It all started in 1882 on Holborn Viaduct in central London. A few years earlier, in 1879, Thomas Edison of light bulb fame had publicly announced his invention of the incandescent lamp. He now set about proving that electricity could be centrally produced and then sent by wires and tubes to light the street lamps of Holborn. And so the first coal plant in the UK powered into action.
Coal had already been mined and burned to produce energy for hundreds of years. But the creation of the steam engine saw coal use rocket as the UK propelled itself into the Industrial Revolution. At first coal was used to fuel mills, trains, and to produce gas for lighting. Following Edison’s invention, burning coal to produce electricity also became the norm. New, popular technologies like televisions, fridges and washing machines increased demand for electricity as we hauled ever more of the black stuff up from the ground. The use of coal for energy became completely ingrained in the British way of life, as George Orwell remarked: “[the British] civilization…is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it”.
However by the 1970s changes were afoot in the energy system. The Clean Air Act, the development of nuclear power and the discovery of North Sea oil and gas all lessened the UK’s reliance on coal power. In the 1990s the privatisation of the electricity industry led to a “dash for gas” as companies looked to cash in on the favourable financial climate by building gas fired power stations. More recently renewable technologies have entered the market, producing clean and safe electricity at ever decreasing costs. All of these developments reduced the role that coal has in our electricity mix and now the technology has gone from boom to almost bust. Pollution controls and unfavourable economic conditions have gradually whittled down the number of coal power stations, and today we only have seven plants left lingering around. All of them are over forty years old, are highly polluting and are way past their sell by date. That’s why in 2015 WWF and other NGOs ran a successful campaign calling on the UK Government to set a definitive end date for this dirty technology.
Relying on coal power has come at a huge social and environmental cost. We’ve known about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change as far back as the 1880s, with scientists concluding in the early 1900s that carbon dioxide released from burning coal made ‘the air a more effective blanket for the earth and [therefore] raised its temperature”. Fast forward over a hundred years and the link between burning coal and dangerous climate change has been irrefutably proven, with the Paris Agreement finally calling time on the coal industry.
In the last few decades we’ve also come to understand much more about the impact that burning coal has on people’s health. When coal is mined or burned it releases harmful pollutants into the air. Inhaling these particles can harm our lungs and nervous system, increasing our chances of asthma, lung and heart disease, strokes and premature death. Research by WWF, the Health and Environment Alliance, CAN Europe and Sandbag found that coal power stations were responsible for over 22,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2013 alone.
That’s why the UK’s decision to phase out coal is of monumental importance. By phasing out coal the government is protecting the health of its citizens, and taking a huge step forward on the road to achieving our climate targets. But there are other opportunities to be gained from a coal phase out. By establishing itself as a world leader in the global race for clean energy, the UK is putting itself in pole position to take advantage of the economic benefits that come with the transition to a cleaner economy. And we are already seeing other countries, such as Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, following suit by moving away from coal power towards clean power.
The UK Government now has an opportunity to make sure that it creates an effective blueprint for other countries that will inevitably phase out coal too. That’s why WWF and a coalition of other NGOs are calling on the UK Government to:
- Make sure all coal closes in an orderly fashion by 2025 with no concessions or loopholes
- In the meantime, stop giving dirty coal plants public subsidies
- Set out a positive and fair transition for workers and communities that will be affected by plant closures
- Replace copal with clean, renewable electricity generation capacity, not biomass which does not offer any real carbon saving.
Our nation once led the way in the industrial revolution and now we have the opportunity to once again be at the vanguard of technological innovation.