11/15/2011 The Guardian: Coal’s dirty secret: it’s dying: Protecting uneconomic jobs in a dying industry – coal mining in the UK – is not acceptable. But neither is abandoning workers to the dole, which is where green energy comes in. I spent half my childhood in Fife, surrounded by villages where abandoned coal mines has left nothing behind but unemployment. Walking to school, I remember seeing houses with all the windows smashed in and “scab” daubed in giant letters across the walls. The destruction of an industry is a terrible and traumatic event.
But the call from a right-wing think tank to exempt the UK coal industry from taxes on carbon could not be more wrong-headed. It is mounting a Canute-like stand against the tide, rather than swimming with it.
Carbon emissions have to be curbed to prevent climate chaos and in the UK this is legally binding. For the 6,000 coal workers in the UK, the solution is not to subsidise their jobs in a hopeless attempt to compete with Poland, China and elsewhere. The answer is to re-skill them for the industries of the future: clean, sustainable energy.
This collapse in the market for coal could come as new cleaner coal power stations are possibly under construction by the mid-2020s – or in sight of opening – but by the time they are commissioned the UK coal industry would have effectively ceased to exist.
UK mining still looks after a third of our coal demand, supplying 18.4m tonnes last year, and this is expected to hit 19m tonnes this year. This collapse would lead to Britain needing to import all of its coal demand … It would also lead to the loss of up to 6,000 coal sector jobs.
But the future of “clean” coal in the UK is far from clear. The proposal to build a carbon capture and storage demonstration plant at the coal-fired power station at Longannet has collapsed, due to cost. The smart money now appears to be on CCS partly cleaning up gas, not coal and not anytime soon.
Lodge’s second point – UK coal demand – is also moot. There are no respectable future energy scenarios in which coal use rises – none – and in any case British coal burns dirtier than most imports.
We should also look at where special pleading leads us: to failure. The “past masters” of special pleading are the energy intensive industries – think steel, cement, paper. They lobbied intensely to weaken the European Union’s emission’s trading scheme, and succeeded. As a result they are now reaping billions of Euros in windfalls, but has that protected jobs? No, Tata Steel, which is sucking almost €400m out of the ETS, announced it was sacking 1,500 workers in May.
There’s an unpleasant irony in the Centre for Policy Studies trying to save the UK coal industry: the think tank was founded by Margaret Thatcher who so unflinchingly destroyed its core in the 1980s. Today, protecting uneconomic jobs in a dying industry – coal mining in the UK – is not acceptable, but neither is abandoning those workers to the dole. But the clean, sustainable energy industry is growing in the UK and will need new, skilled staff.
The Chancellor George Osborne put £100m into Scottish renewable energy on 11 November. This was the first glimmer of hope for the green economy since Osborne did his best to trash it in his cynical party conference speech in October.
If the government truly commits to the green economy – in word and deed – then the Green investment bank will be allowed to borrow and drive investment, the Green deal will be allowed to meet the vast need for better energy efficiency and electricity market reform will do more than support nuclear power. And if that happens, there will be many more than 6,000 new jobs in sustainable, growing industries.