Q3 2023: Coal is supplying less than 1% of Britain’s electricity

Download PDF

In the 12 months to October, coal supplied less than 1% of Britain’s electricity for the first time ever. This time next year, the last of the country’s coal power stations will be retired, as the Government is committed to abandoning the most polluting fuel by October 2024. Around the world, 47 other countries have committed to stop using coal for electricity over the coming decades. Efforts to expand the “phase-down” of coal failed at COP26 and 27, so extending this to become a global commitment remains a centre-stage issue at next month’s COP28.

The UK is the world’s largest economy to be on a clear pathway to phasing out coal usage. Ten years ago, coal supplied 40% of Britain’s electricity, this year it is just 1%. In contrast, the share of electricity from coal has remained almost static in China, India and Japan since 2015. Out of the world’s 10 largest economies, only France has a lower

share of coal power than Britain, due to its decades-long reliance on nuclear and hydro. Germany and the US have seen modest reductions over the last decade, but their current rates of decline would only be enough to get coal’s share down to one-sixth of electricity in Germany, and one-tenth in the US by 2030. This continued reliance on coal must change, and fast.

Britain’s move away from coal took shape over the last decade. Coal’s share of electricity generation fell rapidly

to just 2% in 2020. A combination of air quality regulations, increasing carbon prices, and converting coal plants to run on biomass meant that Britain’s coal output fell by over 40% per year in the five years to 2020. However, since then the decline went into reverse, with coal increasing in 2021 due to the escalating price of gas, and then rising electricity exports to the continent.

The 12-month rolling average share of electricity demand met by coal in Britain and the world’s largest countries by GDP. International data from Ember

Last year saw Britain’s coal output return to falling at a world-leading rate, by 45% over the 12 months to October. Coal power stations produced 4.3 TWh of electricity during 2022, and this year we forecast their output to be under 2 TWh – less than in any year since 1920 when records began.

Coal-fired generation also fell by 15% in the US, and by 12% in Europe in the 12 months to October. However, the wider global picture is less positive, with coal output continuing to grow by 1% over the same period. This was driven by China and India, due to their continued economic recovery following the pandemic, and to counter fears of power outages. These factors have catalysed a shift in policy towards prioritising national energy security, at the expense of climate change mitigation.

In the run up to COP28, the transition away from fossil fuels is of paramount importance. Coal-fired electricity generation must reduce rapidly to limit global warming, with its share of electricity generation needing to fall by 90% over the coming decade. The EU will continue to push for the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels. This is a tougher ask than just phasing out coal. Much of Britain’s shift away from coal was enabled by transitioning to natural gas, which supplies 36% of electricity demand. However, the UK could mirror this call, as its 100+ year reliance on coal-fired electricity draws to a close, a success story which must quickly be mirrored the world over.

Live Grid Data