THE BLOG

Phasing Out Coal Is Welcome - But the Government's Plan Makes Little Economic or Environmental Sense

18/11/2015 16:20 GMT | Updated 18/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Today's announcement by Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd that every coal power station in the UK will be required to close in the next 10 years is incredibly important - both here in the UK, and internationally.

The large scale coal industry was first born in the UK on the back of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, and it is here it will first die in the 21st. Coal is the most deadly and polluting energy source and it's death in the UK means thousands of premature deaths will be prevented, that billions of pounds in health and mortality spending will be saved, and that tens of billions of tonnes of carbon emissions will be stopped.

From a decade ago, where it looked like a whole new fleet of new coal power stations could be built, we are now set to see coal drop from almost 30% of our energy mix to 0% in just ten years. This staggering achievement is thanks in no small part to the valiant and dogged efforts of activists from Greenpeace and others such as Climate Camp over many decades.

As the first major economy to entirely move away from coal, this announcement will also have huge significance internationally - it shows that leading economies can, and should, move off this dirtiest form of energy generation and sends a hugely powerful signal to other major economies ahead of the crucial climate talks in Paris that begin at the end of this month.

However, this milestone announcement comes with two major caveats. The first is that the workers in the coal industry should not be hung out to dry - part of a just transition is that we help people to maintain their economic viability even as their industries need to be phased out. The second is that the death of coal will necessarily create a gap in our energy system and it is vital that, if the UK is serious about keeping bills down and meeting our climate targets, this gap is filled with the clean, renewable, flexible energy infrastructure Britain really needs.

Rudd's speech makes clear however that the government currently plans to power the UK with a dash for gas and generous support for new expensive nuclear power stations that will see, as Amber Rudd has admitted, energy bill increases. This comes on top of a range of cuts to support for renewable energy announced over the summer - including an end to support for onshore wind and a dramatic reduction in support for small scale solar - the two cheapest forms of new low-carbon power. There was scarcely a word about the 'first fuel' - as the International Energy Agency describes it - energy efficiency, widely accepted as the cheapest way to cut bills.

Together, this plan makes a mockery of Rudd's insistence that keeping costs low for consumers, now and in the future, is her number one concern. And by replacing one fossil fuel with another it also seriously compromises what is arguably the most important goal of all - securing the safety, security and health of our planet for future generations by doing all in our power now to tackle the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Overall, whilst the coal phase-out is welcome, today's plan makes little economic or environmental sense. If the government is serious about combating climate change whilst keeping bills down for families and businesses across the UK, it must back the best renewable energy sources now in order to create a sustainable power system fit for the 21st Century.