Today, many of us realise that in burning all that coal, and encouraging the rest of the world to follow suit, industrialising Britain was unknowingly stoking humankind’s biggest single problem: global warming. Burning coal, like oil and gas, produces carbon dioxide, and other gases that slowly trap heat in the atmosphere. Unless we quickly turn our backs on our carbon-intensive past and mobilise a new, low-carbon way of powering our activities, the climatic extremes that result from global warming will threaten to destroy most and maybe all of the wealth and heritage built up by industrialisation.
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is among many politicians who understand this. He told the big energy companies in June that, as Prime Minister, he would not allow them to build any new coal-fired power plants without carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS is an industrial process – feasible but still essentially untested – that can take carbon dioxide from the exhaust gas in a power station, pump it underground and store it there so it cannot escape to the atmosphere to trap heat.
At last, say relieved environmentalists, we have a Conservative leader who actually wants to conserve something. Cameron’s adoption of a blue-green hue is not before time. New research has shown as recently as March 2008 that coal-burning is more damaging to the climate than was previously thought. American researchers have found that ‘black carbon’ particles from the burning of coal and other fuels could by itself be causing up to 60% of the global warming that carbon dioxide gas does. They used satellite, aircraft and surface data to show a warming effect much higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did in their most recent scientific tome urging governments to act (February 2007).
Despite this knowledge, and so much else that is worrying about the carbon writing on the climatic wall, there are people seemingly desperate to take us back to the days of expanding coal-mining in Britain. As the price of gas soars along with that of oil, and as nuclear plants shut down in the face of problems such as unexplained cracks in reactor cores, many in the energy industry are pushing to increase coal-burning in power plants. A weakened Labour government goes along with them, even to the extent of tipping the wink to the giant German utility E.on’s idea of building a coal-fired power plant in Kent with an ‘option’ to attach CCS equipment. Even workers seem keen to go back to the filth and danger that underpins Britain’s coal heritage. UK Coal is busy recruiting old miners back into the industry.
In 1947 when the British coal industry was nationalised there were a million men in a thousand pits. Today there are 5,300 men in six underground mines and 24 surface mines. In the surviving underground mines, so much coal has been mined since they opened that men can travel for more than an hour in tunnels to get to the coal. There they face dire and unavoidable risks: the prospect of a slow and terrifying death trapped underground, and a creeping death from lung disease even if they survive to retire. Yet they still seem to want the jobs. As one miner told the Guardian: ‘There’s nothing more satisfying than going up and saying we produced that amount of coal today. It makes you feel good.’ Another had this to say about his reasons for facing the risks: ‘The lads I work with are absolutely brilliant, it’s a good laugh, and most of all there’s the money.’ The money is four times what could be earned in the construction industry, prior to the crash in housebuilding.
And so across the country a battle unfolds over the British coal heritage and its relationship to future history. One set of people tries to drag the nation back to a failed and dangerous past. Another tries to push it towards a new, modern, sustainable, low-carbon future. The Government has given licences for no fewer than six open-cast coal-mining pits in Wales. Work has begun, and climate protestors have duly attempted to disrupt it. Just five UK companies produce more carbon dioxide than all motorists combined (E.on, RWE npower, Drax, Corus and EDF), and one of them is permitted to produce 20m tonnes a year from a single coal-fired power station (Drax). Climate protestors have targeted the Drax plant, hijacked a train delivering coal to it and shovelled more than 20 tonnes of coal onto the railway track.
Today, coal still generates more than a third of UK electricity. Despite the push for more domestic mining, 60% of the coal burned in British power plants is imported, from Russia, South Africa and Columbia (50m tonnes in 2006, versus 16m tonnes mined in the UK). UK campaigners are seeking guarantees that carbon dioxide will be contained and stored. Eight plants are being planned, equal to the entire carbon target the UK has set itself for 2050. E.on’s two intended plants at Kingsnorth in Kent would generate 8m tonnes of CO2 equivalent at their full 1,600-megawatt capacity. They await formal government approval, though they already have an amber light from Whitehall. E.on admit there is no guarantee – even if CCS can be made to work – that it will be fitted without subsidies from the Government.
Similar battles are being fought over coal elsewhere in the world. In some places, at least, they are being won. Denmark and New Zealand have moratoria on new coal plants. Of 151 new coal plants announced in the US last year, 59 have been dropped due to protests and 49 are being contested in court.
We can safely expect much more confrontation over the UK’s coal heritage, and its place in history, in the months and years ahead.