Thorpe Marsh: Abandoned Power Station Photo: Tom Blackwell

The UK’s ‘climate commitment’: ditch coal, guzzle gas

  • December 17, 2015

Climate & Catastrophe

Unless it is combined with deeper social change, the UK’s decision to phase out the use of coal-fired power plants will unfortunately remain a meaningless act.

Last month, the UK was heralded as the first “major country” to announce a phaseout of its coal-fired power stations. Shortly after, it also ended some of its financial support for carbon capture and storage projects. Last week, the UK government joined 196 others in agreeing to tackle global climate change at COP21 in Paris. What do all these developments mean for the UK and its energy policies?

Instead of a commitment to phase out coal, what was actually announced by the Department for Energy and Climate Change was only a consultation into the possibility of phasing out coal by 2025, subject to many caveats. There was no commitment and certainly no new legislation was enacted.

Rather, the UK government’s intention is to move from the most polluting fossil fuel — coal — to another fossil fuel — gas — and to dangerous nuclear energy. While it would be great to be able to see this as a victory in the fight against climate change and for social justice, unfortunately, it is not.

What are the direct impacts of burning coal?

For front-line communities, those most directly affected by coal infrastructure, ten years is simply too long to wait. At present, 31 percent of coal burned in the UK is mined domestically. The rest mostly comes from Russia, Colombia and the USA — the three main suppliers for the majority of European countries.

Later this month, the Coal Action Network is releasing a damning report, Ditch Coal, detailing the conditions surrounding coal extraction and transportation to supply the UK’s power stations. The report shows that wherever coal is sourced, there are severe human and environmental consequences.

In Russia, where 43 percent of the power-station coal imported to the UK comes from, indigenous Shor and Teleut peoples are being driven off their land as living conditions in their villages become untenable. Blasting at opencast mines sends rocks flying into the air and cracks homes, mines are polluting the water while the biodiversity villagers depend on for their livelihoods is being destroyed.

The Putin government has attacked the rights of citizens and introduced new laws attempting to silence dissenting voices while imposing many other restrictions on freedom. Russia’s coal is cheapest of all, making it an attractive option for many European power companies.

The situation in Colombia, which supplies 33 percent of coal to the UK’s remaining thirteen coal-fired power stations, bears similarities to Russia. Companies exporting coal to the UK have been implicated in financing paramilitary mass murders, executions and disappearances. Whole villages have been forcibly evicted to make way for mines, with insufficient relocation plans. People who challenge the mining companies’ practices have had threats made against their lives.

In the US, which supplies 19 percent of the coal imported for UK power stations, mountaintop removal and damaging deep-mining processes are used by coal-exporting companies, destroying huge swathes of land and ecosystems. Polluted water increases the incidences of cancer and toxic waste dams loom over communities. The US government is closing some of its coal-fired power stations, but the continuation and even expansion of coal exports means this alone will have little impact on worsening climate change.

Mining in the UK is predominantly done in open-cast coal mines, which scar huge areas of land and are contested by local people in legal battles which frequently last years. At a hearing last summer, a campaigner described how living next to Miller Argent’s Ffos-y-Fran open-cast in South Wales is worse than what she expected when the mine was first proposed.

She described modern mining methods as “noisy, dirty, barbaric” and said “mines should not operate within five miles of people.” At present there is no legal restriction on how close to properties mining can take place.

What the government proposes

If these are the consequences of burning coal, then it could be argued that a phaseout in ten years is a good thing. However, ten years is too long to make people continue to live in these conditions. The land affected by coal mining will never return to its previous capacity to support life. A phaseout needs to happen much quicker. Additionally, the UK government’s desire to use gas and nuclear power is not a solution.

The caveats on the 2025 phaseout announcement requires the government being “confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales,” said the MP making the announcement. “Our consultation will set out proposals to close coal by 2025 — and restrict its use from 2023.”

This is a missed opportunity to make a valuable contribution to tackling climate change by introducing an earlier phaseout. The British government can make fast changes to energy policy, as shown when it changed renewable energy subsidies essentially making thousands of people unemployed within a month.

To replace coal with new gas or nuclear power stations would take considerable amounts of time and cost millions of pounds. Building new power stations would lock us into using these unsustainable fuels for decades to come. While some propose gas as a bridging fuel, to be used only until sufficient renewables come on line, there is simply no way these power stations would be shut down within years of building them.

