Written by Matthew Alexander
All UK deep coal mines had closed by the end of 2015, like this one in South Wales. The Cumbria Coal mine would bring the practice back to the UK.
Hosting COP26 this autumn, the UK Government are keen to be seen as climate change leaders. Therefore, it may surprise readers that they choose the present time to open the first British coal mine in over 30 years. This irony has not been ignored by green campaigners who have collected signatures, launched legal challenges, and lobbied local councillors in a fight to “keep Cumbrian coal in the hole”. Conservatives have responded by claiming the coal mine will reduce net emissions by providing coking coal, needed for the production of steel, to the national steel industry reducing the need for transoceanic imports and reducing net emissions.
Campaigners have poked holes in the case for the coal mine ever since it was given permission last October. Despite the mine’s supposed intentions to fuel Britain’s steel industry, the plans suggest it will emit 8 million tonnes of carbon annually, with up to 85% of the coal exported boosting the global supply of coal, pushing down prices and slowing the green transition. Likewise, Britain’s Climate Change Committee state steel firms must stop burning coal by 2035, therefore creating a rather short lifespan for the £165 million mine. Moreover, the proposed boost to the economy is merely 500 jobs at the coal mine in an area with low unemployment.
Despite these protests, the government appears determined to support the mine in order to push forward their levelling up agenda, especially as two of the areas to benefit from the mine - Copeland, the mine’s location, and Scunthorpe, a prominent steel town - have recently elected Conservative MPs since its post-Brexit rebrand. Having built its success on promises to provide provincial England with opportunity, the Conservative Party is keen to prove they have kept these promises by the time of the next election.
Political matters aside, there is a widespread desire for Britain to maintain a steel industry in the future and that will come at the cost of emitting coal. Campaigners argue for investment to produce a ‘green steel’ sector, but no such progress has been made in steel production so far. The CO2 intensity of steel production has remained flat since 2000 meaning steel production makes up 15% of British industry’s CO2 emissions. Technological investors, such as Bill Gates, see no solution in sight, though it must be recognised that the potential for green technological progress has been consistently underestimated in the recent past. Left-wing campaigners from Ed Miliband to James Hansen, point to recent developments in ‘green steel’ such as the use of hydrogen to turn iron to steel as the answer. The solution to decarbonising the steel sector may well appear soon rendering the Cumbrian coal mine obsolete, however it may not. One issue for the government is that of incentives, if they chose not to permit the new coal mine, the steel industry would suffer higher coal prices generating demand for a substitute, cleaner fuel for the industry. By allowing the supply of coking coal to expand, the government may stymie efforts to incentivise the next generation of green innovation.
Economic factors aside, Cumbria’s coal mine exposes much about the current political battleground within the UK. The government’s endorsement of the mine highlights the new Conservative approach, rather than dismissing the complaints of globalization, they seek to provide a shelter to provincial communities against the winds of change. This leaves the Labour Party in an awkward position to choose between aiding national industry or furthering their environmentalism. The local party has dithered - at first accepting the plan before pledging to reconsider the application.
While the Conservatives may feel satisfied at the domestic politics, the opening of the coal mine is yet another instance damaging the government’s credibility abroad. Boris Johnson sees 2021 as a year to build a positive post-Brexit image for Britain internationally by hosting the G7 and COP26. However. Johnson is seen by some as Trump’s British analogue handicapping his claims to be a climate leader, and opening coal mines undermines any conciliatory efforts.
The case of the Cumbrian coal mine is full of ironies: a self-proclaimed environmentally enthusiastic Conservative government is imposing the opening of a coal mine against local Labour pleas. It tells us much about the state of British politics, the new political battlegrounds in provincial England, and Johnson’s tough balancing act between domestic and international politics. Yet beyond the immediate politics lies a daunting challenge facing all policymakers around the world - how to navigate the many trade-offs in the green transition.
Photo source- Flickr (Richard Szwejkowski)