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Exit strategy: farewell to coal

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Energy
Eggborough Power Station, Yorkshire, one of the UK’s few remaining active coal power stations Eggborough Power Station, Yorkshire, one of the UK’s few remaining active coal power stations Neil Mitchell
29 Apr
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at the UK’s climate commitments

Bring the glasses, let’s celebrate. For the first time in history, the UK’s coal share in electricity production has slid below ten per cent. The worst and dirtiest fossil fuel on Earth – a backbone of British industry since the nineteenth century – halved in usage last year thanks to cheaper gas, renewable energy and higher carbon prices in the European allowances market. Furthermore, last week saw the UK sustain a full day without the burning of a single nugget of coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

According to Carbon Brief, in 2016 the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were 42 per cent below the 1990 level, the baseline year in climate diplomacy. It is a staggering result, although it’s worth remembering that the 42 per cent cut in emissions is just a milestone towards the goal of 80 per cent by 2050. That noble target wasn’t set by European bureaucrats. It is enshrined in British law with the 2008 Climate Change Act. Nonetheless, the world would be a safer place had all other nations performed the same way... and if Brexit weren’t on a possible collision course with climate change policies.

We are not talking about Al Gore’s recent depiction of a climate change-induced Brexit, which sounded a bit far-fetched. Instead, this climate-Brexit link is more of an admonition against unintended consequences in the future. Brexit has already got its own tinge of scariness.

Theresa May’s cabinet is widely considered to be the least climate-wise UK government since 1992, when anthropocentric global warming was officially labeled by the UN as a planetary risk. The ministerial rebranding of the Department for Energy and Climate Change into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy speaks loud enough in this regard.

Now, with the formal separation from the EU underway, no one can tell if the UK will stick to its climatic oath once taken out from under the European flag. This is all but irrelevant, as a British walkout from the European Carbon Trading Scheme – a market-based mechanism to encourage investments in cleaner energy sources – would likely provoke its demise along with triggering a price collapse in its traded allowances. Ian Duncan Smith, the Conservatives’ European Spokesman on Energy and Climate Change, said there is a ‘serious risk’ Brexit could bring a halt to the very scheme that made Britain save a lot of carbon emissions in the last decade. Maybe we can’t raise a toast just yet.

This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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