Coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire, UK

The end of coal in the UK: why the burning of coal is nearly over

Britain's last coal power plants will disappear by 2025. Burning coal has played a major part in our history but it's time to move on for the good of people's health and the climate.
  Published:  05 Dec 2017    |      7 minute read

Coal has been at the heart of the UK’s economic development for the past two centuries – but it’s time to consign it to the history books. The government has pledged to stop using coal to generate power by 2025, and we’re seeing new coal mine plans being rejected, at Nant Llesg in south Wales and at Druridge Bay in Northumberland.

What has coal done for the UK?

The history of coal in the UK is a story of economic boom, loss and climate change.

In pre-industrial times humans mainly used wood for energy and heat. That all in changed in 18th-century Britain when a cheaper more energy-rich fuel signalled the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Coal was the new king – powering some of the biggest changes society has ever experienced. Its cheap and plentiful supply of energy was key to the success of British iron and steam. It drove down the cost of production – leading to larger factories and machines, new industries, and the mass production of goods. Cities rapidly expanded. Entire communities formed around coal pits – their leisure, art and politics heavily influenced by the close bonds of the miners uniting against greedy owners and dangerous working conditions.

A satire on the coming age of free-running steam carriages (which largely never materialized, but see Walter Hancock). The two large steam coaches are named "The Infernal Defiance — From Yarmouth to London" and "The Dreadful Vengeance — Colchester, London". On the rear of the coach in front is a banner proclaiming "Warranted free from Damp", the small delivery wagon has "Bread served Hot" on its side, and the service station proclaims "Coals Sold Here: only 4s. 6d. per Pound"
A caricature satirising free-running steam carriages (1831)
Credit: H. T. Alken

To give you an idea of the scale of the industry, at the height of its production in 1913 the UK was spitting out 287 million tonnes of coal. By 2009 that figure was 17.8 million tonnes. It dropped by a further 75% to just 4 million tonnes in 2016.

What caused the demise of UK coal? It depends on who you ask. The following reasons often pop up:

  • laws to cleanse the air of coal-fired pea-soup smog;
  • railways switching from steam to diesel and electricity;
  • the rise of North Sea gas and oil;
  • cheaper coal imported from abroad;
  • the pit-closure programme under Margaret Thatcher, resisted during the year-long miners' strike ending in 1985;
  • and the need to rapidly reduce climate-changing emissions.

In transforming the world, coal has claimed so many lives – including young children working in the mines. It has also wreaked havoc on the environment.

What's more, former mining towns have become some of the most deprived places to live in Britain. After giving the country so much, they've been abandoned. That's just not right. The government owes it to those areas to replace the pits of the past with thriving industries like renewable power.

It's game over for dirty energy sources like oil, gas and coal. A new energy sector is rising, harnessing the power of the wind, waves and sun.

What is opencast coal mining?

Most people's idea of coal mining is probably dark tunnels deep underground. But that's just one type of mining and it's now all but finished in the UK.

An underground coal mine shaft
An underground coal-mine shaft

Opencast mining – the predominant form of coal mining still happening in the UK – is carried out on the surface. It's used where coal reserves are scattered in shallow and thin seams. Workers strip off the top layers of land, using huge excavators and digging machines. They may use explosives to blast rock and gain access to the coal.

Quarry lorries move materials around the Ffos-Y-Fran opencast coal mine on November 17, 2009 in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.
The blot of opencast coal mining on the Welsh countryside

How coal affects the environment

Digging up, transporting, processing and burning coal is bad news for the environment. It leads to:

  • climate change;
  • air pollution;
  • habitat and wildlife loss;
  • spoiled landscapes;
  • soil degradation;
  • and loss of agricultural land.

Coal contributes more to climate change than any other energy source. In fact, it's the biggest single source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the world. The bulk of that CO2 comes from burning it for heat and electricity. Mining and transporting coal contribute to climate-changing emissions too.

How coal affects people's lives

Digging up coal can damage communities. People are being forcefully moved off their land in Russia and Colombia so that companies can mine coal to feed the UK's power stations.

Home and abroad, the health impacts from mining and burning coal are severe.

Diesel fumes from vehicles are the main cause of dangerously high air pollution in UK towns and cities. But coal power plant emissions are deadly too. Coal pollutants contain fine particles that can penetrate and damage the lungs – they can also get into the bloodstream.

Health problems linked to coal combustion include:

  • asthma;
  • chronic bronchitis;
  • lung cancer;
  • high blood pressure;
  • irregular heartbeat;
  • and heart attacks.

Children's developing lungs can be permanently weakened by the particles.

The Aberthaw coal-fired power plant in South Wales has been in operation for over the 45 years. During that time, it is likely to have caused the premature deaths of more than 3,000 people [PDF] in Wales, and 18,000 across a wider area.

Mining accidents continue to claim lives. And in the UK we're still witnessing the terrible legacy of coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), better known as black lung disease. It's caused by inhaling coal dust.

Dust and noise pollution are some of the biggest concerns of people living near opencast sites.

