What will be the climate impact of a new coal mine in the UK?
The UK is set to get its first new deep coal mine in three decades after the government approved plans for a project in Cumbria, despite widespread opposition on environmental grounds.
The Woodhouse Coal Mine in Whitehaven will produce around 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal a year, which will be used by the steel industry in the UK and beyond, according to the developer, West Cumbria Mining.
But the project has faced fierce opposition from scientists and environmental campaigners, who argue the UK should invest in green steel technologies rather than support a new fossil fuel programme.
Why did the government approve the mine?
He has been under pressure from local Tory MPs to allow the mine for years, with supporters claiming it will bring around 500 much-needed jobs to the area. But he balked at making the move as the UK led global climate talks, a role that officially ended last month.
After months of delay, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levels, Housing and Communities, finally granted approval for the mine on December 7, explaining that he was confident the project “would have an overall effect neutral on climate change”. This is despite an analysis suggesting that the program would produce around 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
Can mining really be net zero?
West Cumbria Mining said “the mine seeks to be net zero in its operations”, which it will achieve by minimizing emissions from coal production and purchasing carbon offsets. But it represented only a tiny fraction of the overall emissions that will be generated once the coal is extracted from the ground, Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), told the BBC. “They don’t count coal burning,” he said. “We have no way of making sure it’s net zero.” The CCC is the government’s independent climate adviser.
Does the UK need more coking coal?
The UK produces around 7.4 million tonnes of steel each year from coking coal, mainly from two companies: British Steel and Tata. British Steel said it would not use coal from the Cumbria project because its sulfur content would be too high, while Tata said it could use coal from the mine, but eventually plans to switch to methods of greener production over the next decade.
In fact, it is estimated that only 10-20% of the coal mined from Woodhouse Colliery will be used for steelmaking in the UK.
The rest will be exported – and probably not to other countries in Europe, where steelmakers face similar pressures to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. On the continent, steelmakers are increasingly investing in non-fossil means of making steel, such as the use of hydrogen or electric furnaces. In Sweden, for example, Hybrit manufactures steel based on “green” hydrogen, produced from renewable electricity.
Will the mine have a significant impact on emissions?
The government argues that the proposed development “will have an overall neutral effect on global greenhouse gas emissions from coal used in steelmaking”. In fact, the CCC said the mine would increase UK carbon dioxide emissions by 400,000 tonnes a year, and once emissions from the combustion of mined coal are taken into account, the equivalent of 220 million tons of CO2 will be emitted during its 25-year lifespan.
It is true that this is a drop in the ocean compared to the global emissions of the steel industry, which represent approximately 8% of global emissions.
But even if the emissions from the mine itself are marginal, many climate experts fear that by approving this the UK government has undermined its international credibility as a climate leader.
As host of COP26 in Glasgow last year, the UK has called on countries to “relegate coal to history” and pressured nations to commit to plans to phase out fossil fuels. Approving a new coal mine on national soil will be seen as hypocrisy, the researchers say, and could embolden other countries to extend the life of their own coal industries.
“Developing countries like India will view this decision as extremely hypocritical, and this decision will do a disservice to the UK’s history of phasing out coal from its electricity system,” he said. Sugandha Srivastav at Oxford University in a statement.
Paul Elkin at University College London said the endorsement “tarnishes the UK’s reputation as a global leader in climate action and opens it up to well-justified accusations of hypocrisy – telling other countries to give up coal without making it himself”.
Can the mine be stopped?
Despite winning planning approval from the government, some climate experts doubt the mine will ever become operational.
There will almost certainly be a legal challenge to this week’s ruling, with NGOs and legal groups like ClientEarth actively reviewing the ruling for potential grounds for appeal, new scientist understand.
A general election could also destroy prospects for the mine. The Liberal Democrats and Labor both oppose its development, Labor shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband saying the decision shows that the government “renounces any pretense of climate leadership”. A Labor victory in the next general election could stop the mine before operations even begin.
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