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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.

Advocates for the mine argue that it will contribute to levelling up due to the 500 jobs it creates in Cumbria, yet this provides jobs just for 0.1% of the Cumbrian population (estimated population of Cumbria according to Census 2021 figures is circa 500,000). Instead, the Government should be focusing on creating new green jobs based on current and technologies of the future while increasing investment in green renewables. A less ambitious alternative for job creation, but still a highly important goal could also have stemmed from training and upskilling people to retrofit houses with insulation and other energy efficiency measures which would have a dual benefit of tackling both the cost-of-living crisis and the transition to net zero.

To genuinely level-up and tackle regional inequalities across the UK, we need to address multiple areas as people experience many forms of insecurity and inequality simultaneously. In order for levelling-up to succeed, we must not just focus solely on job creation but pay attention to the foundations of prosperity, the factors that enable people to lead fulfilling and flourishing lives. These factors are about the interconnection and intersection between good quality work and income; food and energy security; housing affordability and security; access to key public services like childcare and transport; and having a sense of belonging or inclusion in an area. This framework of ‘livelihood security’ is important especially during difficult times such as the incumbent cost-of-living crisis.

Reverting back to the past with coal mining will ultimately undermine the future prosperity of our planet and that of future generations. The notion that the mine will lessen our dependence on importing stoking coal is a flawed argument since the UK wouldn’t need to rely on importing coal if it did not require its use in the first place and instead were using more renewable, cleaner energy sources. The bottom line is that producing or importing coal goes against our climate commitments and what the UK pushed other countries to do in its presidency of COP, namely to “consign coal to history”.

According to the UK Climate Change Committee (UKCCC), only 15% of the coal produced would be used in the UK and 85% exported which will not lead to sustainable prosperity for the planet as we export increased carbon emissions elsewhere. Climate change is an inherently global challenge and depends on multi-lateral commitments and cooperation across countries hence, encouraging consumption of fossil fuels abroad is foolhardy, to say the least. Equally, the proportion of coal utilised for steel production is estimated by a steel expert to be a modest 10% or less while from 2030 this is likely to reach close to or at 0% as the steel production industry moves away towards less carbon-intensive methods of production.

The UK Government needs to implement whole systems change approach to successfully reach net zero and reduce carbon emissions. There are suggestions this mine would be ‘net-zero’ as a result of offsetting its emissions, however, we urgently need to switch from a position of offsetting to a drastic reduction of emissions which reduces offsetting requirements in the first place. We need to protect and ensure livelihoods continue to thrive for years to come yet we are endangering it by this poor decision.

Julie Baddeley

CGLN Fellow and Chair of the Chapter Zero Steering Committee

This decision is damaging in absolute emissions terms, but also symbolically. How can we encourage heavy coal mining countries to 'phase out' the most polluting fuel when we are opening up a new mine ourselves?

The UK needs a clear, consistent path to deliver its net zero by 2050 target. This must join up regulation on transport, energy, water, planning, and building regulations and create a fiscal plan which encourages our companies to innovate and invest to deliver the transition.

Ben Santhouse-James

CGLN Youth Advisory Councilmember for Climate Finance

The government’s approval of this mine is deeply troubling. After providing some promise in reducing onshore winds restrictions, the government’s decision on this mine flies in the face of the UK’s Presidency of COP26 just over twelve months ago, where we were one of the major advocates for a complete phase-out of coal globally.

Moreover, it threatens to worsen the affordability and sustainability of our energy system at a time when we simply have no room for error. There is no excuse for coal power today; over a third of the UK’s decarbonisation over the last thirty years is attributable to being one of the first major economies globally to wean ourselves off coal.

This decision is regressive, locking us into a stranded asset and risking future path dependency on coal generation for our power system flexibility.

A reassessment is urgently needed.

Professor Martin Charter

CGLN Fellow and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Design

It does seem to be a step back into the past rather than into the future, which seems to be consistent with some elements of the present Government's philosophy.

The argument being proposed by some that this is all fine as it will be supplying the steel industry is missing the overall picture.

Pair this with the current chaos regarding onshore and offshore wind - we're not going to be giving investors any confidence if the thinking seems to be changing daily.

Our focus should be on low-carbon projects and circular innovation - if we want to focus on the steel industry then the investment should go towards how we can best implement a low-carbon steel industry in the UK.

Moreover, there appears to be a lack of coherence on how this will impact net-zero goals overall. Will this set a precedent for other retrograde modes, which back up the feeling that perhaps this government aren't truly committed to the climate agenda?

The question here is about leadership and, speaking cynically, one has to ask the question - 'where is it?'

David Murray

CGLN Member and Executive Director of Sustainability First

Does the UK government want to be seen as climate leaders or fossil-fuelled failures? There needs to be a rapid reprioritisation of investment decisions on energy in this country.

The new coal mine decision is a retrograde step that makes our carbon ambitions harder to achieve. Instead, a much more ambitious national programme of insulating homes and buildings to make our housing stock more energy efficient would create huge job opportunities across the country, reduce everyone's energy bills at a time of financial uncertainty, and enable the UK to meet its carbon targets much faster.

Coupling this with stepping up efforts to decarbonize our energy system (e.g. through growth in wind, solar, and other renewables infrastructure) will help to create clean growth and a green economy in the UK.

Shraddha Nair

CGLN Member and Net Zero Consultant at Turner and Townsend

It is disheartening to know that this coal mine in Cumbria is opening up. As a professional working in the net zero sectors, I can strongly say that it undermines what we are trying to achieve.

I understand that the public is going through an energy crisis with prices skyrocketing but if we are able to reduce consumption and increase efficiency while going through this crisis and increase the production of energy via the renewable sector.

Simon Corbey

CGLN Fellow and Director of the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products

We are absolutely horrified at the permission for the coal mine in Cumbria and are still hopeful it can be overturned. The UK chaired COP 26 and so we must lead by example.

With renewables proving to be so cost-effective and relaxed planning laws for onshore wind, the UK is well placed to be leading the fight against climate change, not reversing progress.

The coke will mainly be exported, so will not assist our steel industry, and the steel industry itself is gradually modernising towards green steel and EAF.

More long-term jobs would be created through a national retrofit and renewables plan - something we should have started 20 years ago.



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