The global reduction in the price of coal may help to limit energy bill rises in the short term, but is likely to hamper the UK’s efforts to meet its climate change targets, the Environment Agency has warned.
According to Lord Smith, chairman of the organisation, the dynamic of the world’s energy supply is rapidly changing, with the US gradually turning to shale gas as a cleaner source of generating power.
This wholesale shift has meant that there is less competition for coal – resulting in the price of the fossil fuel falling dramatically and being snapped up by many European nations.
Higher and higher
At the moment, around 40% of the UK’s electricity is generated by coal – the highest level since 1996 – and although the use of this resource means that consumers are shielded from energy bill hikes to a certain extent, there are other ramifications, he explained.
The main problem with increasing reliance on coal is that the fossil fuel is far more damaging to the environment than other forms of generating power, meaning climate change targets become more and more difficult to meet.
According to estimates from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, CO2 emissions increased by 3.9% in the UK between 2011 and 2012 as a result of burning coal, and Lord Smith said that this highlights the need for the government to introduce new targets to drastically reduce and eventually eliminate carbon pollution in the country.
As well as being harmful to the environment, burning coal also releases sulphur, which can have a majorly detrimental impact on health.
Though there is plenty of talk of a “dash for gas”, the UK is actually in a dash for coal that is “completely unsustainable”, Lord Smith told the BBC.
“The government must ensure it doesn’t continue. If we lock ourselves into gas generation for the next 40 years without capturing the CO2 emissions, we will never meet our targets on climate change.”
At the current rate of progress, the goals will never be achieved, he argued, claiming that the only way to achieve this is through state support for new means of generating power, such as tapping the country’s shale gas reserves.
Another suggestion was to ensure that any new coal-burning power stations are forced to capture their own CO2 emissions – something the government has previously expressed its intention to enforce, but which has yet to be put into practice.
If action is not taken, the era of cheap coal may soon give way to a more toxic environment and a failure to meet targets, which will ultimately impact the country, its businesses and its consumers.