An opportunity to cut harmful air pollution from coal

Coal in the UK is in terminal decline. The fuel that powered the industrial revolution and has been a staple of our economy for over a century is on its way out. Recent Carbon Brief analysisfound that last year coal use more than halved. This in turn contributed to an impressive six per cent annual fall in carbon emissions. Excluding the general strikes in the 1920s, emissions are now at the lowest level since the Victorian era.

But the job of phasing out coal from our energy mix is not complete. There are still eight coal-fired power stations on the British grid, with a combined capacity of around 14GW. In 2015, Bright Blue recommended that the Government regulate to close these last coal plants in the early 2020s. A few months later, the government adopted this policy and has just now finished consulting on its proposals to force their closure by the end of 2025.

This sharp decrease has several probable causes: anticipation of the 2025 coal phase-out, the abundance of relatively cheap gas, the build-out of zero-marginal-cost renewables, and the UK's 'Carbon Price Support', which charges power generators for each tonne of carbon they emit. But there is another factor that has helped to make the economics of coal challenging, over which EU Ministers are soon to make a decision at the European Council: the EU's 'Industrial Emissions Directive'.

The Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) came into force at the start of 2016 and its aim is to reduce harmful air pollution from industry. It sets legal limits on the levels of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and dust that large plants can emit. Of the highest emitting 30 plants affected by the IED, 26 are coal-fired power stations.

The damage to public health from coal is significant: across all EU Member States, air pollution from coal is estimated to contribute to nearly 23,000 deaths each year with a health bill ranging from €32bn to €62bn. But the IED is not realising all the promised emissions savings. Over half of coal plants in the EU have been given special 'derogations' by the EU, meaning that they do not need to apply them.

Under the policy, national governments must issue permits to all plants affected by the IED. These permits are issued with reference to guidelines that are set out in the EU's 'Best Available Technique Reference Document' (BREF). This document is currently being reviewed, and the European Council is soon to vote on proposals to amend the BREF that would make the application of the IED by national governments more stringent.

Put simply, if these proposals are accepted, many more plants will have to choose whether to make expensive upgrades in order to cut their emissions, or simply to close. The upgrade costs could be substantial: in the UK, government-commissioned research found that for a 500 MW coal plant, the cost of compliance would typically be between £50m and £75m.

So in many cases, this investment decision will lead to plant closures, with the investment generating insufficient returns to justify the costs. The three factors named above (cheap and plentiful gas, zero-marginal-cost renewables, and carbon pricing) assist and reinforce this dynamic.

With the UK's support at the European Council, it is expected that the proposals will be passed through qualified majority voting. However, without the UK's support, they are vulnerable to defeat. For this reason, the decision of UK Ministers is absolutely critical to the pace of the coal phase-out in Europe.

Not only would these regulations help to hasten the closure of the remaining coal plants in the UK. But they could help to bring about the end of coal generation throughout EU. The benefits would be great. In relation to climate, it would greatly reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions, for which coal is responsible for 16 per cent of the total. In relation to air pollution, the proposed new BREF would reduce the number of premature deaths from coal-related air pollution to under 9,000.

Supporting and championing these tougher environmental regulations is an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate international leadership post-Brexit. By committing to phasing out coal by 2025, the UK became the first industrialised country to burn coal for electricity and the first to commit to closing its coal fleet. We have recommended before that this significant domestic legacy should be leveraged internationally, in order to make a major contribution to reducing global emissions and tackling climate change.

In its coal phase-out impact assessment, the government listed UK international climate change leadership as one of the policy's main benefits. In the European Council, the UK has an opportunity to realise some of this benefit. It should seize it.

Sam Hall is a senior researcher at Bright Blue

This article first appeared on BusinessGreen 

The lights are going out on coal

November has been a very significant month for the coal industry. Perhaps the most high-profile news was the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, who promised during his campaign to end ‘the war on coal’ by repealing President Obama’s environmental regulations. Supporters at his rallies carried placards saying ‘Trump digs coal’. Trump’s victory caused shares in major coal producer Peabody to rocket by 45% in one day. His advocacy of coal encapsulated his appeal to disaffected working class voters in America’s de-industrialised ‘rust belt’ states.

Economics of coal

But this event, while significant, is an aberration from the general trend. Coal is now firmly in retreat around the world. Stopping burning coal to generate electricity as soon as possible is essential for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Per unit of electricity, coal emits more than twice as much carbon as natural gas. In 2013, coal alone contributed 42% of global greenhouse gas emissions from fuel combustion – easily more than any other fossil fuel.

Figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show coal consumption fell by 2.6% last year. Crucially, the two biggest coal users, China and the US, have both seen their demand for coal power fall in recent years. Much of this is happening because of changing energy economics. Take the example of the US. The shale gas revolution and technology cost reductions for renewables have successfully outcompeted coal. Michael Liebreich, a member of the advisory board of our Green conservatism project, recently wrote in the Guardian that these rival fuel sources were more responsible for coal’s demise than government regulation.

UK coal phase-out

But government intervention can certainly speed the process up. And in this area, November 2016 has contained a lot of good news. Exactly a year ago, in November 2015, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP made the UK the first country to commit to a date for phasing out coal from electricity generation, something which Bright Blue had been calling for. On the same day as Trump’s victory was confirmed, the UK Government recommitted to the coal phase-out by publishing its plans for consultation.

Ministers are proposing to introduce an ‘Emissions Performance Standard’ by 2025, which will mandate coal-fired power stations to close unless their emissions can be reduced to below those of a gas-fired power station. The UK’s remaining plants are on average 47 years old, and so would be in line for retirement soon in any case. In 2012, there were 17 remaining coal plants, with a capacity of 23GW. That’s now fallen to just 7, with 14 GW of capacity. Analysis has revealed that this year, for the first time, there have been periods when coal has been wholly absent from the UK’s energy mix, and entire days when solar generation has surpassed coal.

In our report earlier this year, Keeping the lights on, we found that phasing out coal would not harm the UK’s energy security. Moreover, encouraging more renewables, energy efficiency, energy storage, and DSR, alongside phasing out coal, would have benefits for consumer bills, energy security, and carbon intensity, relative to scenarios with more gas. We also called for the coal phase-out date to be brought forward to 2023. An earlier date would give investors in gas more certainty and help bring the new capacity online sooner.

Global coal phase-out

The UK’s announcement was not the only one this month. In fact, several other countries have decided to follow the British example on coal. France has announced it will close its remaining 3GW of coal-fired capacity by 2023. Canada is now set to phase out the rest of its coal fleet, which has a total capacity of 10GW, by 2030. Finally, the Finnish government has also committed to shutting its 2GW of electricity generation from coal by 2030.

Bright Blue has in the past called for the UK Government to assume a leadership role in advocating an international coal phase-out. It is highly symbolic that the UK has become the first country to use coal for electricity generation and the first industrialised country to commit to phasing it out altogether. Strengthened by this achievement, the UK could utilise its moral and political leadership to push for an ambitious global deal on phasing out coal.

As our associate fellow Ben Caldecott argued in Green and responsible conservatism, sectoral deals, such as on the use of coal, could be a more effective approach to tackling climate change than broad UN agreements. This would require developed countries to take the lead and phase out their coal fleets first. It would also require some international aid funding to support developing countries undergoing the transition to cleaner technologies. But the result for the environment could be significant.

November 2016 has been an excellent month for the global environmental campaign to end coal-powered electricity. But the scale of the challenge is still immense: in 2014, coal still generated 41% of the world’s electricity. The UK Government should build on this month’s progress and lead the international campaign for more countries to make the coal phase-out commitment.

Sam Hall is a researcher at the Bright Blue

Phasing out coal for the good of our health

In the lead up to the Paris negotiations, the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP, announced that the Government plans to phase out coal by 2025. Because coal is immensely harmful to health, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which brings together the UK’s major health institutions, strongly supports this move.

We would like to see this proposal enter legislation and for the burning of the major pollutant - coal - to come to an end. Ensuring that this happens would be a major leap forward for climate change and health. As the originator of the industrial revolution, to become the first country to phase out coal and lead the world to act similarly, would be a momentous step to take.

Burning coal seriously affects air quality, human health, and climate change. It produces a number of air pollutants that are harmful to health, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Air pollution from burning coal causes heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections among children.

Burning coal causes 1,600 premature deaths, 68,000 additional days of medication, 363,266 working days lost and more than a million incidents of lower respiratory symptoms across the UK, costing us up to £3.1 billion each year. Overall air pollution is now officially the biggest public health risk after smoking and kills 40,000 each year in the UK, as shown in the Royal College of Physicians' and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s report.

Coal plants are one of largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of climate change. In the UK, coal-fired power plants generate almost 30% of electricity and 17% of all CO2 emissions. Ending the burning of coal is an essential component of the response to climate change and its dangerous impacts. Not only does coal directly affect health through its contribution to poor air quality, but its role in warming the planet also causes adverse consequences for health.

