Cutting the climate cost of coal

Discounting its role in energy generation, coal continues to make an important contribution to the UK economy and mining it here can cut the carbon emissions associated with its import

Author: Barney Pilgrim

08 July 2019

The challenge for the campaign to leave coal in the ground in the UK is that the mineral is still needed for a range of essential industrial uses. The transition to a global lower-carbon future must be faster, but it cannot happen overnight.

The UK is set to phase out unabated coal from power generation by 2025. It is, however, important to remember that UK consumers and businesses need this transition to take place in an orderly and affordable way. In 2018 the UK used 11.8m tonnes of coal, of which 6.7m tonnes was used to meet five per cent of national electricity demand. This 80 per cent reduction in coal use over the past five years, from a total 60m tonnes a year, has been made possible by a switch to nuclear gas, biomass interconnectors importing electricity from Europe and renewables; nevertheless, coal still provides significant capacity backup during spells of high demand.

Electricity generation is not the only need. The other 5.1m tonnes used last year largely went into steel and cement manufacture, where it is an essential raw material. The UKs need for infrastructure over the coming decades, whether improvements to our transport system meeting housing need or building new electricity generating capacity, is significant and it all needs steel and cement. For instance, 1.6m tonnes of coal will be needed to produce the 2m tonnes of steel required for the HS2 network; similarly the 15 tonnes of concrete needed to produce a typical UK home require 2.5 tonnes of cement, which in turn relies on 0.5 tonnes of coal. These essential building materials can either be imported or produced domestically (see Figure 1) and as such we will need coal well beyond 2025.

 Carbon cost of importing coal to the UK

In 2018 the UK imported more than 80 per cent of its coal to meet demand, and only produced 2.6m tonnes of its own. Of these imports, around 80 per cent came from the USA and Russia. In fact some 4.6m tonnes of coal were imported from Russia alone, more than doubling the amount coming from that country since 2016.

Chapter 17 of Englands revised National Planning Policy Framework is entitled 'Facilitating the sustainable use of minerals'. Planning assessments of new proposals must go beyond obvious environmental issues, such as noise, dust and ecological and visual impacts, and take a broader view of how minerals can be provided in the most sustainable way, which means taking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into account.

HJ Banks and Company Ltd has, therefore, commissioned an independent study into the difference between the emissions from its UK mines compared to importing an equivalent amount of coal from the countrys main foreign suppliers. Coal produced in the Kuzbass region of Russia travels 10267km to Port Talbot in South Wales, for example. This journey has a GHG cost of 69kg of carbon dioxide, equivalent (CO2e) per tonne of coal transported, five times higher than the emissions associated with transporting coal from the Northumberland coalfield. The significance of this finding is best illustrated by an example scheme.

Dewley Hill is a proposed coal and fireclay surface mine in Newcastle upon Tyne, for which a planning application has been submitted. It would extract 800000 tonnes of coal for UK industry over its 3.5-year lifetime, largely steel and cement manufacture, and 400000 tonnes of high-quality fireclay for Ibstocks Throckley Brickworks, less than 1km from the site.

Estimated GHG emissions for the full life-cycle operation and restoration of the site, plus transport of coal to, for example Port Talbot, and fireclays to Ibstock, are 51266 tonnes CO2e. Transportation alone of 800000 tonnes of coal from Russia has GHG emissions of more than 57000 tonnes CO2e, before any emissions from the extraction are counted (see Figure 2).

Comparison of transportation emissions for coal by source


Similar issues arise with imports from the USA, Colombia and Australia: by meeting its need for coal through imports, the UK is effectively offshoring its climate change responsibilities, to say nothing of the social and economic benefits that domestic surface mining operations at Dewley Hill can bring to local rural economies.

The Banks Group Ltd monitors the GHG emissions from its activities, the total for 2017 being 55683 tonnes CO2e for all of them. It also produced enough electricity from its wind farms to displace 57395 tonnes CO2e from the electricity mix in 2017, and is actively pursuing more renewable energy projects.

The UK is looking to take a lead in combating climate change. Mineral extraction must be carried out in a sustainable way, and the UK planning and environmental regulatory framework and standards already exceed those of other major coal-exporting countries. However, planning decision-makers need to recognise that any assessment of GHG emissions for new extraction must acknowledge the continuing need for coal in the UK for various uses, and that mining it domestically, rather than relying on importing it, can help lower carbon emissions.

Barney Pilgrim FRICS is project director at HJ Banks and Company Ltd and chair of the RICS Land and Resources Global Board

Related competencies include: Legal/regulatory compliance Minerals management Sustainability

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