The government's reasons for not stopping the Cumbria coal mine are nonsense
29 January 2021
While claiming to be a climate leader ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this November, our government is planning to allow a new coal mine to be built in Whitehaven, Cumbria. This new mine would allow the extraction of 2.78 million tonnes of coal every year until 2050, the year by which the UK will supposedly have reached net-zero carbon emissions.
The new mine is opposed by a range of local and national groups, with the local campaign being led by South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC - of which I am a member). In fact, SLACC was set up my members of the Global Justice Now's South Lakes group after Ricardo Navarro came to speak with us in 2007. Ricardo came over from El Salvador to talk with us about climate justice and we had upwards of 120 people at the meeting. It was a hugely inspiring event that has spurred on local action against climate change.
Despite activists campaigning, in October 2020 the county council decided to approve the new mine. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, had the power to "call in" and stop this decision, but refused to do so. This has prompted outrage in many sectors. For example, John Sauven of Greenpeace said, “Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view - or the world will be toast”. Even the government's lead for COP26, Alok Sharma, is said to be “apoplectic”.
SLACC is pushing for a u-turn. Our lawyers have sent Jenrick new information and analysis and we need to quickly persuade him to intervene, but time is very short. We may only have a week before the approval of the mine is finalised by Cumbria Council.
Thousands of objectors are already reacting and signing petitions. Global Justice Now supporters have a particular voice on justice and the global south, and we need to speak out against the myths and misconceptions which have been driving this coal mine.
A local issue?
This month, the government's chief planning officer defended the decision to allow Cumbria Council's approval of the mine to stand by saying that it was a "decision for local determination". But the impacts of the mine, and the emissions it releases, will go far beyond Cumbria, and to say that the climate crisis is a local issue is clearly absurd. We know that the emissions from a new coal mine in Cumbria can contribute to flooding in Colombo, just as a new gas project in Cabo Delgado can contribute to extreme weather in Kendal. An estimated 143 million people in Latin America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa could become climate refugees by 2050, and current projections for 3 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels will devastate communities in Osaka, Miami, the Hague, Dhaka, Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai. Climate change is a global issue connecting us all, and must be recognised as such.
Later this year, the government is even hosting the COP26 to determine co-ordinated international action on climate change, but Jenrick’s refusal to intervene has already undermined UK leadership. Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador to the UN, said:
"Investment in renewables in place of coal is the morally correct choice. In the global climate struggle, words are extremely important. Deeds matter even more."
Greta Thunberg said it showed that Britain’s commitment to go carbon neutral by 2050 “basically means nothing”! Reversing this decision and calling in the mine is necessary if essential and ambitious international action on climate change is to be agreed later this year.
Will digging up Cumbrian coal prevent coal being extracted elsewhere?
Cumbria County Council argued that there would be no additional carbon emissions released from the Cumbrian coal because coal from the mine would replace what is currently being extracted overseas. The Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson, whose seat is in nearby Workington, said that "it's better for the environment to dig coking coal from Workington than from Wyoming, because it saves on emissions from transport". But the reality is that by opening a new mine, coal will be dug in Workington and Wyoming. More coal means higher carbon emissions, and any savings on transport are tiny in comparison.
It is also absurd to claim that mine owners in the US would reduce extraction in response, rather than dig up as much coal from the ground to sell for profit as possible. They would most likely even drop the price if necessary, encouraging further coal consumption. Once the Whitehaven mine has full approval it can only be stopped by paying lots of money to the owners, and coal could be extracted right up to 2050, and used anywhere, for any purpose. UK net-zero by 2050 goals would mean nothing.
Do we need the coal to make steel?
Too many people accept without question that this mine is ok because it will produce coking coal, used in steel production, rather than thermal coal for energy production, and there has been a big debate about whether the use of coking coal to make steel will reduce, and how soon.
SLACC, Coal Action Network and others have submitted evidence to the government on the increasing use of recycled steel and of lower carbon steel making methods. SLACC’s expert consultants have also shown that the use of coking coal in Europe will fall significantly from 2030 onwards due to the introduction of new production methods (including very low carbon steel using clean hydrogen).
Cumbria County Council responded by limiting the expiry date of the mine to December 2049 rather than 2070, but 2050 is still far too late. The Climate Change Committee’s new projections show that coal use in the steel industry will need to drop by approximately 2/3 by 2037. Steep quick drops in emissions are needed, and a mine that runs flat out to a 2050 cliff edge is too damaging. There is no global shortage of coking coal, and SLACC’s economics expert Professor Paul Ekins showed that excess supply leads to lower prices and dis-incentivises the green transformation that is needed.
But there is a more important question. How much does the UK steel industry need the coal from this particular mine? Cumbria Council's own consultant has demonstrated that only one of the UK's major steel producers could use this coal, due to its high sulphur content. So more than 90% of it will be exported, to the EU or elsewhere.
There must be a public inquiry
If Robert Jenrick does listen to our demands and call the application in, there would be a Public Inquiry. This independent investigation is a far better way of getting at the truth and trying to repair the damage to the UK’s “leadership” than the alternative of a Judicial Review of the planning permission.
Photo: SLACC activists take a stand against the Cumbria coal mine. Credit: SLACC.