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Network Reflections: Coal in Cumbria

We asked members of our Network - from our expert Fellows to our Youth Advisory Council - to share their thinking on the recent news of the approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria...

Yulia Chekunaeva

CGLN Director

To coal or not to coal Is it even a question?

Dec 7th, 2022 was marked with a cornerstone decision from the UK government to approve the first coal mine development in decades, highlighting an investment of £165 million and the creation of 500 jobs in the area of the coal mine operation.

There are several important points to make here, but so as not to be repetitive of the comments of the wider Network. I will focus on the decision from a metals and mining perspective.

I personally see a great aspiration and effort within the metals and mining sector to become fit for a sustainable future - which is why this week's decision is even more perplexing and backward in its thinking.

First, let’s not confuse what type of coal the newly approved mine is going to be mining: it is coking coal, not thermal coal. Coking coal is used in steel making and not in power or heat generation.

But does this make the decision any better? In my opinion, not particularly. Instead of promoting the conversion of existing steel capacities into less polluting ones, by, for example, promoting the same approach as done in the Swedish steelmaking Industry and moving from conventional steelmaking practices to steel making process deploying green hydrogen. Thus making the steel operation essentially CO2 free.

Instead, the approval of the new coking coal mine provides a stable supply of the essential raw material to the technology first introduced by Abraham Darby in 1709 (obviously updated yet basic principle remaining unchanged) thus locking in UK Industry to that method of production over the next 50 years (the estimated mine-life for the new coal mine).

Now, digging deeper for non-metals and mining specialists few remarks on the steel itself. According to the publication from Carbon Brief, released in June 2021 the global iron and steel industry is responsible for 11% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, why is that? Because to reduce either iron or steel scrap to produce new metal, one needs to use a lot of energy for conversion.

Notably, most current and planned steel plants use the high-carbon blast furnace basic oxygen furnace process (invented in the 18th century) whereby the iron is melted using the heat from burning highly calorific coking coal to produce metal.

The key word here is burning, meaning the process inherently would be emitting CO2. The traditional blast furnace-based steel mills contribute globally more than 7% of CO2 emissions, the remainder comes from other types of steel mills such as electric arc furnaces, where the key part is the source of energy (fossil fuels based or renewables).

To maintain a 1.5C degrees scenario, all industries must transform and, according to the IEA Iron and Steel Industry Roadmap, the emissions from the steel and iron sector should decline by 90% by 2050. This is hardly possible if old methods of production are supported instead of promotion and support of the newer more efficient and environmentally friendlier technologies, such as the example of using hydrogen in Sweden, as well as rapid scaling up where possible access for steel mills to renewable energy, greater introduction during the transition of gas based DRI (directly reduced iron), as well as installing at all steel mills advanced carbon capture and storage technologies.

A massive leap is required to institutionalise a dramatic change all around the world in the methods of steel making and upgrade of supply chains. That is not possible with massive capital re-direction towards new technologies.

Thus it remains a miss to me why any government that is positioning itself as a global leader in decarbonisation and the fight against climate change would be promoting an investment of hundreds of millions into maintaining something ancient. All the while there are plenty of opportunities to attract private investments, create employment and ensure well-being for communities by helping the development and implementation of new technologies and energy transition of basic hard-to-abate industries to those new technologies.

Sir David King

CGLN Co-Founder and Chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group

Given the nature of the climate emergency that we are all faced with, the decision to go ahead with a new coal mine in Cumbria is an incomprehensible act of self-harm.

Worldwide there should be no new venture into coal, oil or gas recovery. This action by a leading developed economy sets exactly the wrong example to the rest of the world.

Our only real form of influence on the climate crisis in the world is seriously jettisoned by this action.

Angela Zhong

CGLN Member and Economics Student at Harvard

I'm quite disappointed in this decision, as I think that this is definitely a step backwards. I'm suspect of claims regarding market demands, considering that other countries have not felt the need to supply such a demand.

Additionally, I would expect the UK government to invest in and promote cleaner jobs, both environmentally and from a health equity perspective.

Professor Dame Henrietta Moore

CGLN Fellow and Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity

Following COP27 a few weeks ago where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had stated it is “morally right” for the UK to honour its climate pledges, the approval for the opening of the coal factory in Cumbria significantly undermines the UK’s climate credentials and efforts to reach net zero by 2050.