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 October 2024, and we’ve seen coal mine plans rejected at Nant Llesg in south Wales and at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. But the fight isn't over yet...
The history of coal
The history of coal in the UK is a story of economic boom, loss and climate breakdown.
Since the Industrial Revolution, coal has powered some of the biggest changes society has ever experienced. Its cheap and plentiful supply drove down the cost of production, leading to larger factories and machines, new industries, and the mass production of goods. Cities and communities rapidly expanded.
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 to just 1.7 million tonnes in 2020 [PDF].
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.
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.
How coal contributes to climate breakdown
Coal contributes more to climate breakdown 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 also contribute to climate-changing emissions, and 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from the iron and steel industry. Coal’s contribution to climate breakdown includes disrupting global climate patterns, leading to extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts and flooding, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans and extinction on a massive scale.
A series of climate-change disasters are destroying lives in the UK and abroad. Global warming intensifies extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding and drought, displacing people and causing knock-on events like conflict, disease spread and mass extinction of species around the world.
What's more, digging up, transporting, processing and burning coal lead to:
- air pollution
- habitat and wildlife loss
- spoiled landscapes
- soil degradation
- and loss of agricultural land.
How coal affects people's lives
Overseas, coal mining causes huge local environmental problems. Anti-coal network Still Burning visited Russia, where coal is mined for use in Europe. Large areas of the Kuzbass region of Siberia are blighted by mining, and one local resident, Valentina Bekrinova, said: "In front of the house is the Sibirginsky mine. On the other side of the house there is a waste tip from another mine. Our village is surrounded by coal mining, and the dust which blows from the mines and waste heaps coats everything…"
The health impacts from mining and burning coal are severe. Coal pollutants contain fine particles that can penetrate and damage the lungs – they can also get into the bloodstream.
And let's not forget about the human cost of climate breakdown, made worse by the emissions from 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 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.
What about jobs?
The argument for opening new coal mines almost always includes new jobs. Just look at the proposals for a new deep coal mine in Whitehaven, West Cumbria. The plan is to mine coal for steel production, and West Cumbria Mining says it'd provide 500 jobs if the mine goes ahead, 80% of which would go to local people where possible. But that's not guaranteed.
The UK has signed up to climate targets that have effectively made dirty fuels, especially coal, redundant. And very soon, there’ll be no need and no market for the coking coal mined in Whitehaven: the UK steel-making industry could stop using coal by as early as 2035 – that’s only halfway through the mine’s projected timeline. And the EU, a key export market, is moving away from using coal for steel even quicker.
It’s important to note that the coal extracted from the Whitehaven mine would be used to make steel rather than being burnt to generate electricity.
Clearly we will carry on needing steel to make things like wind turbines and other key green infrastructure, but there are ways of making it without using coal.
The Climate Change Committee has said that coal use in steelmaking could be displaced completely by 2035 by the use of hydrogen and electric arc furnaces.
Research into and investment in such technology should be part of the UK government's green industrial revolution.
Whitehaven deserves better. Unemployment in West Cumbria is a critical and urgent issue, and the unemployment rate in Copeland (where the Whitehaven mine would be located) is the second highest in the county. But opening a new coal mine is not the solution – investment in green jobs would create far more and longer-lasting opportunities for local people than what the mine would offer.
For example, 9,000 green jobs could be created in Cumbria in the next 15 years, including 4,500 in West Cumbria. These would be in renewable energy, waste management, industry, retrofitting buildings and green transport. That's compared to the estimated 500 jobs West Cumbria Mining has said it will offer to local people where possible. We must support workers into greener, cleaner jobs fit for the future.
What has replaced coal?
New nuclear is very expensive. And turning to new gas won't prevent dangerous global temperature rises – it's too polluting.
Renewable energy production has rocketed, without the need for dirty energy. It's already happening.
Since 2004, renewable energy in the UK has grown ten-fold, and 43% of electricity is now from renewable sources. What's more, renewables generate the equivalent of 90% of Scotland’s electricity demand (but the energy isn't all used domestically).
Renewable sources are popular and the switch has been good for us – improving our health and environment as well as boosting the UK economy.
The longest period without using coal for power generation stands at 67 days 22 hours 55 minutes, ending on Tuesday 16 June 2020.
In 2020, for the first time ever, the UK produced more electricity from renewables than from fossil fuels [PDF]. Renewables accounted for 43.1% of total electricity generation. Coal was 1.75% of UK electricity production.
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.
Our earlier campaigns, such as the feed-in tariff to boost solar power, the campaign to secure the Climate Change Act and the fracking campaign, all led to the deployment of renewables being sped up, and contributed to the huge cost reductions that now make renewable energy the cheapest of all energy sources.
We've helped communities in Methyr Tydfil and Druridge Bay fend off huge new opencast coal mines –providing them with planning and legal expertise, and campaign support. We're lobbying government to invest in green jobs and apprenticeships to make sure a transition to renewable energy doesn't leave anyone behind. And we're campaigning alongside local groups and the people in West Cumbria to stop plans for a new deep coal mine from going ahead.
If we're 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 pledged to prevent global heating from spiralling out of control when it signed 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.
Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK.
Fossil fuel companies are planning to launch 29 new projects in the UK.