Michael Gove, a controversial British politician, has greenlighted the first new UK coal mine in decades, despite firm opposition from environmental experts, the general public, and even his own party colleagues. The coal will largely be used for exports and will add 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year — the equivalent of adding 200,000 diesel cars on the road.
April 21st, 2017, went down as a pretty quiet day in the UK, but it was a historic moment. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, Britain had gone for a full day without using coal power to generate electricity. Coal was still used for industrial processes, but still, a notable climate breakthrough.
Coal is pretty much the most polluting and climate-damaging source of energy in existence, a much worse offender than gas or oil. If ever there was a low-hanging fruit that could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it’s coal. The UK seemed to fully understand that. April 21st, 2017, wasn’t an isolated moment. Just two years later, Britain went a full week without coal. Gradually, it also started phasing out its coal mines, compensating with energy from renewable sources. Last year, when Scotland hosted the COP26 climate conference, UK officials said they wanted to “consign coal power to history.” With only a handful of coal mines still open and no new coal mines being opened for 30 years, things seem to be going in the right direction.
But then, this happened.
Justifying his decision, Gove said the mine would have an “overall neutral effect on climate change” and that the country “needs” the coal — although 85% of the coal at the mine is set for export. Gove’s explanation also mentions that he is “satisfied that there is currently a UK and European market for the coal”.
Meanwhile, the Government’s top climate advisor and a colleague party of Gove, Lord Deben, warned it would be “absolutely indefensible”. Meanwhile, critics from the general public and from all sides of the political spectrum have criticized the move, calling it “shameful” or “appalling.”
Whitehaven is a picturesque town with a lot of history. It was prosperous in the 18th century, and for about 20 years, it was the country’s second busiest port, after London. This prosperity created an architectural legacy, as many historic buildings were constructed and are still largely intact. Whitehaven has been designated a “gem town” by the Council for British Archaeology due to the historic quality of the town environment.
Nowadays, 60% of the workforce in town relies on a local nuclear plant, and it’s not clear just how much of a difference the new coal mine will make for the locals.
The few supporters of the mine have hailed it as a job-making hub, but the mine, which will be opened at Whitehaven, Cumbria, in the western part of the UK, will only create about 500 jobs — at best.
The coal that is set to be extracted from Whitehaven can only be sold for steelmaking, but the two steelmaking companies in the UK have said they want to move away from this type of coal and switch to lower carbon production methods. Experts believe the two companies will use, at best, close to 10% of the mine’s output over the next decade — and after that, probably none at all.
This means the coal will have to be exported, but European companies are also making similar changes to their production, and it’s unclear who will buy the coal at all. If anyone does buy it, it’s likely that it will also have to be transported over a wide distance.
The mine has been granted permission to dig for coal until 2049 but who will buy the coal and how much demand for the product there will be is still unclear. If demand drops and the mine does not make a profit, it could shut down on its own.
A cynical and seemingly nonsensical move
The decision regarding the mine has been delayed several times, most recently until after this year’s COP27 climate — possibly a move to shield the decision from international criticism. It’s also possible that the mining permission was granted to settle voters and party members over another energy-related decision. The government’s prime minister Rishi Sunak just yesterday caved to political pressure about relaxing the planning rules for onshore windfarms in England, which had been effectively banned. Sunak also doesn’t appear to be a big fan of climate action in general, after initially not even wanting to attend international climate conferences.
The few influential voices who have supported the decision have been from Sunak’s close circle or from politicians in the north, an area that had traditionally been involved with coal and where economic development has been slow after the coal phase-out.
But the critical voices have been far stronger — and far more numerous. The shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, said that not only was the mine “no solution to the energy crisis”, but it would not even benefit British steel producers, while marking “the death knell of any claims this government has to climate leadership”. Tim Farron, a Member of Parliament from Cumbria, says the decision “cancels out all the progress Britain has made on renewable energy,” and environmental groups were even harsher, saying that the move makes no sense whatsoever economically or environmentally, and it’s hard to disagree with them.
Ultimately, progress is rarely linear in any complex field, and climate progress is also likely to be a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of dance. But it’s important that the public is aware of this and not deceived by cheap tricks and blanket claims. Opening a coal mine is not a “neutral” climate process and in terms of our climate efforts, it’s exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.