Big Coal Just Suffered Yet Another Crushing Defeat

The British government is taking a bold stance to combat climate change.

London's "fog" -- really just the industrial smog of coal-choked Dickensian England -- may be gone, but the power plants that produced it remain largely intact.

Not for long.

The British government on Wednesday announced plans to shutter all coal-fired power plants in the country by 2025, phasing them out with tighter restrictions two years before that.

The move, which positions the United Kingdom as a leader in reducing carbon emissions, comes ahead of the COP21 climate talks in Paris that begin Nov. 30.

"It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the U.K. to be relying on polluting, carbon intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations," Amber Rudd, the energy and climate change secretary, said in a statement. "Let me be clear: this is not the future."

The news marks yet another defeat for coal, which is already losing its power within the fossil fuel industry. In the United States, the coal business has been in decline for decades. Over the last year, a burgeoning movement among institutions and municipal governments to divest endowments and pension funds from the coal industry has gained steam. Now, even big banks and lenders -- once drawn to coal's ubiquity and swelling demand for coal in China -- are souring on the fuel

Coal use has decreased in Britain, too. Electricity produced by coal fell 23 percent last year, according to data from the country's Department of Energy and Climate Change.  

Sources for Britain's energy in 2014.
Sources for Britain's energy in 2014.

Still, the move to shutter all coal-burning plants by 2025 could be hasty, considering the nuclear projects meant to replace them aren't scheduled to begin operating until that year.

"This is a lot of posturing ahead of Paris," Deepa Venkateswaran, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in London, told The New York Times. She said the decision "appears premature."

But the haste may be necessary as negotiators, who have previously failed to secure meaningful climate deals, gear up to work out an agreement to stave off a disastrous rise in global temperatures above 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Scientists agree that such an increase would be unsustainable for human civilization. And there's no time to waste -- this year is on track to be the hottest on record yet. 

"We need to build a new energy infrastructure, fit for the 21st century," Rudd said. "Our determination to cut carbon emissions as cost effectively as possible is crystal clear and this step will make us one of the first developed countries to commit to taking coal off our system."