A Bank Holiday record of 114 consecutive hours without using coal power underlined the UK's progress in quitting its dirtiest fuel, but where next for the fossil fuel phase out?
The UK went a record 114 hours without using coal power over the Bank Holiday weekend, its longest consecutive period without drawing on the principal cause of global warming since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The record means the UK National Grid has operated without any reliance on coal for more than 1,000 hours so far in 2019, as total coal power use has dropped by almost two-thirds compared with the first four months of 2018, from 8.6Twh to just 2.9Twh.
The latest milestone marks further progress towards the high profile goal of phasing out unabated coal-fired power generation entirely by 2025, one of the Conservative government's flagship green policies.
Between 2012 and 2018, electricity generated from coal fell by 88 per cent, with a 25 per cent decrease occurring from 2017 to 2018 alone.
In February, Cottam Power Station became the latest casualty of the decline of the UK coal industry, its closure following that of three other coal plants in 2016. Just six coal-fired power stations are now operational in the UK, and the fuel has plummeted from being the country's principal energy source in 2014, to now being sixth on the list. Coal is was responsible for less than 10 per cent of Britain's power output last year, behind gas, nuclear, wind, imports, and biomass.
The closure of the last coal plant in 2025 will be enacted via a new emissions performance standard limiting the carbon that plants can emit to 450g CO2 per KW hour, which coal operators could only meet by installing carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment - something no operator is currently considering for their coal plants with the focus of the fledgling CCS industry having switched to capturing emissions from industrial plants and biomass power stations.
In addition, the UK government is using the coal transition to build greater multilateral cooperation for tackling climate change, through the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Launched by the UK and Canada, the voluntary coalition of governments, businesses, and other organisations committed to ending the use of coal power has seen its ranks swell in recent months. Its 80 members now include the South Chungcheong province of South Korea, which hosts half of that country's coal power generation, as well as a host of cities and businesses.
"Decarbonising our energy system is a crucial part of our commitment to ending our contribution to global warming," said a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). "We're closing in on phasing out coal entirely from our power system by 2025 as our renewables sector goes from strength to strength on our path to becoming the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions."
However, while welcoming the decline in coal use, some experts have raised concerns that the government is failing to do enough to mitigate the impact of job losses on regional communities. In a recent article for BusinessGreen, Josh Burke from the Grantham Institute on Climate Change highlighted "very limited transition planning" in either the government's regulatory impact assessment or in its Clean Growth Strategy.
While the Industrial Strategy White Paper mentions a National Retraining Scheme, it provides no specific detail on how the government plans to help coal workers transition to other employment.
Similar concerns have been raised in relation to the government's approach to oil and gas, which is currently anticipated to play a prominent role in the UK's transition to a low carbon economy for several more decades at least. The Vision 2035 strategy - which is being developed by the Oil and Gas Authority with input from industry stakeholders - aims to double the UK's share of global oil and gas supply chains by 2035. The vision received a boost in January, when the largest UK gasfield in a decade was discovered under the North Sea.
The discovery was welcomed as "very exciting news" by the Oil and Gas Authority, but prompted fierce criticism from environmental groups. "We've known for years that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground if we're to tackle climate change," said Friends of the Earth Scotland Climate campaigner Caroline Rance. "It's a disgrace that oil and gas exploration is still going ahead in the seas off Scotland. It's high time our governments stopped supporting fossil fuel development, and get serious about planning a just transition away from this industry."
Indeed, questions remain over whether the government's strategy of maximising the production of indigenous hydrocarbon reserves is aligned with domestic and international climate policies. The government's plans are supported by statutory changes in the 2015 Infrastructure Act, and has been backed by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which has concluded that "we need gas - the cleanest fossil fuel - to support our climate change efforts by providing flexibility and helping us to reduce the use of high-carbon coal."
Speaking to BusinessGreen last week, CCC boss Chris Stark acknowledged the development of the UK gas industry as part of a net zero economy was subject to considerable uncertainties.
"What will happen to the oil [and gas] industry is largely dependent on two things: what is the global demand for the products they are producing and what is the UK's own strategy?," he observed. "If for example we were to use hydrogen at bigger scale to achieve this kind of outcome, it is very likely we would still need hydrocarbons, but with the carbon removed, of course. So natural gas plays a role in that hydrogen supply, if that's the choice that the UK government wants to take for supplying heat in future. That's why we're cautious about it, because it would be very easy for the Committee to say that we should ban new developments or end extraction, but actually that doesn't necessarily flow from this analysis. What matters is that we can't be burning them."
He also argued the development of CCS could yet throw a lifeline to the gas industry. "It's very simple," Stark explained. "The simplest bit of science is that fossil fuels burned unabated are what's causing this. So that's the issue we'll have to address. But if the choice is to go big on carbon capture and storage, for example, then that will address the climate issue as long as we can safely store it. We do have the science to support that, and indeed we have the infrastructure in the North Sea, so I know there are many who would love to see the CCC make an easy recommendation like that, but it doesn't necessarily flow from this analysis."
However, as both investors and governments look to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, the feasibility of the government's oil and gas strategy is facing ever more questions. In February, Andrew McDowell, vice president of the European Investment Bank, said: "As we prepare our new energy lending policy, we believe that the gas industry must now explain its decarbonisation strategy and show how it is consistent with EU emissions reduction targets." Plenty of other investors are making similar demands on oil and gas giants, at the same time as quitting coal companies altogether.
The UK's continued success in ending its reliance on coal power is welcome to anyone serious about slashing the country's carbon emissions. But tough decisions remain to be made about the UK's energy mix as it moves towards ending its contribution to climate change altogether, including how to ensure a just transition to a zero carbon economy that does not strand workers currently employed in fossil fuel industries.
As Josh Burke warned in February: "If there is a failure to adequately prepare, the socioeconomic ramifications will be far-reaching and long-felt - analogous to the impacts of coal mine closures in mining areas, which continue to experience labour market imbalances and, consequently, high levels of unemployment."
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