Cumbria coal mine plan a ‘step backwards’, says government climate expert

A new coal mine in Cumbria would be “a step backwards”, the UK government’s climate champion has warned ahead of an impending decision on the future of the controversial plan, expected this week.

Alok Sharma, whose presidency of the COP26 international climate talks ended last month, took to Twitter on Saturday morning to criticize plans for the mine, which would produce coking coal for the production of steel.

“The opening of a new coal mine will not only be a setback for UK climate action, but will also damage the UK’s hard-earned international reputation, thanks to our Presidency of the Cop26, as a leader in the global fight against climate change,” Sharma tweeted.

The forceful intervention of the Conservative Party’s most respected climate figure will stir up more unrest in government over energy, the cost of living and green politics.

“The New Coal Mine [is] should create 500 jobs, but [the Local Government Association] said [there is] potential 6,000 green jobs in Cumbria by 2030,” Sharma tweeted. “[The Committee on Climate Change] noted that the mine would increase CO2 emissions by 0.4 Mt [megatonnes] annually [with] clear implications for our legally binding carbon budgets.

He noted that the mine’s main potential customers – British steel producers – had already rejected it. “As a decision on whether to grant permission looms, certain facts: 85% of the coal produced is believed to be for export, not domestic use – two major UK steel producers will not use necessarily a large part of the coal, in particular because of its composition and its sulfur content.”

Sharma led Britain’s widely acclaimed chairmanship of the UN climate summit Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021. He was sacked from the cabinet by Rishi Sunak in September, and his chairmanship of the Cop26 talks ended last month at Cop27 in Egypt, leaving him as the backbench Conservative MP for Reading, but wielding enormous influence as the party’s main green figure.

His threat to resign, made to the Observer during the Tory leadership race, if the UK’s net zero target was abandoned, prompted Sunak and Liz Truss to step up their green rhetoric markedly.

His intervention is likely to rally Green Tories who are worried about the impact of the Cumbrian coal mine, which experts say will do nothing to ease the UK’s energy supply crisis and could end like an expensive white elephant as steelmakers increasingly switch to low-carbon alternatives, including renewables and green kilns.

But Sunak is also in demand from his party’s right wing, who want the new mine for what they say are new jobs in an area that needs improvement.

The decision on the mine has been delayed for more than two years. Ministers first gave the project the green light in 2020, but in early 2021 the government came under heavy criticism from leading international climate figures, ahead of the UK Presidency of the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021.

They said it was “contemptuous” of the government considering a new coal mine while urging developing countries to stop using coal. Sharma is known to have advocated strongly against the mine within the cabinet.

The mine was then the subject of a public inquiry. A final decision was expected this summer but was postponed during the Tory leadership race, then pushed back as the UK handed over the chair of the climate talks to Egypt at the Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh last month.

If the mine is given the green light this week, it will be while the UK is still under green watch on the international stage – the UN Cop15 biodiversity summit opens this week in Montreal, Canada. The UK has been one of the leading countries pushing for a global commitment to preserve 30% of the planet for wildlife and nature by 2030.

Nicholas Stern of Brentford, the internationally renowned economist who has worked on climate, development and public policy, also told the Observer that the mine would harm the UK and the world in multiple ways.

“Opening a coal mine in the UK now is a big mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political,” he said. “Economically, it’s investing in the technologies of the last century, not in this one, and that’s the wrong path to growth.

“Socially it is looking for jobs in dying industries, creating future job insecurity – surely there are better ways to promote employment and get up to speed. From an environmental point of view, it adds to the world supply and therefore to the consumption of coal and releases greenhouse gases, while it is urgent to reduce them.

“Financially, it creates a potential stranded asset. And politically, it undermines UK authority, leadership and seriousness on the most important global issue of our time.

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