Story three. Coals to Newcastle

So far, this project has explored some of the ways we came to discover that climate change was happening. But the larger chronicle of climate change must also include stories of how we got into that mess in the first place. So here’s a brief history of British coal.

Other countries’ coal stories are interesting too. You should totally read up on them. It's just that Britain offers us an especially neat one.

May 10th, 2016. For the a few hours in the early morning, coal dropped right off the British electricity grid. It was back pretty soon, and the grid is only part of British coal use. But it was a significant moment.

Coal is speedily disappearing from Britain's electricity. UK government data released in September 2015 showed that, for the first time, renewable energy (like wind and solar) produced more electricity than coal for a three month period. Move to 2016 and wind generated more electricity in the UK than coal. This is partly a story of the growth of renewables, but it's really a story of the death of coal. Coal's being dropped, fast. As recently ago as 2012, a third of British electricity came from coal, now it's under 10%.

Cracking down on coal is nothing new. King Edward tried to ban it back in 1306. No one much paid attention mind, even when laws were passed to fine offenders, or smash their furnaces.

There’s a story of Queen Eleanor fleeing Nottingham back in 1257 because of the stench of coal smoke from blacksmiths forges. She maybe simply disliked the smell. But with the lens of modern science, we know there are good reasons to avoid the stuff.

It's bad for the lungs. Coal pollution triggers asthma, and children are especially susceptible to pollution-related asthma. Miners get ‘black lung’ named for the black mucus suffers cough up. US non-profit Physicians for Social Responsibility also argue coal is bad for the heart, contributing to heart damage and heart attacks, and the nervous system, with pollutants like mercury causing loss of intellectual capacity. And coal’s very bad for the planet, producing almost twice the carbon emissions of gas. According to a much-cited 2015 paper by UCL researchers Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, 80% of our current coal reserves must stay in the ground if we're going to keep to the 2°C global warming target so beloved by policy makers.

1940s coal miners. Source: Imperial War Museum.

1940s coal miners. Source: Imperial War Museum.

Every step of the process is hazardous, it’s not just burning the stuff. Although mining has got a lot safer, it remains a highly hazardous job. It’s not just a problem for mine works though, just living around a mine is dangerous (side story: for a truly tragic example, look up Aberfan). Then there’s the transportation of the coal – exposing people to diesel emissions as well as coal dust – and the slurry produced by washing coal ready to burn. After burning, there's coal ash to contend with too.

Still, coal has an attractive side, and we shouldn’t forget it. Burning the stuff releases a horrific amount of pollution, but it also releases heat and light. And that’s useful, not to mention comforting. It’s amazing stuff – fossilied sunshine, a time capsule of energy from millions of years ago. In Italy, naughty children might be punished with coal in their stocking at Christmas. But in Scotland, you bring a lump of coal as a symbol of warmth and good cheer at New Year. Apparently Londoners used to proud of their smog. It blocked out the sun, made them choke and would get so thick people would walk into things or fall in the river, sure, but it was also a sign of modernity.

There is a British expression used to describe something which is quite clearly superfluous: “taking coals to Newcastle”. It's so abundant. But how did coal get to Newcastle in the first place? To trace the origins of British coal, we need to go back to a time even before dinosaurs – around 300 million years ago, to the Carboniferious period.

Back then, the bit of land we now call Newcastle was pretty close to the equator. It was swampy, and filled with really huge trees. Really, really huge trees – trunks a meter and a half in diameter, 50 meters tall (there were also giant insects, but that's another story). The trees were kinda weird looking too. Science storyteller Robert Kulwich has some cool sketches, or here's one an artist’s impression from the late 19th century.

19th century sketch of carboniferous plants. Source: Wikipedia.

19th century sketch of carboniferous plants. Source: Wikipedia.

These trees would grow, die, and fall on top of each other in the swamp. To understand why they then turned to coal, firstly you have to remember that long before Elon Musk, plants had nailed the problem of solar plus storage. Plants capture sunshine and turn it into energy, storing it for later. Sometimes we animals like to munch up that energy and take it for ourselves (nom nom nom), or we burn it in a fire. The rest tends to decay though. Bacteria breaks down chemical bonds, releasing carbon and oxygen back into the environment.

This didn’t happen for some Carboniferious plants though. Their carbon stayed put, gradually being pushed deeper into the ground and, after millions of years, turning into coal. One theory is the fungi that we’d expect to break down the plants hadn't evolved yet. Other research argues the plants simply ended up being buried deep into swamps and then, due to the special combination of tectonics and climate that followed, ended up being sufficiently squished and sufficiently heated that it could turn into coal. Whatever, it brought coal to Newcastle.

In terms of its use a fuel, coal has been used in China as far back as 4000BC. In the Americas, there are some records of it being used by the Aztecs too, for fuel as well as ornaments. There are some evidence that communities in South Wales would use coal to cremate their dead during the Bronze Age (2500-800BC), but burning coal was only really taken up in the UK with the Romans (from around 45AD). The Romans not only used coal to heat baths and do metalwork, they also set up trading routes to London too.

