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Why a UK coal phase-out is an offer to be celebrated ahead of the crucial UN climate summit

Posted by Kiri Hanks Energy Policy Adviser

18th Nov 2015

Earlier this year Oxfam launched a campaign calling on the UK government to phase out climate-wrecking coal power. Thousands of Oxfam supporters joined the campaign, and today - it's happened! Energy & Climate Change secretary Amber Rudd has announced her plan that UK coal power plants will close between 2023 and 2025. This is a historic move on climate change (not a phrase that we use lightly!) It's a big step towards the UK meeting its climate targets at home. But perhaps more important is the impact this will have world-wide.

The timing could not be better: coming two weeks before world leaders meet to agree a global climate deal - one which we hope will mark a turning point in the fight against catastrophic climate change which is already making people hungry. The UK's coal phase-out plan is a real and tangible offer to take to the climate talks.

The Paris climate agreement is set to be more ambitious than any that have gone before (more than Copenhagen, Kyoto etc), as for the first time all countries - including developing countries - are making commitments to reduce emissions. What reducing emissions comes down to, is phasing out fossil fuels - most urgently coal.

For developing countries, it means forging an entirely new, low-carbon development pathway - one that does not follow in the footsteps of rich, industrialized countries - and rely heavily on coal power. There are many good reasons why developing countries would choose to turn their backs on coal, or even leap-frog it entirely - not least the human cost of choking air pollution in cities like Delhi, or the fact that solar is cheaper in many places. Yet if they are being asked to do so in the name of climate change (a mess that has been mainly caused by the rich world), then at a minimum, wealthy countries like the UK must be seen to be leading the way.

This is why it is symbolically important that the UK, as the birthplace of the coal-powered industrial revolution, is one of the first countries to signal its end. With a firm coal exit-date, the UK joins other countries like Finland, Denmark and Sweden, which have made similar commitments. The Prime Minister can use the platform of the climate talks to take the challenge to other developed nations who should be on the front-foot in taking real steps to phase out fossil fuels (hello big coal consumers Germany, USA, Australia and, most of all, Japan!)

Neither will the phase-out be lost on India - a country which has set itself hugely challenging targets to boost solar energy (noting that Prime Minister Modi has committed to install seven times as much renewable energy capacity by 2022 as is used in the UK today). India is doing its part to develop along a low-carbon route, as are many others like China, and South Africa - and they will be watching these developments with interest.

At the other end of the scale, tiny-emitter Kenya does not currently have any coal power plants - and still has put forward plans to control their emissions.

Of course, a coal phase-out cannot be looked at in isolation - as this does not give the full picture. Any analysis would not be complete without considering the replacement strategy. Coal power plants are indisputably the biggest culprits in driving dangerous climate change. In the UK they account for 30% of power yet 70% of power sector emissions. A message that the UK is switching from coal to (half-as-bad) gas does not reverberate in quite the same way globally - and so the details of the accompanying policies will be crucial. The upcoming consultation could offer the government a chance to go back to the drawing board on renewables. Gas is still a fossil fuel and should not be prioritized at the expense of renewables (which will anyway be cheaper than gas by 2020) or smart measures to save energy. So there's more work to do to make sure the announcement really is a major milestone on the way to the inevitable phasing out of all fossil fuels - something that organizations representing millions of people have said they want to see happen within a generation.  

Blog post written by Kiri Hanks

Energy Policy Adviser

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