WWF UK Blog  

What’s going on with old king coal?


My job in the Climate and Energy team at WWF is to focus on reducing carbon emissions from the way we produce electricity. One of the less glamorous parts of this job is sifting through government statistics, like those released last Thursday, which tell us where our electricity came from in 2013. I’ll summarise them for you.

Lumps of coal © Alexander G weak_hopeLumps of coal © Alexander G weak_hope

First of all, some good news: 2013 saw a large increase in the amount of electricity coming from renewable sources of energy. For example, wind turbines produced 38 percent more electricity in 2013 compared to 2012 and renewable power overall contributed nearly 14 percent of the UK’s electricity supply, up from 10 percent in 2012.

Unfortunately this – as far as greenhouse gas emissions are concerned – is where the good news ends.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen a startling increase in the amount of electricity coming from coal power stations, which supplied 40 percent of the UK’s electricity supply last year compared to an average of 30 percent between 2009 and 2011. This is unequivocally bad news for the environment, as coal is the most polluting fossil fuel both in terms of its emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions including  sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, small particulates and mercury. There hasn’t been a new coal power plant built in the UK for decades,  so why has the amount of coal we burn risen so dramatically?

Well, it all comes down to economics. Before 2012, Britain’s gas-fired power stations were the dominant providers of our electricity supply. Since then however, a dramatic switch has taken place due to a combination of high gas prices, lower coal prices, and the fact that carbon prices have been too low so far to have much of an impact on the economics of running coal plants. As a result, coal power has become much more profitable while some less efficient gas power stations have struggled to survive.

So what can be done about this? One thing is clear. A vital ingredient in tackling climate change is dramatically reducing emissions from our electricity sector. Put simply, this means that as a first step all of these old, inefficient coal plants need to close. The sooner the better but certainly by the early 2020’s.

UK electricity supply graphUK electricity supply graph

Until relatively recently, conventional wisdom within government and those working in the energy sector was that this is precisely what would happen. A European law coming into force in 2016, the Industrial Emissions Directive, requires the old coal plants to invest in upgrades to meet new pollution limits (but no carbon dioxide limits) or close by 2023.

Most observers thought that this would be the point where these power stations finally bowed out, finding the cost of meeting this legislation to be too high. Now, a combination of government policy – including the introduction of a so-called ‘capacity market’ that will subsidise the running of coal plants and global energy prices – may mean that this is not the case.

The recent flooding that has unfortunately affected thousands of households in the UK – coupled with extreme weather in other parts of the world – have put climate change back in the spotlight. Senior politicians from all parties have spoken out about the importance of tackling climate change over the past few weeks. This can only be a good thing, but actions speak louder than words and the truth is that tackling climate change means that old king coal has got to go.

What are your views about the use of coal? Leave a comment on Jenny’s blog. 

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