UK’s National Grid hailed a lofty milestone as it reported that Friday, 21st of April, was the first day since the Industrial Revolution that the country powered itself without coal.

Coal power is a significant part of the UK’s historical identity. Image credits: Acombmate2114.

A world built on coal

In the 19th century, Britain was leading the planet through the Industrial Revolution, and nothing would never be the same again. The shift from hand production methods to machines affected every aspect of human life. For the first time in history, the standard of life started to exhibit a solid, sustained growth, and this was clearly visible for everybody: average income and population grew wildly. It’s estimated that the world population in the early 1800s was just around 1 billion people, but the rate of increase after that was staggering. It took several centuries for the population to double from 500 million (around the year 1500) to 1 billion – yet after just one century, the population reached two billion in the 20th century, and here we are now at over 7 billion.

Coal energy powered the world through the Industrial Revolution. Image via Wiki Commons / US Gov.

All that was possible largely due to coal and other fossil fuels (oil & natural gas), which provided the necessary energy. But aside from the population growth and the increase in standard of living, the Industrial Revolution brought in another, more insidious effect: climate change. As Britain and subsequently the world became industrialized, greenhouse gas emissions started to increase and accumulate in the atmosphere. In the mid 20th century, concerns started to grow about our impact on global climate, and by the turn of the century, the situation became pretty clear: man-made emissions were having a significant, detrimental impact on the global climate. If we wanted to change that, reducing our emissions was the way to go.

So it came to be that much like the rule of the British Empire over the world had faded, the grip that coal had on humanity was starting to wane.

A day without coal

It was a clear sign of coal’s dropping power when the control room of the National Grid tweeted this on Friday:

Coal has seen a strong and steady decline in the UK, coming down from 30% in the early 2010s to less than 10% in 2016. To their merit, the UK has invested greatly in renewable facilities, although they’ve done so out of economic reasons rather than a desire to reduce emissions. Still, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF, called the first coal-free working day “a significant milestone in our march towards the green economic revolution”.

“Getting rid of coal from our energy mix is exciting and hugely important. But it’s not enough to achieve our international commitments to tackle climate change – we haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.” Redmond-King said.

In recent years, renewable energy has surged in Great Britain, with wind covering some 12% of the country’s electricity needs, and solar also pitching in (to a lesser extent, this is rainy Britain after all). Nuclear is also solid in the UK as a low-carbon energy source, contributing to about 20%, a figure that has remained more or less constant for many years now. But it wasn’t all low-carbon sources that compensated for coal — natural gas also stepped into the picture, and natural gas also shows a steady growth in recent years across the country. So it’s not like it’s all renewables replacing coal — a big chunk of that is replaced by natural gas, which while still an improvement, is still not the best way to go.

Getting rid of coal

Scotland’s wind energy helped a lot. Image credits: Gordon Proven.

Worldwide, coal is still used on a massive scale, especially in developing economies such as China and India. While this is an encouraging milestone for the European country, we still have a lot to go before we can say we’re on the right track. Scientists have warned time and time again that despite the Paris Agreement, the world is not doing enough to maintain a healthy track. As for the UK itself, the country seems too caught in its political woes to truly worry about the environment.

After the Brits decided they want to leave the European Union, the government just announced new general elections and that’s pretty much covering all the headlines. The country’s ongoing air crisis is largely ignored as action was delayed yet again, despite the government actually losing a trial due to this. It seems that the sheer inertia of and economic rentability of renewable energy is carrying the UK on its back — and for now, we’ll just have to settle for that.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2017 ZME Science

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook

Your opinion matters -- voice it in the comments below!