Britain’s Conservative government on Wednesday approved the UK’s first new coal mine in three decades, a decision condemned by environmentalists as a leap backwards in the fight against climate change.
Hours earlier, the government had reversed a ban on building new onshore wind farms in Britain. Opponents called that announcement a cynical attempt to offset criticism of the mine decision, The Associated Press reports.
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Opponents say the mine is a major blow to the UK’s status as a world leader in replacing polluting fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. They argue it will undermine global efforts to phase out coal and make it harder for Britain to meet its goals of generating 100% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy for the UK government to host the COP 26 climate summit with the main goal of bringing an end to the era of coal and then 12 months later open the first new coal mine in three decades,” Power Shift Africa Director Mohamed Adow said in a release this morning. “The UK claims to be a climate leader but it is trashing its record and making a mockery of its green credentials with this decision. “
While “the result of the COP 26 summit in Glasgow was already more hype than real progress,” Adow added, “the agreement to phase down coal was one of its few positive outcomes. The fact that the UK itself has now undermined this is breathtaking in its stupidity.”
John Gummer, a Conservative politician who heads the Climate Change Committee, a government advisory body, said the decision “sends entirely the wrong signal to other countries about the UK’s climate priorities.”
“Given the nature of the climate emergency that we are all faced with, the decision to go ahead with a new coal mine in Cumbria is an incomprehensible act of self-harm,” agreed Climate Crisis Advisory Group Chair Sir David King, a former UK chief science advisor. “Worldwide there should be no new venture into coal, oil, or gas recovery. This action by a leading developed economy sets exactly the wrong example to the rest of the world. Our only real form of influence on the climate crisis in the world is seriously jettisoned by this action.”
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, said the government “risks becoming a superpower in climate hypocrisy rather than climate leadership. How can we possibly expect other countries to rein in fossil fuel extraction when we’re building new coal mines here?”
Oxfam Climate Change Policy Advisor Lyndsay Walsh called the announcement “a complete betrayal of the government’s commitment to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” adding that “increasing production of the dirtiest fossil fuel as the escalating climate emergency pushes millions of people deeper into hunger and poverty cannot be justified.”
Cabinet Minister Michael Gove decided the mine in the Cumbria area of northwest England would have “an overall neutral effect on climate change and is thus consistent with government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change,” the government said.
It said coal from the mine would be used to make steel—replacing imported coal—rather than for power generation.
But at The Telegraph, opinion columnist Ben Marlow says 85% of the mine’s output will be exported. “The project is being cheered on by a clutch of Tory backbenchers on the basis that it will ease Britain’s reliance on overseas coal imports,” he writes. But that argument “isn’t just flimsy, it’s non-existent.”
The mine will extract coking coal, the type used in steelmaking, from under the Irish Sea and process it on the site of a shuttered chemical plant in Whitehaven, a town 550 kilometres northwest of London. But the distinction between coking coal and so-called thermal coal for electricity production, a longstanding talking point for advocates of continued coal extraction, has been losing ground as costs rise and alternatives gain ground.
“Coking coal prices have more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine has disrupted supplies,” write University of Leeds researchers Clare Richardson-Barlow, Andrew Pimm, and Pepa Ambrosio-Albala, in a post for The Conversation less than a week before the government announcement. “In 2021, the UK imported 39% of its coking coal from Russia, with almost all of the rest coming from the United States and Australia.” Major price hikes for fossil gas, another possible option for steelmaking, have only added to the cost problem.
But steelmaking with green hydrogen “removes fossil fuels from the process altogether,” the three academics explain. “As a result, it could be insulated from increases in fossil fuel prices and carbon taxes, all of which have made steelmaking with fossil fuels more expensive in recent years.”
The UK steel industry currently enjoys “a free allocation of emissions allowances, which significantly lowers the effective carbon price paid by steel producers,” they add. But “if this exemption were phased out gradually, steelmaking with green hydrogen produced using wind and solar electricity would in fact be cheaper than all other options.”
“While the UK opens a new coal mine for steel production, the United States and the EU are working on a new deal to make green steel,” placing the UK “behind the curve once again,” said Power Shift Africa’s Adow. “People living on the front line of the climate crisis will be watching this with horror.”
The Cumbria mine’s supporters say the mine will bring much-needed jobs to an area hard hit by the closure of its mines and factories in recent decades, AP writes.
Britain has taken steps to bolster its domestic energy supply since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil and gas prices soaring. The UK imports little Russian oil or gas, but its lightly regulated energy market leaves customers highly exposed to price fluctuations.
Many homes and businesses have seen bills double or triple in the past year, though a government price cap—due to end in April—has prevented even steeper hikes.
The invasion of Ukraine has made countries across Europe reconsider plans to cut their use of fossil fuels. Britain has also approved more North Sea oil and gas drilling, while the Czech Republic reversed a plan to stop coal mining in a key region.
France recently restarted a shuttered coal plant, abandoning an earlier vow by President Emmanuel Macron to close all coal-burning plants in the country by the end of this year.
The mine decision came a day after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak lifted a ban on building new wind farms on British soil.
Wind produced more than a quarter of the UK’s electricity in 2021. But the Conservative government has since 2015 opposed new wind turbines on land because of local opposition. The majority of Britain’s wind farms are at sea.
While running for the Conservative Party’s leadership in the summer, Sunak pledged to keep the ban. But amid growing calls for change from Conservative lawmakers, the government said Tuesday it could allow wind farms in areas where communities support them, pending a “technical consultation.”
“Decisions on onshore wind sites will continue to be made at a local level as these are best made by local representatives who know their areas best and are democratically accountable to the local community,” the government said in a statement.
Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green Party lawmaker, said ending the ban on onshore wind was welcome, though “the devil is in the detail.”
“If this is meant to ‘buy off’ giving the greenlight to the Cumbria coal mine later this week, it would be totally & utterly shameless,” she wrote on Twitter before approval for the mine was announced.
This Associated Press story was republished by The Canadian Press on December 7, 2022.