The UK risks looking foolish if it doesn’t address its coal problem

Instead of an exit strategy, the government have been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal.

Instead of an exit strategy, the government have been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal

This week has seen the UK government attempt to take a leadership role in climate action with a joint UK-China statement on the ‘clear imperative’ to tackle ‘one of the greatest global challenges we face’. Government representatives have also been pushing for international action at the Bonn Climate Change Conference.

The government are keen to promote their progress on the world stage and there are reasons why this is justified. The introduction of a Climate Change Act in 2008 was a world first; Ed Davey’s leadership of the Green Growth Group over the last few years has been effective at promoting the low-carbon economy within the EU; and this week’s joint statement with China was a genuinely useful step towards negotiating an international agreement on climate change.

However, the UK government is at risk of losing face because, whilst we have made some good progress on climate policy, we still have no clear exit strategy from coal, the most carbon intensive means of generating power.

Instead of an exit strategy, the government have actually been laying the groundwork for a continuation of coal.

In the same week they have been trumpeting their climate credentials they have sent representatives to a meeting in Seville to try to water down regulations for coal-fired power stations.

The Seville meeting was part of a process for setting the air pollution standards that ‘large combustion plants’ must meet from 2019 onwards, known as BREF. Unfortunately, this process is impossibly complicated and so government have had to rely on the expertise of big energy companies – the same companies that will be affected by the regulations. A number of the UK’s ‘officials’ in this process are indeed energy company employees.

The government are also just finalising the details of a ‘capacity market’ which will give handouts to coal generators to make sure they stay online AND they have just commissioned some consultants to report on the costs involved for old power stations to extend their lives.

These are not signs of a government trying its hardest to reduce coal use, cut emissions, and address climate change. Greenpeace analysis has found that 10GW of coal, half the current capacity, could stay online through the 2020’s, largely thanks to government support.

Obviously reducing carbon emissions is not the only objective of a power system, it must also provide secure and affordable supply. This is why the government are looking to keep coal online – they believe it is secure and affordable.

But a power station is only as secure as its fuel supply. With the majority of our coal (45 per cent) coming from Russia it doesn’t look like the most secure option. In fact far more of our coal comes from Russia than our gas

And in terms of affordability – it is true that coal generation is cheap at the moment but due to the eccentricities of our power market, coal generators will be paid a price for their power that is set by the price of gas. So coal is profitable, not affordable. Consumers see little saving on their bills because coal is kept online

It is also important to note that the longer coal stations are kept online, the less attractive it is to build any new capacity. This means that more consumer money will be required to incentivise investment in the new generation the country needs

Security and affordability aside, it is indisputable that coal is the most damaging fuel source for the climate. The government’s official advisers have recommended that the power sector must reduce its carbon intensity from the current 500g per kilowatt hour of electricity to 50g by 2030 if we are to meet our legal climate targets. Coal has a carbon intensity of 1000g so it is difficult to see how it can remain online if the government is serious about meeting it’s targets.

More than any other energy source, coal is viewed internationally as a yardstick of climate action. No country can credibly claim to be addressing carbon emissions whilst unabated coal remains part of the energy mix. Last year 36 per cent of UK electricity came from coal, more than from any other fuel source.

Both the US and China have recently announced plans to limit coal use. The UK is in danger of being left behind and of looking foolish on the world stage for promoting climate leadership without addressing the coal problem on its own doorstep.

Dr Jimmy Aldridge is a campaign researcher and analyst for Greenpeace and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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