The effects of climate change, already felt in the UK, are worsening. In the UK, extreme weather events like floods and heat waves carry a significant health burden. The death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the 2003 heat wave. Across the globe, climate change alters the spread and distribution of many infectious diseases, exposing new (and often vulnerable) populations to malaria, dengue fever, and cholera. Failing crops, lower grain yields, and increased crop prices from higher temperatures and shifting participation patterns is leading to increasing malnutrition, particularly in developing countries.

Climate change also significantly impacts on mental health. Studies conducted after the 2007 floods in the UK found that flood victims experienced up to a five-fold increase in mental health symptoms. 

Putting an end to burning coal is a major health opportunity. It is arguably one of the easiest measures to reduce climate change and a common-sense, cost-effective public health intervention in its own right. For the Government to deliver on its promise and end the use of coal in the UK would provide the necessary leadership to accelerate the phase-out of coal globally. This is needed to commit to the deal struck in Paris, to keep global temperature change to well below 2°C.

The use of coal, as one of the dirtiest, most polluting and inefficient energy sources, must end if we hope to protect the health of our environment and communities.

Dr Nick Watts is the Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Filling the coal mine

Coal will go down as one of the most significant resources in the UK’s industrial, economic and social history. First mined shortly after Roman times, it powered the industrial revolution and moulded the UK into the world’s economic powerhouse through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

However, it is not always widely appreciated that UK coal production actually peaked in 1913 and has been in decline ever since. In 1970, coal generated about two-thirds of all electricity, but in 2015 it generated just over a fifth, and government policy is for coal-fired power stations without carbon limiting technology to close by 2025.

By contrast, civil nuclear power is at the exciting early stages of a resurgence, after many years where there was a combination of a dash for gas and lack of investment in the UK’s energy infrastructure. As the 16GW nuclear new build programme gathers pace, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd MP has said that nuclear is “central to our energy secure future”, whilst noting “unabated coal is simply not sustainable.”

Not sustainable because it is a finite, polluting resource which the developed world is turning its back on. The outcome of international climate talks in Paris last year clearly illustrated this trend and showed how countries are working together to combat the growing effects of climate change and air pollution. Nations are now searching for their perfect energy mix to maintain economic growth and security of supply, at the same time as reducing carbon emissions. 

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for solving the energy mix question, but for many countries coal is no longer even part of the answer. With 80% of our heating coming from gas in the UK, it will continue to play a significant role alongside renewables and nuclear. Interconnectors, demand management and storage technologies will continue to develop too. It is a complex picture, but one which requires a nuanced and balanced response.

The advantages of renewables are clear but, because of their inherent intermittence and with no large scale and low-carbon industrial storage option likely in the foreseeable future, it means nuclear power remains a necessity because it generates the baseload, low-carbon power required to keep the lights on and our economy flourishing.

The drive for secure, reliable and low-carbon alternatives mean the north will also look to another one of its distinguished industries to help provide the energy for the Northern Powerhouse.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the nuclear industry has provided the north, particularly the north-west, with high-skill, high-value careers. Sellafield, once a secretive munitions site, deliberately hidden from the Luftwaffe, is now a hive of activity with over 10,000 employees on site working to decommission the vast and complicated site. Significant progress has been made in recent years and Sellafield, once seen as a relic of the sector, is being transformed by new innovations in nuclear decommissioning. Skills and expertise, which are nurturing a specialism that is world renowned, are being exported to Japan and into other international markets.

Next to Sellafield, NuGeneration is finalising its plans to build three new reactors to help power the north. Based in Manchester, the joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE aims to build 3.8GW of new nuclear capacity in Cumbria on its Moorside site. The project will create tens of thousands of new jobs and supply chain opportunities, not only in the north of England but across the UK. It will also generate sustainable careers when operating, and provide surrounding communities with low-carbon, secure electricity for at least 60 years.

Nuclear reactors are nothing new in the north of England. Calder Hall, Hartlepool and Heysham 1 and 2 have powered the north since 1957 and will continue to until at least 2030 when Heysham 2 is scheduled to shut down. Stations which have provided jobs for over a century and avoided the emissions of millions of tonnes of CO2. The potential of small modular reactors, currently under consideration by the Government, presents even greater manufacturing and supply chain opportunities that will benefit industry in the north of England.

While unabated coal continues to decline in its significance as an energy source, the nuclear sector represents a great opportunity for the north – both in complementing other ways of generating electricity as the distinction between electricity and energy demand is eroded, but also in providing long-term, skilled employment in construction, operation and supplying components for those power stations. Nuclear energy is not just a necessity, it is also an opportunity.

Tom Greatrex is the CEO of Nuclear Industry Association

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.