The phrase “bringing coals to Newcastle” has been around for almost 500 years. It signifies an activity that is rather pointless.
And for centuries it made literal sense. Coal was put on boats, and later trains, near Newcastle and shipped to London and elsewhere. The phrase then did not merely indicate a superfluous activity, but reflected the reality that Britain’s dominance and its empire was powered by the coal mines not far from Newcastle.
But today the phrase no longer makes any literal sense, and is probably rather confusing to anyone born in the last twenty years. According to official government statistics, Britain did not start to import coal until 1970. In fact, for a large part of the twentieth century Britain was more than self-sufficient. When coal production peaked in 1913, Britain exported 96 million tonnes of the 292 million tonnes produced that year. But by 1970 Britain was only exporting 3 million tonnes of the 147 million tonnes produced.
However, in the space of one century Britain’s annual coal production has declined from 292 million tonnes to only 13 million tonnes, an astonishing decline. Yet, last year Britain consumed 60 million tonnes of coal, and Britain then had to import 49 million tonnes of coal.
Bringing coals to Newcastle then is now a necessary activity, not a pointless one. The coal that powers the many remaining coal power plants in the north of England is more likely to come from Russia than from anywhere near Newcastle.
But within two decades the activity will once again become largely pointless. New coal power plants without carbon capture and storage our now illegal, and almost all existing coal power plants will be closed by 2030. This will then leave the use of coal in industry as the only major source of consumption. But this was a mere 10 million tonnes in 2013, mostly coal used in blast furnaces. And Britain is not likely to see a grand renaissance in the production of steel from coke.
The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution then is seeing the death of coal before more or less every other major economy. Among those other economies is Germany, which despite its ostensibly green credentials, recently approved plans to let Vattenfal take 200 million tonnes of lignite out of the ground after 2026.
So, coal is dying in Britain, while getting a shot of life in Germany. Perhaps Britain is not as far behind Germany as many in the green movement would have you believe.