Coal has been key to the modern and thriving civilisation we see today.
This black rock powered the first Industrial Revolution, enabling us to create a whole world of things we had lived without for millennia. It helped lift large parts of the world out of poverty and into prosperity. However, this progress has come with a crippling debt. A debt we must now pay back.
Past generations did not know that burning coal would pollute our planet with dangerous particulate matter and gasses such as carbon dioxide. At the time, it was an amazing discovery which allowed us to do things we had never been able to do before.
Our strong reliance on fossil fuels has lasted more than a century and we are now feeling the weight of that legacy. Global temperatures have risen by an average of 1° Celsius since the 1700s and the world is facing climate breakdown. The continuous, rapid, heating of our planet is occurring at such an unprecedented speed we are failing to adapt fast enough, and the impacts are being felt across the globe.
Our strong reliance on fossil fuels has lasted more than a century and we are now feeling the weight of that legacy
Billions of people could be displaced as their homes become uninhabitable. Low-lying cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Miami, face the threat of extinction. The people of sub-Saharan Africa will not be able to live in a region too hot for crops to grow. The irony of the climate crisis is that those with the least blame will be the most affected.
Nearly 200 years since we started burning coal we have come full circle. The UK is historically the fifth largest carbon emitting country in the world. We are now making headlines for kicking this addiction, going 18 days where no coal-fired power plants were used. The longest coal-free period since 1882. We count how many days we go without coal like a smoker boasting about how long it’s been since they’ve had a cigarette.
There are caveats to this piece of good news. A significant proportion of the slack left by coal has been picked up by the less carbon intensive, but still polluting, natural gas. In addition, while historically significant, the UK is now a relative minnow in emissions compared to fast-growing nations like China, which is still investing in new coal plants.
We cannot use our coal-free records as an excuse to sit back and put our feet up. But alongside growing consumer concern over the climate crisis, and the increase in renewable generation, this gives us hope. There is still much more that needs to be done, but these symbolic milestones keep us motivated and help track progress towards a zero-carbon future.