A display case at NIOSH shows a normal lung and a diseased black lung, caused by inhaling coal dust and other harmful particles while coal mining
A display case shows a normal lung and a diseased black lung, caused by inhaling coal dust.
Credit: Howard Berkes/NPR

And let's not forget about the human cost of climate change – made worse by burning coal. Extreme weather events and sea level rises are threatening the lives of the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Health experts have warned [PDF] about the dangers of heat stress, the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue, threats to food security, malnutrition, and a rising number of refugees and armed conflicts.

Why there's no such thing as clean coal

Clean coal is a myth used to justify the building of new coal-fired power plants and slow the switch to renewable energy.

For some time now, the coal industry has been promising to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground. Even if it were technically possible, it still ignores the pollution and damage caused by mining and transporting coal.

Friends of the Earth has consistently pointed out that carbon capture and storage (CCS) for coal power is an expensive waste of time. The recent failure of a much-vaunted clean coal project is evidence of this. Kemper power plant in Mississippi racked up costs of over £5.5 billion before ditching the project.

In 2012 the government predicted that CCS would start in 2017. Its latest estimate is 2035 – by that time, the UK's old coal power stations will have long-since shut.

Kemper County Coal Gasification Plant under construction
Kemper power station failed to make carbon capture viable

Why it's time to ditch coal

A series of climate-change-related disasters are destroying lives in the UK and abroad. Global warming intensifies extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding and drought.

If we are to have any chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change, at least 80% of the coal, oil and gas that has been discovered must stay in the ground.

The UK has pledged to prevent global warming from spiralling out of control by signing the 2015 Paris Agreement. To achieve this, we need to make the switch to clean energy – at least 75% of our electricity [PDF] must come from renewable energy by 2030.

Space station crew members captured this image as they passed over Hurricane Harvey on Aug 25
Hurricane Harvey caused major devastation to the Gulf Coast of Texas
Credit: NASA/Randy Bresnik

What will replace coal?

New nuclear is looking very expensive. And turning to new gas won't prevent dangerous global temperature rises – it's too polluting.

Renewable energy is ready to close the gap, without the need for dirty energy like fracking. It's already happening. Between April and June 2015, renewables outperformed coal for the first time in the UK's electricity mix.

The price of renewable energy is falling rapidly. Worldwide, solar costs have dropped 90% [PDF] since 2009. In the UK, onshore wind is the most affordable new power source available.

Renewable sources are popular and the switch will be good for us – improving our health and environment as well as boosting the UK economy.

How wind, wave and sun will power the UK.

An aerial photo of Westmill Wind Farm and Westmill Solar Co-operative
Large-scale solar will likely be competitive or cheaper than new gas within the next 3 years
Credit: Neil B. Maw

What about coal jobs?

Like fracking, coal is unpopular. People are turning down the overtures of the coal industry. They don't want more dirty jobs that pose health and economic risks. And who can blame them. Who wants to commit to an energy source that has no future?

The government is phasing out coal by 2025. World leaders have signed up to climate targets that have effectively made dirty fuels, especially coal, redundant.

Communities fending off coal and fracking want opportunities in clean industries like solar, tidal and wind power. The government must commit to re-skilling miners, guaranteeing them good new jobs in clean energy or other sectors.

Local communities celebrate the council's unanimous decision to reject an application for a new opencast coal mine, in Nant Llesg, near Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, Caerphilly County Council, 5 August 2015
Local communities celebrate as a new opencast coal mine in Nant Llesg, Wales, is rejected (2015)

Are we making progress switching from coal?

On 21 April 2017, Britain went a full day without using coal power to generate electricity for the first time since the Industrial Revolution – according to the National Grid.

In 2016, renewables rocketed to provide 25% of UK electricity. That was up from just 7% in 2010. It was a major success story for the UK – fuelled by government support for renewable energy in the early 2010s, and government action to make coal power pay for its pollution costs.

From April to September 2016, solar power produced more electricity in the UK than coal.

These trends – and major advances in energy storage – mean that renewable electricity can become the dominant, clean heart of the UK energy system within a decade. Unfortunately, in more recent times the government has tried to sabotage UK renewables – pulling support, creating uncertainty and driving away investment.

What has Friends of the Earth done about coal?

Friends of the Earth's campaigns have helped boost clean energy in homes and businesses around the country.

During one of those campaigns, we won a new law to ensure people got a decent payment for tackling climate change by generating their own renewable electricity. The payment – known as the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) – gave the solar industry the support it needed to grow, creating thousands of jobs.

We've also been helping communities fend off huge new opencast coal mines – providing them with planning and legal expertise, and campaign support. This includes in Nant Llesg, Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Here an application for a 6-million-tonne coal mine was defeated by the community, working with Friends of the Earth.

The company appealed against the decision but failed to submit any evidence, and so the Planning Inspectorate ruled that the appeal could not proceed, meaning a definitive victory for the local community.

What you can do about coal

We are winning the fight against coal in the UK. Early in 2018 we helped local people stop plans for a new coal mine.

A beautiful stretch of Northumberland coastline faced desecration by a mining company desperate to gouge out 3 million tonnes of coal.

But the government rejected the coal mine at Druridge Bay saying it would have an “adverse effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change”. Banks Mining, which wants to build the mine, appealed against the decision and the case was to be heard in the High Court in October 2018. Friends of the Earth welcomed the government's intention to defend its decision to refuse permission.

Thank you to everyone who wrote into the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

With dirty coal effectively over, we now need to continue our opposition to fracking.