Yesterday Britain’s energy minister Amber Rudd made a big speech aimed at ‘resetting’ Britain’s energy policy. Coming good on the joint promises made during the election, one of the key aspects of the plan is to phase out coal entirely by 2025.
This, for a change, puts Britain ahead of the pack. As far as I’m aware no other industrialised nation has pledged to phase out coal completely. Not Germany, despite it’s much vaunted energy transition. Not France, despite the fact that it uses very little coal and could cut it out of its energy mix relatively easily. But if Britain sets a target to leave coal behind, others may well follow.
It’s quite right for Britain to lead on coal, because we led on discovering it and exploiting it in the first place. It was here that coal was first used at scale, with production ramping up in the 18th century as steam engines became available. It was the energy source that powered the industrial revolution, which we in time exported around the world. Britain pioneered the use of coke in blast furnaces, and invented the steam train. As demand grew, we developed the techniques for deep pit coal mining.
In other words, Britain gave the world coal. The ancient Chinese and the Romans used it a little, but it was Britain that discovered exactly what you could do with coal, just how much work you could get out of it. It was Britain that worked out to get it out of ground in big enough quantities to power industry, run the transport network, and warm the nation’s homes. And of course, in that legacy came the great unintended consequence of climate change. It’s not something we need to feel bad about, as nobody could have known at the time, but historically speaking Britain has done more to precipitate global climate change that anyone else.
All of which makes it very appropriate for Britain to lead on closing the coal era. To truly complete the circle, we’d have to be leading on renewable energy too. Before the industrial revolution, we had sailing ships, windmills, water wheels and biomass – we were powered by renewable energy. As we end the coal chapter, there would be something very satisfying about moving into a new age of renewable energy, returning to the original power sources with 21st century technologies.
Unfortunately that’s not the government’s vision, and if you’ve been following along, you’ll know how it goes. In Amber Rudd’s words, “new nuclear, new gas and, if costs come down, new offshore wind will all help us meet the challenge of decarbonisation.” The plan is to replace coal with gas, preferably from fracking. That will halve the emissions from current coal generation and would be a good bridge towards decarbonisation, except that the government seems to think it’s a destination in itself.
The government is also deeply committed to large scale solutions. “Climate change is a big problem,” says Rudd. “It needs big technologies.” Away with your solar panels and community energy. Give me a European mega-grid and the most expensive power station ever conceived. Ironically, the bigger the technology the more likely it is to need government support. The “tough on subsidies” and “no more blank cheques” rhetoric is directed entirely at renewable energy, even as new subsidies are being created for nuclear power. We’re not dealing with logic here, but with an ideology of ‘big is beautiful’ and a conservative suspicion of anything green.
This makes the government’s reset on energy policy a very confused and hypocritical one, riddled with inconsistencies. It is determined to keep costs down, but it rules out Britain’s cheapest energy source in onshore wind. It has no plan for energy efficiency, which would be the easiest way to reduce costs. It claims to be committed to free market principles and to removing government interference, but is shamelessly picking winners in nuclear power and fracking. It says that energy security “is the top priority”, but puts gas front and center. Of all our energy sources, gas is the most vulnerable to interruption – is Amber Rudd aware that we’re increasingly dependent on Russia for our gas imports? It’s an embarrassing shambles, to be honest.
But we have agreed to phase out coal, so we got halfway there. And that’s still worth celebrating. To get the rest of the way across the decarbonisation bridge, we’re going to need a political reset.