“Coal, cars, cash and trees.” These are the four areas in which Boris Johnson has told the world the country will make “extremely bold” commitments at Cop26 – and will expect everyone else to follow suit. So far, so good.
But there is a large chink in the Prime Minister’s armour. This week, less than two months before Glasgow hosts the most important climate summit since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the UK opened a public inquiry into whether it should approve a new coal mine in Cumbria.
The project looks increasingly unlikely to go ahead, but its very existence is proof of a lack of coherence and clear strategy from Westminster on climate action. The inquiry is also a hugely unwelcome distraction for the UK’s Cop26 team as it tries to drum up support for an urgent global coal phase-out and ambitious emissions cuts.
“Consigning coal to history is one of the biggest steps to reaching the 1.5°C target,” says Dave Jones, global programme lead at clean energy think tank Ember. Johnson would seem to agree. “We want the developed world to kick the coal habit entirely by 2030 and the developing world by 2040,” he said in August. Yet, if approved, the UK’s first deep coal mine to be opened in 30 years could remain open until the end of 2049.
The mine would be used to dig up coking coal from beneath the Irish Sea for steel production. Supporters argue this could boost UK industry and create local jobs. Industrial decline has left parts of West Cumbria suffering from severe deprivation. The coal mine, say backers, would create 500 much-needed jobs.
Climate author and academic Mike Berners-Lee, who lives close to the site, argues that creating “a small number of jobs in yesterday’s economy” would do more harm than good. Offering people “vulnerable” jobs that would quickly become obsolete would simply “set West Cumbria up for a fall”, he says. Instead, as the world moves away from fossil fuels, the region needs “thousands of high-quality, clean jobs”. Research suggests that with the right policies, Cumbria could benefit from 9,000 new jobs in industries related to the clean energy transition, ranging from renewables to construction and transport.
“Historically, coal offered people a job with dignity; people died young, but they were working in an industry that powered the economy,” says Berners-Lee. But in 2021, “there is no dignity in working for a new coal mine”. And there is no guarantee either about the number of jobs or that they would be given to people in Cumbria, he adds.
Moreover, in a country aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, the extracted coal would emit an estimated 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year when burned. “If you assume the average employee’s wage were £36,000 a year, even though it wouldn’t be that much, that would mean producing about half a tonne of carbon dioxide to put every pound in an employee’s pocket,” says Berners-Lee. “That’s an incredibly carbon-intensive way of earning enough money for a Gregg’s sausage roll,” he quips. But as he makes clear, this is no laughing matter.
Political support for the project is decreasing. Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and the Border, a neighbouring constituency, this week became the latest former enthusiast to announce a U-turn. Despite “previously signalling my support for the project”, he now believes it should not go ahead, citing the summer’s extreme weather events and the latest UN IPCC report as confirmation that the days of coal are numbered. “With our leadership of Cop26 we have a real opportunity to set an example to the world,” he said in a written statement.
However, it is difficult to set an example when your own house isn’t in order. “We seem to be struggling to get UK government strategy to where it needs to be,” says Eliot Whittington, director of CLG UK, which works with companies advocating action on climate change. “We have climate policies in the UK, but there is a lack of strategic thinking.” To lead Cop26, the government needs “clearer and more coherent policies”.
The Cumbrian coal mine, like Westminster’s decision to grant new permit for oil drilling in the North Sea, “muddies the waters,” says Whittington. “It doesn’t feel like the government is on the front foot. Especially in the context of Brexit, the government needs to set out exactly what a green, competitive UK industry looks like.”
As with so many of Johnson’s plans, the rhetoric of “coal, cars cash and trees” is catchy, but the details and full commitment are missing. The coal mine debacle can be dismissed as “slightly embarrassing”, but it is symptomatic of a much wider problem that, if not resolved fast, will have global repercussions.