Fossil fuels started to take on a special significance in the United Kingdom as far back as the Late Middle Ages, when the newly introduced invention of the chimney made it possible to heat individual rooms in the homes of wealthy families. Before that, the hearth was often in the middle of a big room with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. After that time, whole forests were cut down to burn in the newly-invented fireplaces, until wood shortages forced most people to switch to the more expensive coal.
Coal became increasingly important. In time, coal powered the steam engines of the industrial revolution, and they propelled the ships that maintained British commercial and military might. The engines also supplied power to the mills, factories, and, eventually, electric generators.
In time, oil began to take coal’s place as an economic force. It powered small vehicles, and it began to displace coal for rail transportation, but coal continued to be very important for quite a while.
During nearly all this time, pollution was recognized as a serious problem. The earliest date we know of when pollution controls were attempted was when King Edward I banned use of a type of low-grade coal because of its smoke. That was in 1272, but the problem of smoke grew worse.
The Great Smog of 1952 killed about 4,000 people in the London area in a few days and contributed to about 8,000 other deaths. Clearly, the U.K. had reasons to deal with pollution before climate change was widely understood.
Coal use peaked in the U.K. in 1956, when 221 million tons (Mt) were burned. It has been in overall decline since that time. The decline has been steep since 2012, when 64 Mt were burned, and it was down to 15 Mt in 2017. Now what little coal is used is devoted almost exclusively to generating electricity, and the last coal plant is scheduled to close by 2025.
The decline of the U.K. coal industry was reflected by a decline in carbon emissions. To a large degree, however, coal has been replaced by oil and natural gas, so emission reductions have been slower than the decline in the use of coal. But that may be changing.
There have been very important changes in power generation over the last several years, which have put downward pressure on the use of all fossil fuels. The growth of offshore wind farms has been spectacular in the North Sea. While this is especially true for Scotland, there have been significant installations off the coasts of England. There have been installations in the Irish Sea, as well.
The effect of the increase of wind power and the decrease in the use of coal has been a large decrease in emissions. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in the U.K. has declined to the point that it is about what it was in 1890. In that year, Queen Victoria was the monarch, Nellie Bly made her epic trip around the world in 72 days, and Wyoming became the 44th state, setting a new standard as the first state to allow women to vote.
The drop in U.K. emissions has been inspiring, but it has not been without its problems. The English government has been very much against onshore wind power. Perplexingly, it has done this while it has pushed fracking, even in some very beautiful areas of the country.
Another problem has been that the U.K. has adopted biomass plants to replace coal plants. Half of the largest coal-burning plant in the country has been converted to burn wood, and to keep it running, forests are being clear-cut in the U.S. state of Georgia.
The English attitude has been somewhat offset by that of the Scottish government, which has been working on energy independence based entirely on renewable energy. Scotland set a goal several years ago of getting 100% of its electric power from renewable sources, primarily wind power, by 2020. The result is that Scotland increasingly exports electricity to England.
The carbon emissions that remain for the U.K. to deal with are significant. Electricity still is being generated from gas. Gas and oil are both used for transportation and heat. But the path forward appears to be toward lower emissions yet.