After the Romans left, coal seemed to fall out of fashion for a few centuries. There are no mentions of coal mining in the Doomsday Book at the start of the last millennium. But by the 13th century, there was some trade in 'seacoal' – coal that had fallen from exposed seams on cliffs or washed out of underwater crops and soon enough coal was being dug up and traded from across England, Scotland and Wales.

Still, domestic use of coal was pretty rare. People didn’t like the smoke, it made them ill.

Then it got really, really cold. The carnivalesque end of the so-called ‘little ice age’ had frost fairs, King Henry VIII sleighing from the centre of town down to Greenwich, children playing football on the thickly frozen ice, puppets, ox roasts and even an elephant being led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. The darker side was people shivering to death

As well as the cold, there were fewer trees available to burn. We’d already munched up our forests either for fuel, or to build with, or to clear land to graze sheep to feed the growing wool trade.

And so domestic coal use surged. To cope with the fumes there was mass adoption of a key innovation: the chimney. Posh houses had chimneys before then, but it wasn’t really till the 16th century that it became mainstream. Without chimneys, burn coal at home and the room would be filled with noxious smoke.

The next key invention was the steam engine. Newcomen's one (1712) offered a way to speedily pump water out of mines, making it easier and safer to work. Later that century, James Watt patented steam engines suitable for driving factory machinery. And then Trevithick developed high pressured engines which were small enough to be used on trains. By the start of 1883, the world's first public steam driven electricity-generating power station had been built at Holborn Viaduct. The brainchild of Thomas Edison, it supplied power to the Old Bailey and the General Post Office, and it ran on coal. Full steam ahead, in more ways than one.

As coal mines expanded, they sucked up labour. And the labour got organised. According to the National Union of Mineworkers, there are records of coal mining unions in West Yorkshire as far back as 1700. There were probably more before then too. A national union – the Miners' Federation of Great Britain – was founded in 1882, in Newport, South Wales, following a dispute over wages in Yorkshire. By 1908, they’d secured an 8 hour day for underground workers. In 1902, a ten-month long strike by 12,000 workers in 1910 in South Wales led to a 6-week long national coal strike in 1912. Nearly a million miners participated and the Times declared it: “The greatest catastrophe that has threatened the country since the Spanish Armada”. They were also played a key role in the 1926 General Strike.

The next big fight for UK miners came in the 1980s. British coal mines had been nationalised by the post-War Labour government in the 1940s, but Thatcher wanted to close or sell them off. There’s a lot to the story of that strike, but very little is to do with climate change, so if you’re interested, have a read for yourself (if you only follow up one side story, and don't already know about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, it's an amazing tale of queer solidarity, the politics of energy, and dancing).

The Guardian has some snazzy maps to show how rapidly deep mines in the UK closed. In the mid 20th century, the industry produced 177 million tonnes of coal a year from deep mines and employed over 500,000 miners. By the 70s, this had slumped to 114 millions tonnes and only 300,000 workers. By the 1990s, it was only 21 million tonnes, with around 13,000 staff working at the 16 remaining (privatised) mines.

Simon Evans of the climate news site Carbon Brief tracks two competing trends in post-war UK coal use, one pushing use up and the other down. On the upside, coal use for electricity generation grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s – powering all those post war TVs, washing machines and fridges (another tip for a side story: how the refrigerator got its hum). On the downside, you have health concerns leading to policy shifts like the Clean Air Act which cut coal use in homes. There's also a shift away from coal being used to power trains, and the growth of both nuclear and gas as competitors. It's easy to paint a picture of a gradual realisation of the health impacts of coal leading to its demise, but the truth is nowhere near that simple (or so rooted in scientific advice).

The last deep coal mine in the UK closed in December 2015, but there are still open cast mines, and the government is still subsidising coal. Moreover, the electricity powering my laptop may only be 9% coal, but the laptop itself wasn’t made in the UK, and I’ll hazard a bet a fair bit of the black stuff was burnt to produce it. The UK might pat itself on the back for curtailing carbon emissions, but in many ways it has simply outsourced its pollution somewhere out of sight.

Look at a map of the 21st century coal trade, and there’s a lump that flows out of Austalria, north-west to to India and north-east to Japan, South Korea and China. The US sends coal eastward to Europe, who also take it from the former USSR. Indonesia is also a major exporter, sending more across Asia.

Britain might like to claim credit for the industrial revolution (and they should probably take some blame), but China started the whole burning coal business, thousands of years ago. Today, China produces and consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But even they have been cutting down, significantly. There is similar hopeful news coming from India too.

Freezing Elizabethans might have felt forced into coal use, but people today shouldn’t, for all the coal industry might like to paint themselves as humanitarians. The story of coal is one of some incredible invention, but humans have also been inventive enough to find other ways of powering ourselves too.

Next up – a woman in the history of climate science. Because it’s about time we had a story of one of those.