Coal Free KingdomElection manifestos can go beyond the coal power phase-out, and commit to making the UK truly coal-free
Originally published in Business Green on 13th November 2019
The phase-out of coal from UK electricity is almost complete, with coal generating less than 2% of electricity in the first half of 2019, down from more than 40% in 2012. But whoever forms the new government in December must commit to a fully coal-free society, removing the climate impact of coal from industry, finance and domestic heating.
The industrial revolution began in Britain and was powered by coal. Now with global focus on the UK ahead of next year’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Britain can demonstrate the end of coal and a green industrial revolution.
What would it take for the UK to go fully coal-free?
In the near future, the iron & steel sector will be the UK’s largest user of coal. Just two sites account for the majority of the UK’s industrial emissions from coal: Port Talbot in Wales, and British Steel in Lincolnshire. In 2018 these steel sites were the two largest point source CO2 emitters in the UK, larger than any power station.
But steel doesn’t have to use coal: there is untapped potential in recycling steel with electric arc furnaces, and zero-carbon primary steel production is now feasible. The technology now exists to manufacture steel from renewably-sourced hydrogen, as projects across Europe are beginning to demonstrate, including Hybrit in Sweden and thyssenkrupp Duisburg in Germany. Similar innovation in the UK could see the steel industry turn its fortunes around but government intervention will be needed. Can an agreement be struck to construct British wind turbines with coal-free British steel?
The government’s £250m clean steel fund is very welcome, and it should be focused on quickly deploying new emissions-free steel technology. However, it’s going to take more than just building hydrogen furnaces: we’re going to need a lot more renewable power to run hydrogen electrolysers and arc furnaces (not to mention charging the electric car and public transport network). Now that offshore wind no longer requires a subsidy, the government should commit to procuring much more than the 30GW by 2030 currently planned in the Sector Deal. It should do this by bringing forward a new CfD auction in 2020, and raising the cap on each subsequent auction, as well as removing restrictions which have blocked onshore wind.
Before COP, both steel sites need a plan and funding for the transition to coal-free steel, and the government needs to set a deadline for the end of coal use for steel.
Domestic, cement, and other industrial coal use
In 2018, power and steel accounted for more than 80% of UK coal use. Of the coal use outside power, and outside the steel sector, about a quarter is burnt at 13 cement and lime works, representing 5% of total UK coal use. A similar amount is used for domestic heating, whilst the remaining 8% is used for a variety of other industrial purposes, including at paper mills or in food production.
The government should make a commitment to a green cement fund, piloting deployment of hydrogen or CCS enabled cement kilns. This would leave less than a million tonnes remaining of other industrial coal use, including in the manufacture of food and paper. The government should address these through carbon pricing and targeted financial support to renewable alternatives.
Traditional coal use in domestic settings is a significant health risk, and we agree with the government’s proposal for a ban in 2021 or earlier. This should be followed by a phase-out of domestic use of anthracite coal before 2025, and a transition to sustainable dry wood burning.
Investment and insurance
The UK is home to many of the world’s major investors in new coal, including Barclays and Blackrock, as well as coal plant reinsurers, including Lloyd’s of London. The organisation Unfriend Coal estimates more than 45% of global reinsurance markets have divested from coal: the Powering Past Coal Alliance should encourage the remaining companies to commit to stop coal power and coal mine investments, and reinsurance. The government also has the power to restrict export credits for global coal projects.
As we remove the harmful effects of coal from UK society, the UK can send a strong international signal by bringing forward an immediate moratorium on new coal mines, alongside a package to bring the green economy to historic mining areas, many of which are still suffering the deprivation from the loss of employment in the 1970s and 1980s. This would mean the final nail in the coffin of Banks Group’s destructive Druridge Bay project, but should also involve reassessing the Pont Valley mine. With a government commitment to coal-free steel, the economic justification for new mines will evaporate.
It’s now feasible to bring forward the coal phase-out commitment for power from 2025 to 2022. Last month, many of the UK’s major environmental groups have written to the government asking for a 2022 phase-out, by bringing an end to any new capacity market subsidies to coal. Moving this data forward, the UK could show in its diplomacy that its fall from 40% coal to zero coal happened in 10 years (important as we have 10 years from 2020 to 2030 to reduce global coal power emissions by 80% to keep 1.5 degrees), and also what seemed like a Herculean task in 13 years, was achieved ahead of schedule.
The UK must demonstrate that the switch can be made directly from coal to clean power. We’ve shown that new large gas power plants are not required, and the planning inspectorate agrees, but in October the government overturned the planning ruling to allow permission for Drax’s new gas plant. This decision must be reviewed, but more widely, the government should rule out any 15 year Capacity Market contracts for any new gas plants.
Equally, recent science demonstrates biomass burning is not as sustainable as imagined a decade ago, and the government must make a clear commitment to end the biomass experiment: no more subsidies after 2027, and carbon pricing to reflect biomass emissions.
The UK is already experiencing the health benefits of reducing air pollution from coal, the economic benefits of renewable-powered green growth, and the diplomatic benefits of leading the Powering Past Coal Alliance. With further commitments before COP26, the UK can go truly coal-free, and act as a beacon for climate change action around the world.