UK's new coal mine approval puts net zero commitments on the line

Planned opening of the UK's first coal mine in decades has local support but is drawing nationwide controversy

Plans for the coal mine in Cumbria were approved on Wednesday. Getty
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The UK government has approved plans to open Britain's first deep coal mine in 30 years, drawing criticism from environmentalists but gleaning support from local politicians.

The Woodhouse Colliery, to be developed by West Cumbria Mining (WCM) in north-west England, will extract coking coal, which is used in the steel industry rather than for electricity generation.

Much of the coal will be destined for export. The plans for the colliery show that after five years, 80 per cent of the coal mined will be exported to Europe, which has fuelled concerns over accounting for its overall impact on the climate.

About the size of 60 football fields, or 23 hectares, the mine will take two years to build at a cost that was estimated in 2019 as £165 million ($201 million). It will employ slightly more than 500 workers.

Why the controversy?

Much of the objection to the new coal mine is on environmental grounds. Ever since the project was unveiled back in 2014, it has been the target of environmental groups and climate activists, including Greenpeace and Greta Thunberg.

It has also come under criticism from the British government's own independent climate advisory panel.

Environments point to evidence that greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, such as in steel and power plants, are the single biggest contributor to climate change.

Slightly more than a year ago, the UK hosted the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, where it pushed for countries to “consign coal to history”.

As such, critics say opening a new coal mine undermines that pledge and sends the wrong signals to other countries about the UK's climate priorities.

“It is no solution to the energy crisis, it does not offer secure, long-term jobs, and it marks this government giving up on all pretence of climate leadership,” said opposition Labour shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband.

Paul Elkins, professor of resources and environmental policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, said approving it would deal a blow to the UK’s reputation as a global leader on climate action and open “it up to well justified charges of hypocrisy — telling other countries to ditch coal while not doing so itself”.

The site of the UK's first new deep coal mine in 30 years in Cumbria. Getty

Target zero

Opponents of the mine claim it contradicts the UK's own laws that require the country to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

“Phasing out coal use is the clearest requirement of the global effort towards net zero. This decision grows global emissions,” the chairman of Britain's independent Climate Change Committee, John Gummer, said.

At an inquiry last year, Gregory Jones, a lawyer representing WCM, said the project's development would eventually be “net-zero compliant” mine and help in the “transition” to a greener steel industry.

But Estelle Dehon, who represents a local environmental group, South Lakes Action on Climate Change, described this as “smoke and mirrors”, because the coal could be exported across the world and, as such, off-setting did not exist in reality.

The UK government claimed the mine would have “an overall neutral effect on climate change and is, thus, consistent with government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change”.

Job creation

Those in favour of the mine emphasise the new jobs and opportunities that will be brought to Cumbria as a result.

Mike Starkie, Conservative mayor of Copeland in Cumbria, referred to it as the “the biggest announcement in generations”, which will “bring jobs, prospects and opportunity to the people of west Cumbria, and the people of west Cumbria are going to be grateful for generations”.

The UK's last deep coal mine closed in 2015. At its peak, Britain's coal industry employed more than a million people at about 3,000 collieries.

Updated: December 08, 2022, 10:55 AM