climate change

The UK to build its first coal mine in thirty years

Photo credit: West Cumbria Mining.

By Anders Lorenzen

Less than a month after the UK handed over the presidency of COP26 to the Egyptian hosts of COP27, the country had not only proudly claimed how quickly they had reduced their reliance on coal but also actively pushed other countries to move away from the most polluting fossil fuel, announced they granted permission to build a new coal mine. 

The British coal-mining industry, which in the 1980s comprised 175 working pits, had been judged by the then-Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, to be uneconomic.  The resulting closures caused great unemployment and hardship in coal-mining areas, together with much social and political violence and unrest in 1984-5.

However, the UK government has recently approved a controversial proposal to build the first coal mine in thirty years in Cumbria in northwest England.  The deep coal mine will be used to mine coking coal, specifically used for steelmaking rather than electricity generation, and it is to be developed by West Cumbria Mining.

Proponents of the project argue it will create 500 jobs. Still, opponents, of which there are many, even within the governing Conservative Party, argue that you would create many more jobs by investing in the green economy.  The counterargument to that is that steel is a critical component of many renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines. There are, however, several trial projects around the world that are trialling new technology that produces steel without burning fossil fuels.

Strong pushback

The project which is a long-running saga was first proposed in 2014 and has since been kicked back and forth before finally being approved by the government.  The UK’s independent climate advisory panel, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has criticised the decision to go ahead, as have opposition parties and green groups as well as other organisations. 

Michael Gove, the minister for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities claimed that the mine is necessary as the coking coal will otherwise have to be imported.  However, planning documents reveal that over 80% of the coal mined will be exported. Gove also insisted that the operation of the mine will be net-zero.

The emissions from the burning of coal such as steel and power plants are the single biggest contributor to climate change.  Climate scientists say that weaning countries off coal is vital to achieving global climate targets which are already weak and will need to be strengthened in coming years if we are to stay below the 1.5 degrees C target.

While globally the new mine might not make much difference to emissions it will damage the UK’s reputation as a climate leader argues Paul Elkins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources:  “Approving it trashes the UK’s reputation as a global leader on climate action and opens it up to well-justified charges of hypocrisy – telling other countries to ditch coal while not doing so itself “.  He added that the mine did not make sense environmentally or economically.

The UK is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the coal industry, but its last deep-pit mine closed in 2015.  It has enshrined laws requiring all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to reach net zero no later than 2050.

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