Britain started the fossil fuel age. Now it’s our chance to end it

The Welsh Assembly is due to vote on a cross-party motion which, if it passes, will cease all new fossil fuel extraction in the country.

Guy Shrubsole
22 April 2015

Is the sun setting on the age of fossil fuels? Image: Flickr/[Duncan]

Later today, Welsh politicians will debate something amazing: the prospect that their country could be the first in the world to go fossil free. This afternoon, Welsh Assembly Members will vote on a cross-party motion for a moratorium on opencast coal. Since the Welsh government already supports a moratorium on fracking, this motion – if it passes – would effectively mean Wales ceasing all new fossil fuel extraction.

This would be truly historic. Welsh coal from the valleys powered the industrial revolution, defined communities and shaped Welsh identity for generations. Today, with most deep coalmines long since closed, opencast coal employs few people, yet continues to scar the Welsh landscape. Take Merthyr Tydfil in the valleys of south Wales, home to the vast Ffos-y-fran opencast pit. The pit is in operation some 16 hours per day, a vast open sore barely forty yards from some people’s homes. The coal dust clings to every surface and clogs residents’ lungs. Its total expected production of 10 million tonnes of coal will result in carbon emissions equivalent to the sustainable average of 25 million people. Local campaigners have fought against the development for over a decade.

Eight years ago now, George Monbiot pointed to the opencast coal mine at Merthyr Tydfil as evidence of a fundamental contradiction in UK climate change policy. How was it, he reasoned, that our government could claim to be tackling carbon emissions, yet continue to dig up more fossil fuels at the same time?

That argument needs to be re-stated, only now with even greater urgency. The Carbon Tracker initiative has shown that in order to keep below 2 degrees of global warming, the world has to leave 80% of its proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. If we’re to avoid cooking the planet, they simply cannot be burned. 

The UK Government has, to a certain extent, accepted the logic of climate change. It has written the Climate Change Act into law, which binds it into reducing emissions. But while the Act governs emissions, it has nothing to say about the extraction of fossil fuels in the first place. That has to change. Governments and companies have to accept that preserving a stable climate means leaving at least 80% of our fossil fuels untouched.

A ban on opencast coal in Wales would be an inspiring first step along that road. A ban on fracking across the UK, to extend existing moratoria in place in Scotland and Wales, would be next. Soon, there will be a decision on whether fracking firm Cuadrilla gets to drill for shale gas in Lancashire: the County Council absolutely must turn this down.

Investors in fossil fuels have to realise that they are investing in a poison that will choke the planet. Barclays Bank, for example, has a 97% equity stake in fracking firm Third Energy, which is seeking to frack the countryside around Ryedale in North Yorkshire. This week, at the company’s AGM, residents of Ryedale and their supporters will beseech Barclays to divest itself of its investments in fracking and other fossil fuels.

But gradual bans on the worst forms of fossil fuel extraction and calls for divestment are only half the answer. We need British politicians to accept the full logic of climate change, and put into law a commitment to leave at least 80% of our reserves of coal, oil and gas unburned – a Fossil Free Act, if you will. If we aren’t prepared to do so, and continue instead to exploit our own reserves while preaching abstinence to other countries, we really have no hope of ever achieving a global deal to tackle climate change.

The British political class is currently wedded to ‘extractivism’. All the major parties, with the exception of Plaid Cymru and the Greens, want to prise more coal, oil and gas out of the earth; indeed, the Infrastructure Act passed by Westminster earlier this year, commits all successive governments to “maximising economic recovery” of North Sea oil and gas. The Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP all speak about the importance of climate change on the one hand, and pledge support for fossil fuel extraction on the other.

If bringing an end to the era of fossil fuels seems daunting, we should remember that our nation is blessed with an abundance of clean energy all around us. The climate problem boils down to this: when will we stop grubbing about in the dirt for the last scraps of ancient buried sunlight trapped in coal and gas, and make proper use of the sunlight that’s falling all around us?

Britain began the fossil fuel age; it’s now our chance to end it.

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