What is the Cumbrian coalmine?
A new coalmine, the Woodhouse Colliery, has been proposed at a site near Whitehaven in Cumbria, with £165m investment and a production capacity of about 2.8m tonnes of coal a year. The proposal has been mooted for more than two years.
After a public inquiry, a decision was expected in the summer but was delayed by the Tory party leadership contest and then put off again until after the Cop27 UN climate summit, which finished last month.
Haven’t we stopped using coal?
However, the proposed minewould produce coking coal used for making steel, rather than thermal coal for electricity generation.
Supporters say coking coal is likely to be needed for some years, as green methods of making steel have yet to be widely adopted.
Would the coal be lower carbon than alternatives?
Some have argued that using Cumbrian coal would produce less carbon than importing coal for steel-making from other regions, such as Russia.
However, at least two UK steel-makers have ruled out using coal from the Cumbrian mine, and steel-makers across Europe are increasingly turning to low-carbon steel-making techniques, such as electric arc furnaces with energy from windfarms and other renewable sources.
That means the market for such coal is likely to be limited. The coal is also expected to be high in sulphur and therefore liable to be rejected even by steel-makers still using coal.
About 83% of the coal produced from the mine would be for export, according to estimates, which would add to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Would the new mine create jobs?
About 500 jobs would be associated with the mine, according to its proponents. Detractors point out that building onshore windfarms – until recently subject to a ban in England – would produce many times more jobs and an ongoing source of clean energy.
There are also moves to start other green technology businesses in the north of England, from hydrogen and carbon capture and storage to electric vehicles. Using ground source heat networks in the north-east could create 15,000 jobs, according to one study, and restoring nature could also produce as many as 16,000 jobs around the country, focusing on rural areas such as Cumbria.
How does a new mine fit with the UK’s net zero targets?
The coalmine would increase emissions by about 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, or the equivalent of 200,000 cars on the road.
The UK is legally committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero – the point at which any remaining emissions are balanced out by the amount of carbon absorbed by the UK’s trees and soils – by 2050.
The mine could be scheduled to shut down by 2049, and therefore still fall technically within the net zero goal.
Who is in favour of the new mine?
The Tory MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson, has described it as a way of reducing the UK’s carbon footprint. “As Britain still needs coking coal for the foreseeable future to make our world-leading steel, it should come from here, not imported thousands of miles away – which will only increase our carbon footprint further,” he told the Sun.
Some of his “red wall” Tory colleagues see it as part of the effort to level up deprived areas in the north of England. On the right wing of the Tory party, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group is against the net zero target, and some of those MPs want the mine to go ahead.
Who is against the new mine?
Alok Sharma was the cabinet minister who received widespread acclaim on the world stage when he led the UK’s successful presidency of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow last year. Demoted to the backbenches by Rishi Sunak, he has taken his opportunity to speak out. He told the Observer: “Over the past three years the UK has sought to persuade other nations to consign coal to history because we are fighting to limit global warming to 1.5C, and coal is the most polluting energy source. A decision to open a new coalmine would send completely the wrong message and be an own goal. This proposed new mine will have no impact on reducing energy bills or ensuring our energy security.”
Lord Stern of Brentford, an acclaimed economist who has worked on the climate, development and public policy, added: “Opening a coalmine in the UK now is a serious mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political. Economically, it is investing in the technologies of the last century, not this, and that is the wrong path to growth. Socially, it is pursuing jobs in industries that are on the way out, creating future job insecurity. Environmentally, it is adding to world supply and thus consumption of coal and releasing greenhouse gases, when there is an urgent need to reduce them. And politically, it is undermining the UK’s authority on the most important global issue of our time.”
Will a new mine in the UK make any difference, when China is expanding its coal use?
China is the world’s biggest consumer of coal and is still building new coal-fired power plants. However, expects say many of the new planned coal plants are unlikely to ever be built, and China is working on peaking its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with experts saying it could peak as soon as 2025.
A new coalmine in Cumbria would produce far less carbon than China’s planned expansion, but it would fuel criticism of the UK as a “hypocritical” developed country for advocating the phaseout of coal around the world while planning its expansion at home.
How will other countries react to a new coalmine in the UK?
Experts on the UN climate negotiations and activists in developing countries have said any decision to go ahead would be disastrous for the UK’s reputation on climate internationally. It could even put at risk global progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions because laggard countries will be able to point to the UK’s hypocrisy as an excuse for their own inaction.
Tensions between the developed and developing world have already been high, as seen at the recent Cop27 summit where rows over the failures of developed countries nearly derailed the talks. A new mine in the UK would inflame that situation further, to the detriment of climate hopes.