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The Observer view on the indefensible decision to open a deep coalmine in a climate crisis




The government says the needs of UK steelmaking override the environmental impact. The industry thinks differently


The decision to approve a new £165m coalmine in Cumbria reveals an unpleasant truth about the government. It demonstrates, with brutal clarity, that No 10 has no credible green agenda and does not understand or care about the climatic peril our world is facing.

Ministers are clearly focused only on short-term, tactical gain - in this case, to give a brief boost to local employment - at the expense of forming a strategy for reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and maintaining world leadership in the battle to limit the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on our climate.

Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, the government's independent adviser, has described the decision to approve the colliery - to be built by West Cumbria Mining - as "absolutely indefensible". The former Conservative minister is quite correct in this analysis, which, in line with other experts, flatly contradicts the levelling up secretary Michael Gove's arguments for approving the mine at Woodhouse near Whitehaven.

The government claims that the Woodhouse colliery, the first deep coalmine to be approved for 30 years, will produce coking coal that is desperately needed for steelmaking in Britain and is therefore vital for UK industry as a whole. This is untrue. For one thing, British steelmakers will be legally required - as part of our climate obligations - to move to low-carbon production in the next 13 years. When that happens it will no longer be able to use coking coal. Output from Woodhouse colliery therefore has no long-term future in Britain.

In any case, the coal that will be dug up at the mine will have a high sulphur content. Many UK steelmakers have indicated that this makes it unacceptable from the start; two companies have already rejected any prospect of ever burning Woodhouse coal. Thus its short-term use in the UK also looks limited, with only one of the current four blast furnaces expected to exploit its coal. As a result, industry figures and energy experts predict that around 90% of Woodhouse's coal will be exported - to a world that already has a glut of fossil fuels. Steelmaking in Europe is also changing and will rely on hydrogen, not coal, in the near future - leaving Britain to seek markets for its Cumbrian coal in places where environmental constraints are limited. In the process, we will have become a supplier of dirty fuel to the planet.

Approval of the colliery seriously tarnishes the UK's reputation as a global leader on climate action and opens us up to well-justified charges of hypocrisy. Telling other countries to ditch coal while creating new mines will seriously undermine British negotiators' chances of influencing climate summits. India and other developing nations will certainly not be happy to be told to avoid using fossil fuels by a country that is exploiting new sources of the most polluting of all hydrocarbons.

It is a grim, unsettling, shameful situation that was summed up by Professor Paul Ekins, of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, last week: "Actions speak louder than words, and approval of this coalmine, instead of seeking investment in renewable energy on the same site, confirms that the government's protestations in favour of a green economy are a sham."

Scientists estimate that the colliery will lead to the release of 250m tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 30 years. West Cumbria Mining says it will create around 500 jobs. In an overheating world, which will become increasingly intolerant of fossil fuels, these jobs are going to be short lived.



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