Shortly after surviving a vote of no confidence in his leadership earlier this month, the Prime Minister vowed to continue his work of achieving “what matters most to the people of this country”.
In the coming days, Boris Johnson’s government has a golden opportunity to act on one of them – the climate crisis – by rejecting planning permission for a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria.
However, the signs are not good. During PMQs earlier this week, the Prime Minister appeared to hint that the mine would be approved, despite the overwhelming evidence against it.
Climate change is a major concern for the British public. According to the government’s latest public attitude tracker, 84% are concerned about climate change and 41% are “very concerned”. Giving the green light to the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years would seriously jeopardize the battle to reduce emissions.
The chairman of the climate change committee, an independent adviser to the government on the issue, warned that opening the mine would increase global carbon emissions. And UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said opening up new fossil fuel infrastructure would be “moral and economic folly.”
International influence and government credibility on climate change are also at stake. Action against coal was one of our government’s key messages at the UN climate summit it hosted in Glasgow Last year. Approving the mine would amount to “doing as we say, not as we do”.
A YouGov poll released in November last year found just 19% in favor of the mine, while more than double that figure (43%) opposed it.
But climate change is not the only reason for the rejection of a building permit. The coal market evaporates even before the opening of the mine. The mine would produce coking coal for steelmaking, up to 13% of which would be reserved for the UK steel industry.
But one of the two main potential customers – British Steel in Scunthorpe – has expressed doubts about the suitability of the coal because of its high sulfur content. And Chris McDonald, chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, the UK’s national steel industry research centre, says no one in the steel industry is asking for the mine to be built.
The majority of the coal would be exported to Europe. However, the demand for coking coal in Europe is expected to fall sharply in the coming years. A recent Friends of the Earth analysis found that European steelmakers are moving away from coal and towards green production using renewable electricity and hydrogen. This change risks turning the Cumbria coal mine into a hugely expensive stranded asset.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, proponents of the mine have argued that coal from Cumbria could replace Russian imports. But that’s just not true.
The steel mills use a mix of different types of coal, and the mine developer has made it clear that the coal produced in Cumbria has similar characteristics to that on the east coast of the United States, not Russia. They do not claim that their coal would replace Russian imports. In addition, a British steel industry expert said the Cumbria mine would not displace a single tonne of Russian coking coal.
Employment is a key issue for West Cumbria. The area is in desperate need of investment and it is clear that one of the main reasons local people support the mine is the promise of new jobs. But with declining demand for coal from the mine and rising emissions, new fossil fuel-based jobs are risky business.
West Cumbria deserves better. The region could and should be at the heart of the bright green future that Boris Johnson’s government has promised to build.
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According to the Local Government Association, there is potential for over 6,000 green jobs in Cumbria by 2030 in areas such as energy efficiency, solar, offshore wind and low carbon heating – and nearly 600 of them could be in Copeland, the region where the mine would be built.
Investing in a greener future would not only create thousands of jobs, but also bring other benefits. For example, a free street-by-street insulation scheme, focused on those who need it most, would make homes warmer, reduce energy bills, reduce our gas consumption and reduce the UK’s contribution to the climate crisis. The government’s impending decision on coal mining will have major ramifications for years to come.
At last year’s climate summit in Glasgow, Boris Johnson hailed the deal they had just struck as the death knell for coal. Now it’s decision time. Will his government open a new chapter on British coal or will it consign it to the history books to which it belongs?
Tony Bosworth is a Friends of the Earth campaigner