What will be the climate impact of a new coal mine in the UK?

The site of the proposed mine in Whitehaven, UK

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The UK is set to build its first coal mine in three decades after the government approved plans for a proposed project in Cumbria, despite widespread opposition on environmental grounds.

Woodhouse Colliery in Whitehaven will produce around 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year, to be used by the steel industry in the UK and beyond, according to developer West Cumbria Mining.

But it 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 scheme.

Why has the government approved the mine?

The government has been under pressure from local Conservative MPs to approve the mine for years, with supporters arguing it will create around 500 much-needed jobs in the local area. But he shied away from making the decision as Britain led global climate talks, a role it officially ended last month.

After months of delay, Michael Gove, the secretary of state for grading, housing and communities, finally granted approval for the mine on December 7, explaining that he was satisfied that the project “would have an overall neutral effect on climate change.” ”. That’s despite analysis suggesting the scheme would produce an estimated 400,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

Can it really be net zero emissions?

The mine’s developers, West Cumbria Mining, have said that “the mine seeks to be net zero in its operations”, which it will achieve by minimizing emissions and buying offsets. But it has only accounted for a small fraction of all the emissions that will be generated once the coal is dug out of the ground, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee, Lord Deben, told the BBC. “They don’t count burning coal,” he said. “We have no way of guaranteeing it’s net zero.”

Does the UK need more coking coal?

The UK produces around 7.4m tonnes of steel each year using coking coal, mainly from two companies: British Steel and Tata. British Steel has said it will not use coal from the Cumbria project because its sulfur content will be too high, while Tata has said it may use some coal from the mine but ultimately plans to switch to greener production methods over the next decade.

In fact, it is estimated that only 10 to 20 per cent of the coal mined from Woodhouse Colliery will be used for steelmaking in the UK.

The rest will be exported abroad, and probably not to countries in Europe, where steelmakers face similar pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. On the mainland, steelmakers are increasingly investing in non-fossil ways of making steel, such as using hydrogen or electric furnaces. In Sweden, for example, Hybrit makes steel from “green” hydrogen, which is generated using renewable electricity.

Will it have a material impact on emissions?

The government argues that the proposed development “will have a broadly neutral effect on the global release of greenhouse gas emissions from coal used in steelmaking.” In fact, the Climate Change Committee said the mine would increase UK carbon dioxide emissions by 400,000 tonnes a year, and once emissions from burning the mined coal are factored in, 220 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent over the course of its 25 years. year of life

Admittedly, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the total emissions from the steel industry, which makes up about 8 percent of global emissions.

But even if the emissions from the mine itself are marginal, many climate experts worry that by approving the mine, the UK government has undermined its international credibility as a climate leader.

Hosting COP26 in Glasgow last year, the UK called on countries to “consign coal to history” and pushed nations to commit to fossil fuel phase-out plans. Approving a new coal mine on home soil will be seen as hypocrisy, the researchers say, and may encourage other nations to extend the life of their own coal industries.

“Developing countries like India will see this decision as extremely hypocritical, and this move will hurt the UK’s history of driving coal out of its energy system,” Sugandha Srivastav of the University of Oxford said in a statement.

Paul Elkins, from University College London, said the approval “shatters the UK’s reputation as a world leader in climate action and exposes it to well-justified charges of hypocrisy: telling other countries to ditch coal without doing it itself.”

Can the mine be stopped?

Despite getting planning approval from the government, some climate experts doubt the mine will ever be operational.

A legal challenge against the decision will almost certainly be launched this week, with NGOs and law firms like Client Earth actively scrutinizing the decision for possible grounds for appeal. new scientist understands

A general election could also ruin the mine’s prospects. Both Liberal Democrats and Labor oppose its development, with Climate in the shadow of Labor and said by the secretary of net zero Ed Miliband the decision shows the government is “relinquishing all claim to climate leadership.” A Labor victory in the next general election could stop the mine before operations begin.

Sign up for our free Fix the Planet newsletter to get a dose of climate optimism delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday.

More on these topics:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *