Greg Barker is Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle and former Minister of State for Climate Change.
Who would believe that in 2015 20 per cent of our carbon pollution is still coming from ten coal-fired power stations? We did have some good news on Valentine’s Day, however, as David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg made an historic commitment to tackle climate change. The cross-party pledge included a commitment “to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy-efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.”
This is a significant step forwards that will reassure investors in new clean energy that the UK is the right place to invest. Rightly, it highlights unabated coal generation as a major threat to tackling climate change and makes the phasing out of this polluting fuel a priority. In the short to medium term this means the replacement of coal-fired power stations with modern gas plants. In the longer term we will need a massive increase in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage on any future power from coal, and – many would say – a new generation of nuclear reactors.
Gas also works far more efficiently and cost effectively alongside renewable energy than coal and UK renewable energy is growing at an unprecedented rate. Coal is the dirtiest fuel used in power generation, more than twice as polluting as natural gas. As well as the impact on climate change, burning coal releases vast quantities of harmful air pollutants that damage people’s health and have an unacceptable cost for the UK economy.
Only around a fifth of the coal burned in the UK is from domestic sources. More than half comes from just two countries – Colombia and Russia. Russia supplies 35 per cent of our coal but less than 5 per cent of our gas. Many of the discussions in Europe around trade sanctions against Russia have focused on gas but, for the UK, Russian coal is the big issue. As things stand, a continued reliance on coal is a continued reliance on Russia.
The cross-party commitment to end unabated coal generation is to be greatly welcomed. But in the second half of this decade we will need a more detailed plan to ensure that it actually happens, and that includes being more pro-active in encouraging greater investment in gas. Since 2009 the UK has actually increased the amount of coal we burn by 6 per cent. More than a third of our power still comes from this dirty fuel. Although there are new policies in place that will start to limit coal, investors would undoubtedly welcome greater certainty over when this will happen. While investment in UK renewables has surged in recent years and we are on track to hit our target of 30 per cent of our electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030, the current abundance of coal on the system is clearly having a chilling effect on investment in the next generation of cleaner gas power stations.
A report published this week by the IPPR explores some of the options available for phasing out unabated coal generation. They argue that an Emissions Performance Standard, similar to that pioneered by Arnold Schwarzenegger when Governor of California, which limits carbon pollution from our dirtiest power stations, would introduce absolute certainty that coal is going offline. Such a belt and braces policy would be good for investment in low carbon energy sources. It would also save millions of householders money on their energy bills. The IPPR analysis is compelling and should be considered very carefully. The government took powers in the Energy Act 2014 to put in place an Emissions Performance Standard for new coal. In the next Parliament, those powers must be extended to old coal too.
The commitment made by our party leaders to end the use of unabated coal in the UK was a great leap forward but the next step must be to deliver on that promise.