Coal is the most carbon intensive of all fossil fuels. It is nearly all carbon, so it releases almost entirely carbon dioxide when burned. Coal is mainly burned for electricity generation, which is the largest source of UK greenhouse gas emissions. Coal fired power stations are more CO2 intensive than any other type, and are the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases within the power generation industry (rising by over 30% between 1999 and 2005). Coal has been a key factor in the overall rise in UK emissions. If we are to cut those emissions, we must to stop burning coal, and if we are to encourage other countries to stop, we certainly shouldn’t be planning to burn more.
No Coal is Clean Coal
The coal industry is touting ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ as a solution, claiming the carbon produced when coal is burned can be captured, then stored safely. However, the industry itself admits the technology to do this does not exist, and will not be ready for at least 15 years even if they can make it work. The scientific consensus is that our emissions must be falling quickly by 2015, so 15 years is too late.
UK New Coal
Unfortunately, our government doesn’t see things this way. It is currently deciding whether to give the go ahead to seven new coal fired power stations, the first for 30 years, including two in Scotland at Longannet in Fife and Cockenzie in East Lothian, and recently a third has been proposed on the site of the Hunterston nuclear reactor. To feed the drive for coal, the government is overruling local councils and its own stated policies to approve new opencast coal mines, with a possible 33 – at the last count – on top of the 30 already operating. This represents a massive new wave of carbon emissions, an appalling example to other countries and misery for the people who have to live with new coal as a bad neighbour.
In the past 18 months 14 companies have applied to dig nearly 60 million tonnes of coal from 58 new or enlarged opencast mines. At least six coal-fired power stations are planned. If all the applications are approved, the fastest expansion of UK coal mining in 40 years could see southern Scotland and Northumberland become two of the most heavily mined regions in Europe.
New Coal in Scotland
Scotland will bear the brunt of the expansion. Currently 11 mines produce about 5m tonnes of coal a year. A further 27 mines could extract a total of 22m tonnes of coal over just a few years. Thirteen of the 27 have already been approved and the rest are awaiting planning decisions.
There is a clear contradiction between the Scottish government’s 80% target for climate change emissions cuts and investment in new coal. With industry and government saying carbon capture and storage is at least 20 years away, this shows that the 160m tonnes of CO2 released by burning this coal would not be captured.
Pollution from Scotland’s major coal and gas-fired power stations shot up last year through massive increases in the amounts of carbon dioxide being belched out by the coal plants at Cockenzie and Longannet on the Firth of Forth and the gas plant at Peterhead. Between them, the three power stations emitted 4.6 million tonnes more carbon dioxide in 2006 than in 2005, swamping significant cuts in emissions achieved by other industries. As a result, there was an overall rise of 10% in carbon pollution from Scottish industry.
The biggest increase in pollution was from Cockenzie, an old power station in East Lothian run by ScottishPower. Its carbon dioxide emissions rose 79%, from 2.8m to 5m tonnes, between 2005 and 2006. Cockenzie, along with Longannet and Peterhead, also recorded significant increases in emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Across Scotland these pollutants rose by 22% and 40% between 2005 and 2006.
Resistance and Direct Action
In the face of reversed planning decisions, destroyed countryside, short sighted policy and hypocrisy, ordinary people have been taking action in extraordinary ways – from picketing coal companies, stopping work on opencast sites, disrupting coal power stations and bulk transport, to the day to day local work to stop new coal developments from happening in our communities.
Recently actions have taken place all over the UK in opposition to new coal, such as the blockade at the Ravenstruther Coal Depot, the occupation of Lodge House at Shipley open cast in Derbyshire, the hijacking of a coal freight train on its way to Drax Power Station in Yorkshire, the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth in Kent and numerous other site occupations that have stopped work at open cast sites.
Local authorities, the Scottish government and companies such as Scottish Coal and ScottishPower are ignoring the scientific consensus on climate change. Because of this, campaigners have chosen to ignore them, their authority and their laws by taking action to reduce CO2 emissions themselves.
Target the bosses, not the workers – A Just Transition
Mining communities have a long history of neglect and deprivation. The dismantling of high-emission industries must occur through a process of just transition to ensure that changes in employment and activity should be fair and not cost workers or communities their health, wealth or assets. Lasting and significant change to these polluting industries can only come through campaigners and workers uniting to stop climate change and environmental degradation together. It will be the workers, not the bosses who are hit the hardest by the effects of climate change. And it is the workers who will be expected to pay for the disastrous effects through lower wages, worse conditions, higher prices, and regressive taxation. Organised labour is in a good position to prevent a climate disaster, with the power to take control of workplaces, strike, and halt production. We must move our economy away from fossil fuels – but we must do it in a fair and just way.