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The Dirty 30: How coal is tainting the UK’s climate leadership


We environmentalists don’t often talk about what our politicians are doing well. It’s human nature to take these things for granted and concentrate on the areas where improvements are needed. Well here’s something…

…In 2008, the UK government became the first country in the world to introduce a Climate Change Act. The current government has continued to show leadership on the international stage by arguing for stronger EU wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets as well as pushing for an ambitious global deal on Climate Change.

Drax power plant, Yorkshire © Global Warming Images / WWF-CanonDrax power plant, Yorkshire © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

Given the pride our government takes in being seen as a leader on tackling climate change, it is surprising and disappointing that the UK has come out joint top with Germany in a league table published today which exposes the 30 most polluting power stations in Europe.

The report – Europe’s Dirty Thirty – finds that 9 of the 30 power stations with the highest carbon emissions are in the UK. All of the top thirty plants are coal fired power stations.

The UK’s coal power stations were built mainly in the 1960s and 1970s. These huge behemoths have toiled away over the years providing valuable electricity throughout the country and now average around 45 years old. Unfortunately these old plants have now become an environmental liability and are churning out carbon emissions and damaging air pollution at an unacceptable rate.

So which of the UK’s power stations are the most polluting?

The huge Drax comes in top of the UK plants in the ‘Dirty 30’ list. To be fair to Drax, while it is the dirtiest in terms of absolute emissions, it is one of the most efficient (or least inefficient) of the coal power stations on the list which manage an unimpressive average of around 36 percent efficiency.

Table of UK power plants by emissionsTable of UK power plants by emissions

Particularly surprising perhaps is that two of the biggest are owned by EDF. Why is that surprising? Because EDF have spent a lot of money branding themselves as green. Remember the green version of the Union Jack on billboards up and down the country?

What is the government doing to make sure coal doesn’t scupper UK climate targets?

By 2030 emissions from generating electricity must be cut to around 10 percent of today’s level. This leaves no room for coal.
So what’s the government doing about this? Astonishingly not only are they doing nothing to close the coal. They seem to be working pretty hard to keep it open. Notably:

  • A government new policy, the capacity market, will give large payments to coal plants and help cover the cost of major upgrades required to extend their lives beyond the early 2020s
  • The government has resisted closing the so called ‘coal loophole’ in the 2013 Energy Bill which exempts existing power stations from  meeting carbon intensity limits which apply to new power stations
  • The Chancellor announced at the 2014 budget that the UKs carbon floor price will be frozen at its 2016 level until 2020.

Coal is the biggest single contributor to climate change worldwide. Global coal reserves are several multiples of what can be burnt if we are to keep temperature rises below two degrees centigrade. As the Committee on Climate Change stressed last week in its annual progress report to government, the longer we leave taking action to cut our emissions, the costlier it becomes.

Burning coal is so carbon intensive and so polluting that it should be completely eliminated from the UK’s electricity supply mix by the early to mid-2020s. Any government which is serious about tackling climate change must have the courage to introduce policies which will force coal to close. Only then will the UK be a true leader on climate change.

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