Case Study: United Kingdom’s Delayed Response to Transitioning Coal Communities Highlights Lessons for Policymakers

In the second report in a series from Resources for the Future and Environmental Defense Fund, an international team of scholars analyzes the United Kingdom’s policies to support declining coal communities and offers lessons for policymakers.


Dec. 13, 2021

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As renewable energy experiences another year of record growth globally and countries around the world take steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels are grappling with how to smoothly transition to new economic opportunities. 

In this second report from Resources for the Future (RFF) and Environmental Defense Fund’s series on European regions that have experienced, or are experiencing, energy transitions, scholars analyze policies to support workers and communities reliant on the coal mining industry in the United Kingdom (UK). The industry experienced waves of mine closures beginning in the 1960s and saw a 90 percent decline in employment by 1997. Communities in and around coalfields across the UK have seen a dramatic rise in poverty as the industry shrank, and yet the government did not deploy specific transition policies to support these regions until 15 years after the first closures.

“Much of the UK’s fragmented response to coal communities in need was too little, too late,” said James Rising, coauthor and researcher in climate change policy at the University of Delaware. “This case study underscores why it’s so critical for policymakers to create strong tools and provide resources far in advance of plant and mine closures that can address an array of transition challenges.”

Based on their analysis, the authors established key lessons from the UK’s transition efforts that could be applied to US policy:

  • Offer workforce development that empowers workers. While the UK had welfare policies that provided unemployment benefits and created some training programs, these did not help create new jobs or offer coal workers all the tools they needed to find new ones. Training that empowers workers to choose their careers should be paired with activities that spur new industries.
  • Provide long-term and tailored support for businesses. Funds created to cost-effectively scale up businesses and entrepreneurship in coal regions created new jobs and allowed businesses to become self-sustaining. To be most effective, these programs need to address constraints facing regions, such as entrepreneurial culture, transportation infrastructure and more, and receive sufficient funding over a long period.
  • Invest in remediation and infrastructure. UK programs to reclaim mines created new areas for housing, warehousing, and businesses. While infrastructure projects alone are not enough to revitalize a region, research also shows that coal communities poorly connected through transportation networks have experienced more poverty than well-connected communities.
  • Ensure that funding matches the scale of the challenge. Funding for coalfield programs in the UK has been insufficient and comparatively less than the funding allocated to support similar regional coal transitions in Germany. 
  • Begin comprehensive, proactive planning for regions. Despite the eventual development of more comprehensive policies for regions, coal communities in the UK have continued to struggle, demonstrating how essential it is to prioritize engagement with communities and putting policies in place before jobs are lost. New integrated policies underway in Scotland and Wales offer a more promising, holistic approach by coordinating with workers, businesses, academia, and government officials at multiple levels.

“New policies and programs in Scotland and Wales show promise as pieces of a larger puzzle of public policies needed to facilitate a just coal transition in the United Kingdom,” said coauthor Wesley Look, a senior research associate at RFF. “There is room to grow and adapt as the energy economy changes. But doing so will require us to implement a variety of policies to support workers and communities in transition, and then to take a step back and consider what worked and what didn’t. This is how we can create a future that benefits everyone.”

For more, read the report, Regional Just Transitions in the UK: Insights from 40 Years of Policy Experiences, by James Rising, researcher in climate change policy at the University of Delaware; Marion Dumas, assistant professorial research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute; Sophie Dicker, policy analyst at the Grantham Research Institute; Dan Propp, former RFF intern; Molly Robertson, RFF senior research analyst; and Wesley Look, RFF senior research associate.

For more on this project, visit the corresponding page on our website.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

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