Mining Britain’s Recent Past to Save Our Future

Miners coming off the last shift at Kellingley Colliery in Knottingley, northern England, on the final day of production, Friday Dec. 18, 2015. John Giles/PA via AP

Coal once fueled the British Empire, yet with little industry pushback the United Kingdom announced plans to stop burning it by 2025. Carolyn Beeler of Public Radio International chronicles the decision’s instigating events including divisive strikes, climate change awareness, and a levy on coal usage. Digging through this history unearths a glowing ember remaining staunchly reliant upon coal: The United States.

The announcement signaled the dethroning of King Coal in a country where it had reigned for more than a century, and where just six years prior it provided more than 40 percent of the nation’s energy.

By the turn of the millennium, environmentalist and lawmaker Baroness Bryony Worthington says, the issue of climate change was starting to work its way into the UK’s politics.  “There was a real sea-change in attitude toward climate change,” says Worthington, who today is a member of the House of Lords and heads the Environmental Defense Fund’s European branch.

To meet the requirements of the act, the UK established a carbon tax in 2013. That tax eventually made coal more expensive than natural gas, and when that happened, Wilson says, it’s like someone flipped a giant switch.

Just ahead of the UN climate change summit in Paris, the UK’s Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced the country would stop burning coal for electricity in a decade.  “It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the UK to be relying on polluting, carbon intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations,” Rudd said. “Let me be clear: this is not the future.” A month later, the very last deep mine in the UK closed.

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