02/23/2015 01:39 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2015

The Sun Sets on British Coal


Long ago, the expression "carrying coal to Newcastle" meant to do something utterly pointless, because the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne had a monopoly on British coal exports. But soon, though, carrying coal to anywhere in the United Kingdom will be pointless.

On February 14, the leaders of all three of the U.K.'s major political parties announced a joint commitment to phase out the use of coal and fight climate disruption.

Specifically, here's what they agreed to do:

  • Seek a legally binding, global climate deal that limits temperature rises to below 2 degrees C (i.e. 3.6 degrees F)
  • Forge a domestic agreement on carbon budgets
  • Accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy
  • End unabated coal for power generation ("Unabated coal" is any coal that causes carbon pollution. At this point, that amounts to all coal.)

Here in the U.S., the news got relatively little coverage. That's somewhat surprising -- it's not every day that opposing politicians anywhere (in the middle of an election campaign, yet) set aside their differences long enough to agree on an important, substantive issue. Heck, in this country, we can't even get the Obama administration to agree with itself on the importance of moving beyond coal and other fossil fuels. Even as one part of the administration acts strongly to clean up coal-fired power plants, another part sells billions of tons of coal from public lands at below-market rates.

But what happened in Britain is actually a really big deal for several reasons.

You can start with the 1,600 lives that will be saved each year by cleaning up the air in the same country that coined the word "smog" to describe what was killing so many people. In fact, it was air pollution that led the English to make their first attempt to ban coal burning way back in 1306. Now, more than 700 years later, it looks like they are finally going to make it stick.

Next, we can add the U.K. to the growing list of "if they can do it, why can't we?" nations around the world. The British may not have the abundant renewable energy resources that we do in this country, but that won't stop them from going "all in" on clean energy as they move beyond coal. Just last week, the United Kingdom approved what will be the world's biggest offshore wind farm -- and one of the U.K.'s biggest power stations, period. That's the kind of clean energy project that becomes easier to plan and build when you have market certainty that a nation is firmly committed to climate action -- regardless of who happens to be in power.

And you can be sure that the growing list of climate-committed nations will be critical when the next round of climate negotiations begins in Paris later this year. There's a real sense that it's time to put up or shut up, and nations are stepping up in a way we haven't seen in over 20 years of UN negotiations.

Finally, although it may seem improbable now, what happened in the United Kingdom gives us a model for what we should expect from our own leaders. Sure, people in the U.K. overwhelmingly support and expect climate action, but not that much more than they do here in the U.S., where a majority of both Republicans and Democrats are in favor of it. The biggest difference may be that the fossil fuel lobby in the U.K. has nowhere near the influence that it does in this country. Plus, although the U.K. still mines some coal, most of what it burns is imported from places like Russia.

Given all that, can we ever get the same kind of commitment to climate action from our own leaders of both parties? Yes, if we make it clear that it's important to all Americans. We've seen divisive issues resolve themselves with astounding speed before -- same-sex marriage being only the most recent example. One big thing in our favor: The more that people learn about the benefits of clean energy versus the costs and dangers of dirty fuels, the more supportive of it they become. And those benefits can apply to anyone, regardless of which party they belong to.

Most people understand that. Now it's time to make sure that politicians do.