This article was first published on Conservatives Global.
In 2013, coal was the biggest source of British electricity, powering almost half of the National Grid. Now, just seven years later, we have achieved the astonishing feat of going over two months without using any coal-generated electricity.
As of 17 June, Britain had gone 67 days, 22 hours and 55 minutes without any coal-fired power stations running. That is the longest coal-free stretch since 1882, when we first started burning coal to generate electricity. The record-breaking run only came to an end when a North Yorkshire power plant belonging to electrical power giant Drax fired up one of its non-essential coal-burning units to carry out tests after maintenance.
The first time the UK went 24 hours without burning any coal was in 2017, so this is a truly remarkable milestone. Last year, just 2 per cent of British electricity was generated by burning coal. Over the last few years, the British energy industry has come on leaps and bounds in the transition away from fossil fuels and towards more environmentally friendly solutions.
Crucially, this monumental progress has been achieved without any direct market intervention from the state. Coal has not been banned, nor has it been taxed out of existence or smothered in red tape to the point of unfeasibility. All that has changed in recent years is that the government has passively encouraged private companies to move away from coal through a simple scheme of carbon tax-like incentives.
The government has been able to nudge the energy industry away from coal and towards more emissions-light alternative power sauces. Drax, for example, has reverted most of its Selby power station to burning biomass wood pellets imported from the US, which qualify for renewable subsidies. It says it expects to stop burning coal altogether when its reserves run out in March 2021.
It is also increasingly in companies’ own interest to switch away from power sources that butcher the atmosphere. In the age of social media, it takes seconds to raise awareness internationally of businesses failing to meet their moral obligations. Brands and companies can take enormous hits when people realise they have mis-stepped.
After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, BP’s market value fell by nearly £45 billion, or 36 per cent, in a matter of weeks. In essence, a single environmental incident did such colossal damage to the company that a third of its stock value evaporated. The power of the market is immense.
This is an extreme example, but the principle stands. Even without state coercion, private companies will go out of their way to show the public just how conscious they are of their impact on the environment and the steps they are taking to minimise it.
That is why so many old coal plants have been voluntarily shuttered, despite the lack of a harsh government crackdown on coal. It is also why the proportion of Britain’s electricity that comes from renewable sources has been growing exponentially year on year. When people want change, the free market makes it happen.
Don’t listen to ecosocialists like Extinction Rebellion who argue that the vested interests – Big Oil, as we might call them – are so steadfast in their positions of power and so resolute in their planet-destroying ways that to have any hope of putting the brakes on climate change we must bring the whole system crashing to the ground and start all over again. In reality, there is no need to impoverish the world in order to save it.
The only way to protect both the environment and the economy is through market-based solutions to environmental issues. On 29 June, the British Conservation Alliance will be publishing a book full of them. Co-published with the Austrian Economics Centre, Green Market Revolution, which will be available to download for free, is a bible of free-market environmentalist ideas.
We will only begin to turn the tide on climate change if we embrace policy solutions that allow the market to do what it does best. Extinction Rebellion has had its day. It is time to forget the failed theories of ecosocialism and open the door to free-market environmentalism.