Green light for coal blackens Government’s eco credentials

Proposed new Cumbrian mine makes a mockery of climate policy

© West Cumbria Mining Company — Artist’s impression

Coal, the black stuff, and coal mining as an industry: for many they do not belong in the 21st century. Vivid images of mid-20th century miners with dust-blackened faces and lithe, muscular bodies in grimy, sweat-stained vests emerging from the pit shaft after an arduous and dangerous shift at the coalface: it all seems long ago, something found only in history books. The industry, which once employed more than a million men, went into steady decline after the epic 1980s battles between the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, and then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. And when the UK finally ended deep coal production in 2016, it was little lamented, certainly not by the young, the climate change scientists or the activists campaigning for a cleaner, greener environment. Now though, plans to open the first new deep coal mine in 30 years are forging ahead with furious opponents warning that it could destroy any chance of achieving the UK’s stated climate change target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The planned mine near Whitehaven in Cumbria, to be known as Woodhouse Colliery and operated by West Cumbria Mining, will raise coking coal for steel production from beneath the Irish Sea. The company says the mine will be safer to work in than the old mines and more sympathetic to the environment. Opponents see it differently, and with Britain hosting the next global climate summit – officially the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, known as Cop26 – in November, the Government is coming under sustained criticism for allowing the new scheme to go ahead. In February, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Jim Hansen, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning that continuing with the scheme showed “contemptuous disregard for the future of young people and nature” that would result in Johnson’s “humiliation” at Cop26.

While the Government appeared unmoved, with ministers insisting the scheme is a local issue and refusing to overrule Cumbria County Council’s go ahead, the Council itself was spooked into suspending construction in February, saying it will reconsider “new information on the Government’s carbon budgets”. It might be acting just in time to – Greenpeace’s Executive Director UK, John Sauven recently put it – “block the mine before it buries the government’s climate credentials under a ton of coal.”

What our surveys show 

While ministers appeared to be taking the easy option – some might say copping out – by claiming the decision to approve the Cumbrian mine was a local issue, a majority of those surveyed disagreed, with 51% saying the Government should have stopped the project on climate change grounds and not left it to the Council. Just 17% were happy for the plan to go ahead, and almost a third of those polled, 32%, said they didn’t know. Probably unsurprisingly, the strongest opposition to the scheme was amongst the younger generations.

It does seem as though more of us are gradually reaching the conclusion that coal mining should be phased out for use in energy production in favour of renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. When we asked the same question in September of last year, 38% said “Yes”, coal should be phased out completely, and in our most recent survey that figure had risen to 42%. In September 26% of those polled answered “No” and this time the number had slipped to 21%. In September there were 36% “Don’t Knows” while in
February the number rose slightly to 37%.

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