At the 2017 Climate Conference in Bonn, the UK with Canada launched, to much acclaim, the Powering Past Coal Alliance. This committed members to move from coal to cleaner power sources. There are now 104 members of this alliance who collectively aim demonstrate the feasibility of coal free power generation.
Clair Perry, at the time the Climate Change minister for the UK said that this Alliance was a signal to the world that the age of coal had passed. She went on to say
‘Reducing global coal consumption should be a vital and urgent priority for all countries and states. Unabated coal is the dirtiest, most polluting way of generating electricity.’
But now, in an act of remarkable non-joined up thinking, the Government, in the shape of Robert Jenrick, has declined to call in a decision by Cumbria County Council to allow a new deep coal mine near Whitehaven. With the support of the Government’s chief planning officer, he states that this is a local decision and it would be wrong for him to intervene.
Criticism from COP26 and the Climate Change Committee
The 2021 Climate Conference [COP26] President Alok Sharma is reported to be ‘apoplectic’. In more measured style, Caroline Lucas called the decision ‘regrettable’. The Government’s Climate Change committee (CCC) has urged the Minister to consider the impact of this decision on the UK’s commitments to net zero by 2050. Lord Deben, chair of the CCC wrote:
The mine is projected to increase UK emissions by 0.4Mt (megatonnes) of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. This is greater than the level of annual emissions we have projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050.
Steel production or export
Defending the decision, Jenick explained that the UK currently imports most of the coal needed for both steel and cement production. Allowing the mine both secures the UK demand for coking coal and reduces transport impacts. This may be true, but then Australian financed West Cumbria Mining states that most of the extracted coal will be exported, rather defeating Jenrick’s argument.
The minister’s claim that this is a purely local decision shows a total failure to understand the extent of the global climate crisis. While steel and concrete are essential materials in building a low carbon infrastructure, sticking with carbon intensive technologies in trying to create this low carbon future is nonsense.
Low Carbon Steel
Steel and cement companies are well aware that their businesses need to reduce their carbon footprints. But allowing this mine sends the wrong signal, it suggests to them that the government is not really serious about reducing industrial emissions so why should they invest in low carbon steel and cement?
Across Europe the major steel producers are researching low carbon steel using hydrogen rather than coke. A Swedish consortium hopes to have an economically viable process by 2035. With collective and committed government support across Europe this date could be brought forward. After all, the collective and supported efforts of pharmaceutical companies shortened the roll out time for viable Covid vaccines from 10 years to one.
Our collapsing environment is no less an emergency than Covid
Increasingly, manufactures and construction companies, under public pressure, are demanding low carbon supply lines. With growing demand we can expect that low carbon steel and cement will be widely available by the end of this decade. There is a real danger that by 2030, the market for Cumbria coal will be shrinking, putting the much acclaimed jobs again at risk.
The future will be and has to be low carbon. This is where investment is needed, where global markets will open up and where secure jobs will be created. This is where governments need to lead and this is where the British Government is again failing.