Boris Johnson must confront the climate crisis head on and bury plans for a new coal mine
Instead of backing plans to build a new coal mine in Cumbria that will make the climate emergency worse, it should put its focus into cutting emissions and creating green jobs.
As the pressure mounts to leave fossil fuels in the ground, proposals for a new coal mine in Cumbria are a litmus test of the government’s commitment to ending our dangerous reliance on coal, gas and oil.
Last month’s report by leading UN climate scientists was particularly stark.
Billed as a “code red for humanity”, by UN Secretary General António Guterres, it warned that the world is racing towards catastrophic climate change, which will only be limited by rapid action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Boris Johnson, who will be hosting November’s critical international climate summit in Glasgow, described it as “sobering reading”, saying we had to “consign coal to history and shift to clean energy sources.”
But the prime minister needs to look closer to home when calling for action. Despite the rhetoric, UK coal is far from dead.
On Tuesday, a public inquiry starts into plans for a new coal mine off the coast of Whitehaven in Cumbria. If it’s given the go-ahead, the mine could produce coal for the steel industry until 2049.
At a time when there can be no delays in cutting emissions, we’ll be hitting the accelerator, when we should be applying the brake
The government’s own climate advisors have warned that the mine would increase global emissions, making it harder for us to stop climate change. So, at a time when we have been told there can be no delays in cutting emissions, we’ll be hitting the accelerator, when we should be applying the brake.
Indeed, the government was initially willing to let the mine go ahead after Cumbria County Council granted planning permission in October last year. It was only after a huge public and international outcry that they reluctantly agreed to “call in” the coal mine and hold a public inquiry – with the government ultimately deciding whether or not the mine is built.
Friends of the Earth will be a main participant in the public inquiry, where we will argue strongly against the application.
The mine would produce coking coal exclusively for the steel industry, currently responsible for around 7 per cent of total global carbon emissions. Although we will still need steel – for example to build wind turbines, trains and buses – it has to be produced in a far less damaging way.
The good news is things are rapidly changing. Swedish steel manufacturer HYBRIT is already making steel without using coal – using fossil-free electricity and hydrogen instead – and plans full commercial production of the “green steel” in 2026.
If approved the Cumbrian mine would be opening just as European steel makers, its main target market, are moving out of coal. Experts say we could completely displace coal use for steel making by 2035 – just six years after the mine reaches full production.
The reality is we don’t need new coal mines. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental body, says there’s enough coking coal in mines already operating to supply the global steel industry until 2050.
But what West Cumbria does need is jobs. Many local people support the proposals, not because they want a new coal mine, but because they believe it’s the only tangible prospect of new employment in West Cumbria.
However, there are alternatives. Cumbria Action for Sustainability has calculated that 9,000 green jobs could be created in the county in the next 15 years, including 4,500 in West Cumbria. These would be in renewable energy, waste management, retrofitting buildings and green transport. On top of this additional jobs could be created in sectors that we have come to value more in the last 18 months, such as health and social care.
It shouldn’t be jobs or the environment. It can and must be both. That’s what the government needs to prioritise - working with local councils and others to create the employment that will help us deal with the climate crisis and create a society in which people’s basic needs are met.
Instead of backing plans that will make the climate emergency worse, it should put its focus and our money into cutting emissions and creating the green jobs that building a clean future will bring.
And it’s not just coal that should remain in the ground - oil and gas must be left there too. This is why the UK government must pull the plug on its support for a huge new gas project in Mozambique with £900 million of taxpayers’ money, as well as rejecting plans to allow a new Cambo oil field off the Shetland Isles.
The next few months are crucial for the future of our planet, as well as Boris Johnson’s legacy. Can he encourage, cajole and force world leaders to respond to climate warnings that are flashing red, and make the big and urgent cuts in climate emissions that are now long overdue?
But action has to begin at home. The prime minister must end the nation’s fossil fuel fixation. And if he’s serious about consigning coal to history, the Cumbria coal mine cannot go ahead.
Tony Bosworth is a climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
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