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Environment

Britain Just Went Without Coal for Its Longest Stretch Since the Industrial Revolution

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You’ve seen it on Instagram with quiet blossoms and empty streets — as humans around the world retreat indoors, nature has found its moment in the sun to breathe.

But while plummeting carbon emissions is a happy surprise in dark times, there is also a cause to celebrate in Britain that is no accident — and has little to do with COVID-19.

On Tuesday morning, the UK officially broke its record on the amount of electricity produced without using coal power.

Britain ran the National Grid for 18 days, six hours, and 15 minutes without relying on coal-fired plants for electricity — the longest uninterrupted period since it was first established in 1882, according to the Guardian.

The previous record was 18 consecutive days, set last year on June 4. It’s worth remembering that it was only in 2017 that the UK went a whole day without burning coal for the first-ever time.

Britain pledged in 2017 to shut all its coal-fired power stations by 2025. Since then, coal has been phased out in a big way, from supplying a quarter of the UK’s electricity in 2016 and 43% in 2012 — to just 2% in 2020. Today, just four plants remain.

Carbon Brief reports that renewables are now the UK’s largest source of electricity, generating 37% of the total, in contrast to 32% from gas, 22% from nuclear, and 9% imported from elsewhere.

All that green energy played a big part in the latest run without coal: after weeks of unbroken sunshine across the country, another new record was set on April 20 as solar farms generated more than 9.6GW of electricity for the first time.

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Although electricity demand in the UK has dropped by 18% since the same point last year as businesses and offices are shut down during lockdown, the new coal record has been a long-time coming.

"Although UK emissions have dropped due to the COVID crisis, the lack of coal burning in the UK is more due to policy," Dr. Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, told Global Citizen. "We should have no coal at all on the grid within four years."

"It is, or will soon be, more economically efficient in many countries for coal plant operators to close their power stations and build wind farms than to keep running them," he added. "By the end of this decade many of the coal plants still operating globally will be there due to governments protecting vested interests — there is no economic case anymore."

Still, the pandemic has certainly accelerated a decline in its production globally.

That’s because with most of the world still in lockdown, electricity demand is slumping everywhere — and according to US media site Bloomberg, coal has taken a big hit.

Despite President Donald Trump pledging to save the industry, many firms were already facing bankruptcy before the pandemic as output fell wildly. And now, its market share is in freefall as — just like coal superpowers China and India — shrinking demand prices out the more expensive options.

Production in US mines has fallen by 21% in just three weeks, while in Europe, market share dropped from 14%, recorded a year ago, to 12%. In Germany, hard coal and brown coal generated 35% of the country’s electricity a year ago — but in the first two weeks of April this year, that figure was down to 18%.