear signal to friends around the world that clean power is the way forward.” But Fankhauser suggested the government should place less emphasis on promises, and more on delivery, particularly when it comes to building new renewable energy capacity. “From a purely domestic point of view, the government’s focus has to be on delivering the 40 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity it has promised and starting to bring down emissions outside the electricity sector,” he said. As the Committee on Climate Change has shown, that requires immediate action and major investments in decarbonizing buildings, transport, agriculture and infrastructure. But so far, such action has failed to materialize.