The UK has greenlit a controversial plan to open the country’s first new coal mine in three decades, a little more than a year after the nation tried to convince the world to ditch coal at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.
Michael Gove, the UK housing and communities secretary, on Wednesday approved the plan to open the Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria, a county in northwestern England that is home to the World Heritage-listed Lake District.
The controversial mine is expected to create more than 500 jobs. But the environmental trade-off is steep: The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent group that advises the government, has estimated the mine and the coal it will produce will emit around 9 million tons of planet-warming emissions every year.
Supporters of the mine argue the project will create jobs and secure the fossil fuel for British steelmaking; however, 85% of the coal mined is due to be exported.
The CCC has criticized the decision. Committee chairman Lord Deben said in a statement: “Phasing out coal use is the clearest requirement of the global effort towards Net Zero. We condemn, therefore, the Secretary of State’s decision to consent to a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, contrary to our previous advice. This decision grows global emissions and undermines UK efforts to achieve Net Zero.”
The mine’s approval was also met with fierce criticism from scientists and environmentalists.
“A new coal mine in Cumbria makes no sense environmentally or economically,” said Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, in a statement. “It will add to global CO2 emissions, as the new supply will not replace other coal but divert it elsewhere, and it will become stranded in the 2030s as the steel industry globally moves away from coal.”
Ekins also said that the mine’s approval “trashes the UK’s reputation as a global leader on climate action and opens it up to well justified charges of hypocrisy – telling other countries to ditch coal while not doing so itself.”
The government initially approved the project, but then put it on hold after a wave of protests, including a 10-day hunger strike by two teenage activists.
It came under intense pressure to reject the plan in 2021, the year it hosted the COP26 talks in Glasgow.
Alok Sharma, the COP26 President and a lawmaker for the governing Conservative Party, campaigned against the mine.
“Opening a new coal mine will not only be a backward step for UK climate action but also damage the UK’s hard-won international reputation, through our COP26 Presidency, as a leader in the global fight against climate change,” he said ahead of the announcement on Wednesday.
The decision comes a little more than a year after the conference, and after lengthy discussions between the UK government, local authorities and the public.
The Cumbria County Council had also approved the plan three times, but it backtracked its decision last February and called for a planning inquiry, effectively shifting the decision to the national government.
The Whitehaven mine, also known as the Woodhouse Colliery, is scheduled to operate until 2049, which is just a year before the UK’s self-imposed deadline to slash greenhouse gas emissions to net zero (emitting as little greenhouse gas as possible, and offsetting any emissions that cannot be avoided).
According to the International Energy Agency, investment into new fossil fuels infrastructure must stop immediately if the world wants any chance of achieving net zero by 2050. The latest climate science shows that achieving net zero by mid-century is necessary to keep temperatures from rising well above 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial times. Beyond that threshold, the world will face climate crisis impacts that could take millennia to correct, or could be irreversible altogether.
Climate activists have protested against the project, while West Cumbria Mining, which is developing the mine, said the project would bring hundreds of new jobs into a struggling region. Its opponents argue these jobs may not be secure, given the huge momentum in Europe to phase out coal.
“Opening a coal mine in Cumbria is investing in 1850s technology and does not look forward to the 2030s low carbon local energy future,” Stuart Haszeldine, a professor at the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement.
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