UK mine II

The money spent in developing gas and nuclear energy would be much better directed at really sustainable solutions, not short-term fixes that fail to address the core of the problem. Real solutions include building community-owned renewable energy generation and severely reducing energy demands through reduced consumption, insulation and industry regulation. The government’s proposals are likely to include fracked gas, which is highly polluting and vigorously fought against in all countries where it has been proposed.

Campaigners in Northwest England managed to show Lancashire County Council that approving two fracking sites proposed by Cuadrilla would have been a bad idea. However, last month the government announced that it would be the one to decide on the application, now that the company has appealed the decisions, stating that this is because the proposals are “of more than local significance.” The Tory government does little to hide its support for the fledgling fracking industry which is opposed by so many.

The dangers of nuclear power and carbon capture

Hinkley C is intended to be the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK in over 20 years, owned by the French energy company EDF and the state-owned China General Nuclear Power. Many questions about the project remain unanswered, while the costs are already spiraling out of control. EDF says that it will be built by 2025, but it has already been delayed several times. The project is heavily subsidized.

If built, Hinkley C would be the first order for a nuclear power station in the Western hemisphere since the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. The whole world should take what happened at Fukushima as a warning and immediately move away from this source of fuel which provides energy at such high cost and requires the indefinite storage of waste.

In November 2015, the government also announced that it would no longer be offering £1 billion in a competition to help commercialize technology for capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and storing it. This process is called carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The decision affects two projects, one for gas at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire and the coal and biomass fueled White Rose Project adjacent to the existing Drax power station. Power stations fitted with CCS are similar to nuclear power stations, creating toxic by-products which must be contained indefinitely to avoid sudden uncontrolled poisonous releases.

This cut in funding is good news for those fighting for climate justice. Although touted as reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, carbon capture is a false solution. Instead of building new power stations, we need to be reducing the amount of electricity we consume. CCS seems to offer a continuation of business-as-usual, but we simply cannot keep consuming as we do.

In reality, CCS increases fuel use as the capture processes themselves are highly energy intensive, increasing misery all along the supply chain. The viability of the White Rose Project had already been called into question when Drax themselves pulled out of the consortium involved in the project earlier this year. Internationally, many other big CCS projects have been abandoned. These changes do not necessarily mean the end of CCS projects in the UK, but it is certainly a step back for them.

The problem with all of these changes is that they simply do not create a transformative and coherent energy policy. Cutting renewables while increasing reliance on gas and nuclear power means we will exceed the 1.5 degree temperature increase seen as the maximum bearable by low-lying nations.

What would really make a difference?

What we actually need is a fundamental rethinking of the way in which we view our energy needs. First and foremost, we need to look at what we need to consume to have a good quality of life. Those who suffer most and quickest are not those who benefit from the electricity nor the consumer products it provides.

In the words of Sina Brown-Davis (te Roroa, Te Uriohau), a Maori climate and anti-globalization activist:

“Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, like colonized peoples of color throughout the world, are on the front-lines of the climate crisis. It is our land that is disappearing, it is our people who are dying. Climate change will result in the genocide of our cultures if it continuities unabated.”

Next, we need to truly inspect the life cycle impacts of different energy sources with real consideration of the human and environmental costs of choosing certain technologies over others. There have been 21 climate conferences without a single one leading to meaningful change.

To achieve real energy transformation, countries in the Global North need to be held accountable for the damage they are causing by making vast cuts to their emissions levels and take action to change the way in which we live, rather than merely paying other countries to mitigate climate change impacts on the ground.

Across the globe, indigenous groups, low-lying nations and front-line communities are fighting back. We in the Global North need to join them, because it is our lifestyles and production systems that are directly causing these problems. There is no quick and easy solution. What is needed is large-scale social change.

We simply can’t wait for governments and big businesses to realize that we are headed onto a path of no return, affecting the world’s poor and disadvantaged first and foremost. The day before the COP21 opened in Paris, over 785,000 people attended demonstrations calling to leave fossil fuels in the ground, make a real commitment to tackle climate change and fight for climate justice.

Previous COP summits have left activists feeling disappointed as they expected real commitments from world leaders. This time the dialogue has been different. Few felt that answers would be found behind the closed doors of the conference. The UK government’s lack of a real energy policy, similar to that in other countries, shows that we need to directly confront the power of energy corporations.

We need to take our complaints to the companies involved and show real solidarity to the front-line communities through meaningful action on the ground.

The full report, Ditch Coal: The Global Mining Impacts of the UK’s Addiction to Coal will available on as soon as it is released.

Anne Harris

Anne Harris works for the Coal Action Network as a campaigner and researcher and has been working on issues relating to energy since 2006.

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