The UK government is being accused of “rank hypocrisy” that “beggars belief”, after failing to rescind local approval of the country’s first new underground coal mine in 30 years while preparing to convene this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP 26, just 10 months from now.
Climate campaigners “argue that the government’s decision breaches the UK’s climate commitments and weakens its leadership credentials ahead of hosting COP 26,” Climate Home News reports. This is the same UK government that triumphantly joined Canada to lead the international Powering Past Coal alliance at COP 23 in 2017.
The decision was announced a couple of days before UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma gave up his cabinet position to focus all his attention on the role of COP 26 president, which he’d been holding down part-time since he was first appointed 11 months ago.
The new project, like the multiple new coal mines now under discussion in Alberta, is meant to produce metallurgical coal for steelmaking, not the thermal coal destined for power plants that have been an increasingly successful target for divestment and closure. But they’re still coal mines that produce severe local environmental and health impacts, while delivering a product that still releases climate-warming greenhouse gases when used as directed.
In the UK, “minister of housing and communities Robert Jenrick said on Wednesday that he would not intervene in plans to open the coal mine in Cumbria, northwest England,” Climate Home writes, after Cumbria County Council approved the mine in October. “The £165-million West Cumbria Mining project is to extract coking coal from below the Irish Sea for steel production, which will emit an estimated 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year when burned.”
The company says the project in the small port town of Whitehaven will create 500 jobs in a region facing high unemployment—and claims its 2049 closure date makes it consistent with the UK’s 2050 net zero target, Climate Home adds.
“It’s not enough to claim compliance with the Climate Change Act by setting a 2049 end date. [The project] needs to be compliant with the carbon budgets,” responded Rebecca Willis, an expert lead for the UN Climate Assembly and one of 13 expert signatories to a letter to Jenrick that declared the project “wholly inappropriate”, and an impediment to decarbonizing the steel industry.
“It is very hard to see how you can be ratcheting down carbon emissions successfully if you have projects like this,” she told Climate Home.
“It’s utter and rank hypocrisy for this Conservative Government to claim one minute that they care about protecting our environment, and in the next give the green light to a deep coal mine in Cumbria,” tweeted former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron. The South Cumbria MP called the decision an “almighty backwards step in the fight against climate change”.
“It does beggar belief that Robert Jenrick could wash his hands of the effects of a new coal mine, extracting nearly three million tonnes of coal in the UK but almost entirely for export,” campaigner Maggie Mason of South Lakes Action on Climate Change told DeSmog UK.
DeSmog adds that the jobs offered by West Cumbria Mining, a company owned primarily by Australia’s EMR Capital Resources, are a fraction of the benefits the region could see from a transition off carbon. “Green Alliance suggests jobs in ex-industrial areas such as Whitehaven could also be generated through shifting to a low-carbon economy, citing a 2019 study by IPPR North which has estimated that up to 46,000 jobs could be created in the north of England in the power sector alone.”