To have any climate credibility, Britain must cancel its new coal mine

The UK is still failing to demonstrate the environmental leadership needed ahead of this year’s COP summit.

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Hot, dark, cramped tunnels where the threat of collapse was ever-present. Such were the conditions faced for centuries by the UK’s deep-pit miners. And nor – after recent events in British climate politics – is it an inappropriate description of the government’s approach to securing new green energy and jobs: narrow, dim-sighted and risky.

In recent days, parts of Boris Johnson’s administration have appeared starkly at odds. First, there were the reports that Alok Sharma, the former business secretary and the new full-time president of this year’s COP26 climate summit, was “apoplectic” with Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, over his failure to stop approval of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria – the UK’s first in decades.

Then came the revelation that Sharma’s COP unit was also distancing itself from remarks made by Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor, who now serves as Boris Johnson’s climate finance adviser. 

At this year’s World Economic Forum, Carney presented plans for vast global increases in the carbon credit trading market. But green groups hit back, warning of the scandals that have accompanied such offsetting projects in the past – and were soon followed by a COP unit statement to Unearthed, emphasising that Carney’s project was not associated with the UK government.

Taken together, it would seem that the UK is still stumbling around in the dark when it comes to laying out a clear and consistent message on the climate. As Greta Thunberg put it on Twitter earlier this month with reference to the new coal plan: UK targets for net-zero emissions by 2050 “basically mean nothing”.

[See also: The year that shook the economy]

The political background to the UK’s new coal mine, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, is therefore worth probing further. 

In the mine's favour, its owners, West Cumbria Mining, have pointed out that parts of the British steel industry still require high-grade “coking” coal to operate. It is better, Cumbria County Council consequently argued, to source this coal from within the UK – rather than increasing emissions by producing and transporting imports from abroad.

Council members were also reportedly persuaded by the prospect of hundreds of new, well-paid jobs in a region suffering from decades of deindustrialisation. (West Cumbria is home to half of all the county’s job benefit claimants, with the pandemic only likely to increase this number further, the New Economics Foundation has highlighted.)

Yet the fact Jenrick did not consider the matter of sufficient national importance to intervene suggests a worrying lack of climate awareness at the government’s heart.

Put simply, the climate case in favour of the mine doesn’t bear scrutiny. A report by the nonpartisan think tank Green Alliance estimates that the coal extracted will create the equivalent of around 420 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over a 50-year period.

Nor are these new emissions likely to replace those from imported coal. According to Professor Paul Ekins of University College London, in a letter rebutting another coal mine application, claims of carbon neutrality rely on equivalent reductions in coal production overseas. In reality, Ekins writes, “an increase in the supply of a commodity such as coal will reduce the price of the commodity, leading to increased demand, and therefore increased emissions”. As such, the coal mine company’s arguments are “economic nonsense”.

The 2049 time limit placed on the mine by the local council, meanwhile, surely counts as one of the most cynical interpretations of the government’s pledge to reach net-zero emissions “by” 2050. If the rest of the planet adopted such a lackadaisical approach, the world would far exceed its emissions reduction targets and invite avoidable disaster.

Furthermore, it is likely that approving the expansion of coal will only serve to undermine the development of new, clean energy technology. As Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network told me, this wouldn’t just be a disservice to the environment but also to British workers. “To me it’s a dispiriting decision,” he said of the mine’s approval. “It locks us into an old-fashioned method of steel-making which will ultimately act as an economic and political drag on investment in new technology.”

Even the British steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta is banking on a green future for the industry. Two of the UK’s four steelworks already rely on steel recycled in electric “Arc” furnaces, and investment in other forms of steel decarbonisation projects is rising across the world –  through projects such as Sweden’s Hybrit, which aims to replace coal with hydrogen. “We need to compete on green steel,” says Hall, rather than in steel produced by coal and coke.

So who ultimately profits from the new mine? According to a recent Left Foot Forward article, the parent company behind the Cumbria project is controlled by a company registered in the Cayman Islands that has been criticised by the Tax Justice Network, an NGO – raising questions about ultimate responsibility for local environmental risk.

In view of this array of arguments against a new deep coal mine, Jenrick may yet be persuaded to change his mind. The activist group Coal Action Network have launched a petition to send to Jenrick’s department. And last week the independent Climate Change Committee, chaired by the former Conservative environment secretary John Gummer, also wrote directly to Jenrick to express its concern.

But even if this green coalition forces the government to review the mine’s approval, the reputational and symbolic damage to the UK must also be undone. The contrasting message sent by Joe Biden’s slew of executive orders on climate change demonstrates a better way forward. These orders formally enshrined the climate cause across every level of federal government. Britain must now urgently do the same.

[See also: How coal’s uneven retreat threatens the world’s climate]

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

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