Will the UK’s relationship with coal burn on?

by Benjamin Robinson

Near the end of 2020, the UK government published ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. It outlined how the country will emerge from the Covid pandemic through a green recovery and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In doing this, it promises hundreds of thousands of high-skilled high-paid jobs as, in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, investment turns the UK “into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance”.

The importance of this plan goes beyond domestic borders. At the end of 2021, the UK will host COP26, the UN conference in which Johnson’s Government must convince the gathered international parties to fulfil the Paris Agreement and ultimately tackle climate change. By setting out a seemingly impressive carbon reduction strategy, the UK is also challenging other countries to follow suit in a game in which the stakes could not be higher. According to US Climate Change Envoy John Kerry, the conference to be held in Glasgow “is the last, best opportunity that we have” for the world to avoid the catastrophe of rising global temperatures.

With this in mind, one could understandably be confused to learn that only a month on from the publication of the plan for a green transformation, permission was granted to open the first new deep coal mine in the UK for thirty years. The £165m mine, near Whitehaven in north-east England, was given the green light by the Cumbria County Council who were drawn in by the prospect of jobs. The ward has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK and the 500 jobs provided by the mine and the many more it will support are seen as a lifeline to the deprived area.

Whilst Cumbria Council shortly succumbed to pressure from environmental groups and announced they were reconsidering the mine’s application, it took the Government three months to do likewise. The protracted time to do so asks real questions of Johnson’s green agenda. The mine is projected to have an appreciable impact on the UK’s carbon budgets, with greater annual emissions than that of all of the current open UK coal mines combined. Moreover, the UK is one of the leading countries in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of governments supposedly working to move the world on from coal.

Supporters, such as the Northern Research Group of Red Wall Tory MPs, argue that the mine in fact has environmental benefits. The coal to be dug up is not for fuel, but to be used in the creation of steel and it is less carbon intensive for the UK source its own than to import it from the US or Australia. Moreover, steel is critical for achieving net zero, as vast amounts will be required to build green energy projects such as new windfarms.

However these claims do not stand up to scrutiny. In the mine’s lifetime up to 2049, 85% of the coal extracted from under the Irish Sea is planned for export to Europe, not for national use. Furthermore, there is no future in coking coal. In a new initiative, SteelZero, leading organisations from across the steel industry have come together to publicly commit to abandoning coal and developing new technologies to achieve 100% net zero steel by 2050, with a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Labour recognise that innovative projects such as SteelZero are key to our low carbon future. Last year the party published it’s own Green Economic Recovery plan to rival the Conservative’s, using a public consultation on how the UK can rebound from the pandemic in a way that builds a fairer, greener economy. The report found how decades of Conservative-led Government failures, such as selling off the Green Investment Bank in 2017, have caused chronic underinvestment in low carbon infrastructure and technology and has compromised the UK’s progress on emission reductions. In addition, it highlights how at the time of writing the UK had only allocated £5 billion to their climate programme. In comparison, Germany had earmarked £36 billion for theirs.

Labour’s report paints an alternative path for the UK. It details how £30 billion of green stimulus and targeted regulatory changes can spur a national Green Industrial Revolution. Good, green, additional jobs can be brought to areas such as Whitehaven with the correct planning and ambition. Under Labour’s vision, 400,000 jobs can be created in modern industries such as hydrogen whilst simultaneously addressing the climate crisis and ecological devastation.

Sadly, dithering over the Cumbrian coalmine is emblematic of this Government’s inability to rise to the climate question and it jeopardises the success of COP26. It discredits any reasoning to convince other countries to push towards net zero, as they too rely on carbon-intensive industries for jobs and development. It also casts doubt on the government’s belief in its own green revolution. What faith do they have in the creation of green jobs and technologies if they allow a centuries old polluting industry to live on?

The slow death of coal in the UK was never going to be easy given its history. What was once the key driver for the industrial revolution and development became burdensome in the twentieth century. Struggles with the closure of uneconomic coal pits helped produce the three-day week and the infamous miners’ strike in 1984, and there remain scars across the country where communities were decimated by the removal of the only local source of employment. However, with a plan such as that outlined by Labour, these left behind areas can potentially return to prosperity and employment with industries fit for the future, leaving coal in the past and setting an example for the world.

Ben Robinson works in public affairs


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3 Responses to “Will the UK’s relationship with coal burn on?”

  1. Anne says:

    Excellent article. If the only reason West Cumbria is opting for the coal mine, and to combat the level of unemployment then they should be offered an alternative. Hydrogen is mentioned – this could be developed as an energy source, but bearing in mind Whitehaven is on the coast – why not develop hydro power. About 30 miles south of Whitehaven is the Duddon estuary – less than a mile across. Feasibility studies have demonstrated this would be ideal for a bridge with hydro providing energy – this would improve the infrastructure, provide green energy and those much sort after jobs.
    The Green Party are improving their rating in the polls – taking voters from across the political spectrum. They have not quite got it together in England, but they have in other countries – holding to balance of power in Germany and Scotland. Labour should prioritise on this and develop a green agenda. Saying not dig a coal mine on it’s own will not work with the people of West Cumbria – offering an alternative just might.

  2. Other says:

    Is this a joke?
    ” In a new initiative, SteelZero, leading organisations from across the steel industry have come together to publicly commit to abandoning coal and developing new technologies to achieve 100% net zero steel by 2050, with a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.”

    They dont even have anything but a prototype open at the moment. As you say this is coking coal. There is no other way to make steel competitively. Hopes of some point that a pilot way to create steel might become mainstream.

    Coking (metallurgical) coal is not used for energy generation, and the uk has more or less completely weaned itself off coal for electricity.

    Nothing says metropolitan liberal than blocking a means to produce steel when there is no other viable alternative requiring importation.

  3. Tafia says:

    Anne, as clueless and politically inept as ever.

    The Green Party are improving their rating in the polls – taking voters from across the political spectrum. No they aren’t. They are taking votes from the LibDems and Labour.

    holding to balance of power in Germany and Scotland. In 4 weeks time, the SNP will have an absolute majority in Scotland. In Germany the country is ruled by a ‘Grand Coalition’ of CDU/CSU/SPD. The Greens – just like Die Linke (who have one more seat than the Greens anyway) form no part of the Coalition.

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