UK on the path to a coal-free future by 2025

Made from the carbonised remains of fossilised trees, coal is a phenomenal source of energy, powering the UK economy since the 1880s. But times are changing…

It’s estimated that the UK has as much as 3.91 billion tonnes of hard coal reserves at present, with as many as 187 billion tonnes in total reserves. However, only 33 million tonnes of this are actually recoverable using existing mines. In addition, the drive towards cleaner sources of power has effectively rendered the concept of coal power almost as extinct as the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth when the coal was starting to fossilise.

Coal’s heyday came in the mid-20th century, as industrialisation required cheap and reliable stocks of fuel. However, over time, coal pits became less productive, closures began to mount, and there was a gradual shift away from coal towards other fuel sources.

According to Our World in Data, coal was responsible for 59 per cent of our energy requirements in 1966. By 2019, this had dropped to just 3.3 per cent. The fall is so significant, because we have now reached a stage where entire days go by, without coal providing any power in the UK, depending on the season.

The death of coal

Coal may once have been a vital resource, but its impact on the environment is highly damaging, due to the sheer amount of waste it produces. This includes sulphur dioxide, CO2 and a large quantity of carbon particulates, otherwise known as soot. Most of the coal you have ever seen is a snapshot of an era in Earth’s history that is long since gone.

Formed from the remains of great forests that lived at least 300 million years ago, in the Carboniferous period, coal is in limited supply. Coal is a densely packed source of carbon, which is then released when burnt and turned into energy. This resource has left its impact on British history numerous times, but its legacy will not be positive.

It famously gave buildings a sooty, grubby appearance, including the Houses of Parliament. Coal is also believed to have been a leading cause of the so-called ‘pea-souper’ smogs that used to blight Britain in the 20th century. The Great Smog of London in December 1952 is believed to have stemmed from the capital’s use of cheap coal for fuel.

The toxic mix of gases generated from the burnt coal, mixed with static cold air, caused this deadly smog to linger over the city – it’s believed the incident resulted in as many as 12,000 deaths, due to the toxicity of the smog.

Coal gets shown the door

Fortunately, the air cleared and the Great Smog of London ended within a matter of days. One of the biggest consequences of the incident was the introduction of the Clean Air Act 1956. This was one of the first major interventions by a government to regulate domestic and industrial emissions related to coal. Within a few short years, the UK was smog-free.

In more recent times, there’s been of an energy revolution with regards to coal. As mentioned, coal was only responsible for 3 per cent of our energy in 2019. At the start of the 2010s, coal comprised as much as 14 per cent of our energy mix.

A remarkable shift towards wind power and other renewables since 2010 is just one of the factors which explains the rapid decline in coal consumption in recent years. The Government intends to ensure coal is completely phased out by 2025.

In the meantime, you’ll be pleased to know that coal consumption is now so low in the UK, that we managed to pull off a 67-day streak without coal-generated power last summer. That marked the longest period of going coal-free since the Industrial Revolution!

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