Coal powered the industrial revolution. But now, it is slowly losing steam in the 21st century in the west. China, has increased its consumption five folds in the last 20 years. The rest of Asia is also following a similar pattern. But while some markets are increasing their consumption, Britain’s reliance on coal for electricity has dropped from 70 per cent in 1990 to less than 3 per cent today, according to government figures. One of the reasons for the decline is cheaper sources of energy found offshore in the North Sea during the 1960s, namely petroleum and natural gas. The UK government is working on phasing out coal power altogether by 2025 (in fact the government is working on bringing that deadline forward to 2024).  


Coal used in power generation is declining in the UK

The UK closed its last deep mine in 2015 and on August 17, 2020 the last surface mine near Durham, operated by The Banks group, also shut. The Banks Group, a family-owned coal mining and energy company in the UK wrote on their website: “We mine it because the UK still needs coal to manufacture steel and cement. It creates a lot less Co2 if we mine coal here in the UK rather than import it from hundreds/thousands of miles away in Russia and the USA.” The company provides restoration to prevent the adverse effects of surface mining in the long run, it says. After an area is mined, lack of preventative measures can lead to groundwater contamination, increase flooding chances and can also lead to landslides and cave-ins. 

But all operations will not cease in the country. In fact, Cumbria recently got a green light to build a colliery which will become fully operational by 2023 and create jobs for locals. This new mine is expected to produce a large quantity of coking coal that is used in steel rather than thermal coal. Coking coal from Cumbria contains low levels of ash and is said to generate less waste, according to West Cumbria mining, who are developing this project. 

Then there is Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd who operate the Ffos-y-fran site. They say on their website, that “Our main customer in Wales include Tata Steel, a major employer in South Wales.  We also supply our coal to the cement industry and various heritage railways around Wales and the UK. Coal is an essential part of the steel making process, and competitively produced Welsh coal, such as would be supplied from Nant Llesg, will help support Tata Steel’s operations. Tata Steel employs around 7,000 people in Wales and contributes some £3.5bn annually to the Welsh economy.” They had also announced redundancies last year.

The government view is clear. Business and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom said, “Coal-generated energy will soon be a distant memory as we plan to decarbonise every sector of our economy, enabling a greener future for all our children.”

Coal-fired power plant , cooling towers and river surface reflection , Jiangxi , China

Green Alliance published a report earlier this year about the coal industry in the UK. It noted, “The UK has a statutory (legally binding) target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, under the 2008 Climate Change Act, amended in 2019. Having ratified the Paris climate agreement of 2015, it has also agreed the goal to limit global average temperature rise to between 1.5°C.” They have According to them the best way forward is: low carbon jobs and investment in former mining and industrial areas. They have also made recommendations for the “government to remove ambiguities surrounding its approach to fossil fuel extraction, and to stimulate investment in alternative sources of power.

(Research by Kuheli Biswas)

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