Coal seems to many as a thing of the past, connotating miners is sooty uniforms and canaries in cages, yet we are still haunted by coal’s legacy even today. In the face of an ongoing climate crisis, why can’t the British government make up its mind about coal?
Modern society is undoubtedly in the era of Petroleum, with the fossil fuel characterising not just the way we live, from transport to energy, but also to how the world is run. Since the principal discovery and exploitation of the resource in the mid-1800s, our world was changed. However, none of this would have been without the boost in capacity for growth that its predecessor, coal, provided.
Even though we have transitioned from the era of coal to the era of petroleum, however, coal is very much an integral part of our society. Coal still makes up more than ¼ of the world’s energy mix, with it primarily being burnt to produce electricity in coal-fired power generation. Over the past few years, given the growing pressures and efficiencies of renewable energy sources, and even the cheaper price points of petroleum and natural gas, coal has slowly been put on the backburner in terms of national energy policy. Yet over the past few years, the British government can’t seem to make up their mind on what they think about coal – why?
There are several reasons for this. First – the coal industry in the UK has a complex history rooted in the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Coal allowed Britain to emerge as one of the cornerstones of the world, with a massive boost to its economy and enabling its military capacity to grow to the largest it has been in its entire history.
This leads thus into the second reason, being the institutionalised nature of coal in our national energy mix and infrastructure. While coal only makes up approximately 9% of the national energy mix, and has been gradually replaced by the more favourable natural gas (which in contrast makes up 43% of the mix), the phase out of coal power stations has been slow. Whilst the numbers may indicate that coal is not a big deal, it is still 9% of dirty fossil fuel that is being burned compared to natural gas which is marginally cleaner.
The slow phase out of coal has not been helped by the contemporary culprit: the lack of any concrete perspective on coal by the government for the past four years. After a shift from Liberal Democrat to Conservative hands following the 2015 election, the government has had three separate Secretaries of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs; the most current being MP Michael Gove. Additionally, the past three years have obscured the presence of any explicit department for energy with a concrete plan. What was once the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), no longer exists as of 2016 and is now a mere fragment of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
What does all this mean? Quite simply, it means that the fight against climate change has been put on the backburner with regards to the government’s main focuses. The disappearance of DECC into BEIS indicates that climate change, whilst still a serious issue, cannot be prioritised over the economy. Current international ties, particularly to the United States appear to make coal a desirable part of the energy mix; given President Trump’s election promise to revive the coal industry, prompting “Trump digs Coal” signs to pop up at rallies along the campaign trail. Bilateral relations with China may have a stake in the presence of coal, particularly given China’s role in British nuclear power. Even relations with the EU, through which the UK receives most of its natural gas as a result of an agreement with the Russian Federation, may revive the importance of coal following Brexit.
The British government claims to be a ‘leader’ in the fight against climate change, with the conservative party claiming to be the ‘greenest party ever’, yet these statements beg questioning given the blatant contradiction-in-terms. It is clear that the presence of coal is still here in the UK, and it is going to take more than converting the skeletons of our sooty past like Battersea Power Station, and the flimsy plan to close all current plants by 2025 to change this.
Micheil Page is currently reading an MSc in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Arctic governance. He is also the Director of UniSolar, the UK’s first student-led community energy enterprise.