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Coal culture wars are generated by money and power
9th July 2020
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This article was published in The Times Red Box column, on 9 July. The text below is a referenced version of the same article.

Could a remote spot in the far northwest of England become the new battleground in the culture wars? A new coal mine has been proposed on the Cumbrian coast, just up the road from me. Like Brexit or colonial statues, opinions are bitterly divided. To one side, it’s obvious that the mine should go ahead. Coal is part of the UK’s proud industrial heritage, and the new mine will provide much-needed local jobs, as well as coal for the steel industry. To the other, the very last thing this warming world needs is another coal mine; if the UK claims to lead the world on climate change, this mine is an aberration.

Let me declare an interest. I’m in the second camp. I have stated that the mine is incompatible with climate objectives, and opposed the development.

The Cumbria mine is a small battle in a wider coal culture war. It’s no coincidence that coal-rich countries like the US, Australia and Poland are also climate laggards. Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament to protest against his opponents’ support for renewable energy.

But there’s a difference between coal and other culture war questions, like whether statues should stay standing. Examine the evidence – which is, after all, what I do as an academic – and you soon find that there is no case to answer. Study after scientific study has shown that fossil fuels, and particularly coal, the most carbon-intense fuel, must stay in the ground.[1–3]

There’s no case for investment in new mines, if we are to avoid dangerous levels of warming that threaten our planetary life-support systems. The evidence is clear and stark.[4]  Steel companies know this – which is why they are investing heavily in alternatives to coal-fuelled production, and expect to have alternatives on stream within one or two decades.[5–7]

Why, if the science is settled, does the coal culture war rage on? The answer lies with money and power. There are still enough companies, and countries, who stand to gain in the short-term from digging up coal, that they are throwing down any argument they can to delay the inevitable.[8] The argument has switched from denying climate change altogether, to what a group of leading researchers recently dubbed ‘discourses of delay’ – a range of arguments why we shouldn’t act just yet, or just here.[9] For coal, a typical discourse of delay, used by the mining companies, is ‘why import coal when we can provide it locally’ – even though carbon emissions from transporting coal are a tiny fraction of the emissions from burning it.

The problem is that we just haven’t talked about this very much, in the UK at least. We’ve focussed overwhelmingly on encouraging solutions like renewable energy and electric vehicles. This makes us feel better, but doesn’t get to the root of the problem. We should also talk seriously about the need to phase out fossil fuel extraction.[10]

The lack of open debate has allowed Nicola Sturgeon to make great play of Scottish leadership on climate, while asking for tax breaks for North Sea extraction. The Oil and Gas Authority, the government body that oversees the sector, still has an aim for ‘maximum economic recovery’ – getting as much fossil fuel out of the ground as possible. The Coal Authority, likewise, cannot refuse licences for coal extraction on climate grounds.

Step forward the plucky Welsh government. They’ve cut through the confusion with a clear statement that they will phase out coal mining, in response to climate change. This admirable clarity means that they can focus on developing jobs and skills in new green industries.

So where does this leave the UK government? So far, they’ve been fence-sitters, with ambitious carbon targets but contradictory policies. That’s why the coal culture war is playing out on the ground locally, in Cumbria, Northumberland and other places where mines are still proposed.

But as the local battles rage, national government will have to decide which side they’re on. A coal culture war? Bring it on. The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear. This is a battle that can, and must, be won, for the sake of all those, human and animal, who call this planet their home.

 

  1. Tong, D. et al.Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 °C climate target. Nature572, 373–377 (2019).
  2. McGlade, C. & Ekins, P. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 517, 187–190 (2015).
  3. Jaccard, M., Hoffele, J. & Jaccard, T. Global carbon budgets and the viability of new fossil fuel projects. Climatic Change 150, 15–28 (2018).
  4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global warming of 1.5°C. (2018).
  5. Allwood, J. et al.Absolute Zero. https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/299414 (2019)
  6. Energy Transitions Commission. Reaching zero carbon emissions from steel. http://energy-transitions.org/sites/default/files/ETC_Consultation_Paper_-_Steel.pdf (2018).
  7. Materials Processing Institute. Letter from Materials Processing Institute to SLACC. https://slacc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/SLACC_Appendix-2_MPI-Report_11-06-2020.pdf (2020).
  8. Oreskes, Naomi. & Conway, E. M. Merchants of doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. (Bloomsbury, 2012).
  9. Lamb, W. F. et al.Discourses of climate delay. Global Sustainability 3, (2020).
  10. Willis, R. Too hot to handle?: the democratic challenge of climate change. (2020).

 

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Rebecca Willis

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