Lessons from the coalface: what the Cumbria coal mine story tells us about UK climate strategy
10th October 2020

The UK may see itself as a climate leader, with cross-party support for a net zero goal. But, last week, local politicians granted planning permission for a proposed coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria. Burning the coal from the mine, to make steel, will release nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That’s more than double Cumbria’s total current emissions. (There’s more on the background to the mine in this briefing.)

I first wrote about the mine more than a year ago, pointing out that it was a casualty of the ambiguities and inconsistencies that dog UK climate strategy. Since then, despite a doubling down on rhetoric, things have become no clearer. We are still arguing over whether or not it is legal to dig yet more coal, the most polluting fossil fuel of all, out of the ground.

There is recognition of the climate impact
Strange as it sounds, the latest discussion and vote in Cumbria is actually a slight improvement on what had gone before. Following a deluge of expert evidence and media coverage, and the threat of judicial review, Cumbria County Council have finally accepted that the carbon emissions from burning the coal should be taken into account in the planning decision. But they claim that the mine will not add to the stock of global emissions, because it will simply substitute for coal mined elsewhere, so that carbon impacts are neutral overall. In other words, they claim that for every lump of coal mined in Cumbria, a lump of coal will stay in the ground somewhere else in the world. As the eminent resource economist Professor Paul Ekins wrote in his letter of objection, there is absolutely no evidence for this assertion.

In a further attempt to lessen the climate impacts of the mine, planners have shortened its lifespan, saying that it must cease operations on 31 December 2049, the minute before the UK is legally obliged to reach its net zero emissions pledge. Again, this is a blatant misreading of the Climate Change Act, as expert evidence from leading academics argues.

There was also a great deal of discussion about whether the steel industry would need to keep using coal to make steel. Planning officers claimed that no alternatives to blast furnaces would be available before 2049 but, again, evidence submitted by steel industry experts disagrees.

Our efforts to raise these issues have not failed entirely. Previously, councillors had voted unanimously in favour of the mine. This time, three – one from each of the main parties, including the chair and the deputy chair of the committee – voted against it, one citing the implausibility of the claims that the climate impact would be ‘neutral’. But most councillors didn’t enter into the detail, simply stating they were in favour of developments that bring jobs. A blog by Ciara Shannon gives a flavour of the meeting.

The decision raises wider issues about strategy
The fate of this particular mine and, with it, nine million tonnes of CO2 a year, now hangs in the balance. Robert Jenrick, secretary of state with responsibility for the planning system, is considering whether the decision should be made at national level instead. But the issues it raises are much wider.

First, there is an urgent need for a clear national policy on fossil fuel extraction. We cannot continue to invest in new high carbon infrastructure if we are going to meet that net zero goal, yet current policies are ambiguous and contradictory. Contrast this with Wales: the Welsh Government has stated clearly that it will not issue licences for new mines, and will focus instead on driving the transition away from fossil fuels toward a zero carbon economy.

Second, there needs to be much closer attention to developing a low carbon transition strategy for industrial areas, particularly places like Cumbria’s West Coast which have seen declining employment and living standards over many years. The West Cumbrian councilors that voted for the mine felt they had no choice where jobs were concerned. The government has promised a new Industrial Strategy, but will it provide quality, zero carbon jobs for the areas that desperately need them?

Third, and closely linked, local authorities currently have no statutory duties or targets on climate change. They are drastically under-resourced and, as the Cumbria saga has shown, ill-equipped to consider decisions of this magnitude. A decision on this mine is nationally and globally significant, yet many on the committee did not feel that they could, or should, make decisions like this, as one said, before voting in favour, “I wasn’t elected to do global issues, I was elected to do Cumbria issues”. The critical thing is, of course, to link the two: to devolve climate strategy, giving local areas the responsibility, powers and resources they need to develop local strategies that improve the local area, bring better employment while also getting emissions down.

I learned a new phrase this week: “the fog of enactment”. It was coined by US political scientist Leah Stokes to describe how a piece of legislation, conceived with a straightforward goal and purpose, can become foggy and ambiguous as it gets tangled up in different levels of government, different institutions and conflicting political ambitions. It made me think about how the admirably clear Climate Change Act and, with it, the net zero target, have become snarled up in a system that doesn’t yet acknowledge and value net zero as it should. That fog has settled on Cumbria’s West Coast and there is no sign of it shifting just yet.

About author

Rebecca Willis

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