Government must say no to new coalmines, or risk damaging our climate and our international reputation
The government must close the door on new coalmines in the UK and signal we are transitioning to a net zero world. Without it the chances of delivering our goals at COP26 are slim.
It’s not unusual for a planning application to be controversial in its own locality. But it is unusual for one to become the subject of international interest or the litmus test of a government’s commitment to meet net zero ambitions. The Whitehaven deep coalmine application has become both.
The failure of the communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, in January to ‘call in’ the decision of Cumbria county council to approve a new coalmine, where the coal would be used in steel production, flew in the face of climate science and the UK’s legally binding emission reduction targets.
It ignored the advice from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to phase out all coal, including coking coal, by 2035. Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, pointed out in a letter to Jenrick that the projected increase to UK emissions from the mine of 0.4Mt CO2e per year would be greater than the level of annual emissions projected from all open UK coalmines to 2050.
Further, that a decision to award planning permission until 2049 would commit the UK to emissions from coking coal for which there may be no domestic market after 2035.
Coal is a relic of a bygone age, we need a final push to leave it in the past where it belongs
The local application became not just nationally significant but internationally so, given the UK’s presidency this year of UN climate summit, COP26, and the potential for global leadership on climate action.
Dr James Hansen, a leading US climate scientist, wrote to the Prime Minister about the historic opportunity COP26 gave the UK to lead from the front but that he could “stick with business-almost-as-usual and be vilified around the world” if the coalmine went ahead.
The contrast between political rhetoric and reality was all-the-more embarrassing given we initiated the global Powering Past Coal Alliance of countries seeking to persuade others to swap jobs in coal for jobs in clean sectors.
It’s a fact not lost on Alok Sharma, president-designate of COP26, who recently commented: “It is increasingly clear that clean power is the future, coal is a relic of a bygone age, and this year we need a final push to leave it in the past where it belongs.”
More jobs – this application promised 500 – are needed after the economic shocks of the pandemic, but those jobs need to be green. Policies to build the workforce for those green jobs, allied to investment in new technologies, are urgently needed.
It was disappointing, therefore, that the government’s Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy launched last month was light on detail about new business models for carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.
Sweden and Germany are already pushing ahead with low-carbon steel trials using fossil-free energy and hydrogen. Those technologies remain in the early stages in the UK, despite our decarbonisation strategy relying heavily on their widespread use to meet climate targets.
The government made a welcome volte-face in recent weeks and agreed to hold a public inquiry, giving Jenrick the final say on whether to proceed with this new coalmine. Thousands of individuals and numerous organisations have campaigned to get us to this point, including Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who was one of the first asking for the plan to be called in.
The government must now close the door on new coalmines in the UK. Doing so will signal to investors the direction of travel for future UK infrastructure and globally that we are stepping up to demonstrate leadership in the challenging but necessary transition to a net zero world. Without it the chances of delivering our goals at COP26 are slim indeed.
Baroness Parminter is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.