Following more than three years of discussion, communities minister Michael Gove on Wednesday approved the Whitehaven coal mine based on the advice of the top planning officer. Global climate monitors charged the UK with hypocrisy. The UK was able to persuade other nations to agree to phase out coal power while serving as host of the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow last year. Not power plants, but steel works will import coal from the proposed mine. In the last 10 years, the UK has reduced its reliance on coal for power by 95% by reducing consumption and increasing renewable generation.
The government’s official climate advisory group clearly denounced the action, and that distinction was no defense. According to Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, “this judgment increases global emissions and weakens UK attempts to attain net zero.” It contradicts the UK’s stated objectives for leading Cop26 and sends the completely wrong message to other nations about the UK’s climate goals. Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji, asked on Twitter: “Is this the future for which the Glasgow Pact fought? Fossil fuels ought to be phased OUT, not increased.
“Huh?” tweeted Angelique Pouponneau, a Seychelles-based advisor to tiny islands at climate talks. We were perplexed when we learned that 1.5 was on life support a few weeks ago. That was in reference to UK Cop26 President Alok Sharma complaining about the last UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which had weak rhetoric on fossil fuels. When Rishi Sunak became prime minister in October, Sharma was removed for openly opposing the coal mine. “Britain allows first new coal mine in decades despite climate objectives – (But it’s Africa’s tiny use of natural gas that would imperil the world’s climate budget,” tweeted W Gyude Moore, a former minister of public works in Liberia. Right?)”
It has been speculated that the UK government’s decision to approve the coal mine concurrently with its promise to relax planning constraints on the construction of onshore windfarms was driven by party politics. Climate change is a contentious issue within the currently in power Conservative Party. Numerous Conservative MPs worked to make it simpler to erect wind turbines, while Net Zero Watch members fought against environmental regulations.
Gove and planning inspector Stephen Normington used the impossibility of cleaner steel production processes as justification for their choice, claiming that coking coal was still necessary. During the planning phase, several climate scientists gave testimony. They referred to the International Energy Agency’s path to global net zero emissions, which states that by 2050, the world’s demand for coking coal will have decreased 88%. As an example of the shift, Arcelor Mittal’s use of hydrogen to decarbonize steel manufacturing in Europe was provided. Insisting that Arcelor Mittal’s technological advancements were modest and did not merit the fanfare, Normington was unpersuaded.
“The UK cannot gamble that hydrogen will possibly provide a solution in the ensuing 20 years. If we stopped producing steel, we would be among the few developed economies without a steel industry and would simply shift the problems elsewhere, according to Normington. According to a 2020 statement from the European Commission, “There is no other suitable material available which can replace totally metallurgical coal in the blast furnace charge,” coking coal is classified by the EU as a critical mineral. “The longer-term demand for coking coal cannot be projected with any degree of precision,” said Gove in his conclusion. The planning inspector also disregarded worries regarding the mine’s approval having an effect abroad. In spite of the alleged expertise, he claimed that “no proof has been called to prove how mere signaling has in reality affected countries like the USA or China.”
Magnolia Tovar, the director of zero-carbon fuels for the Clean Air Task Force, concurred that decarbonizing steel was a difficult technical task. The steel sector lacks a clear path to decarbonizing primary steel production at a significant scale and in the required amount of time, she added, despite the existence of potential technological alternatives. Action is required to create a strong framework that will encourage the global steel sector to go net zero in terms of carbon emissions, particularly through the use of low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.
The firm building the mine has stated that it intends to offset the emissions it creates during coal extraction, but not those caused by burning the coal in steel furnaces. We’ll purchase the offsets from Gold Standard. This, according to the firm and Normington, will turn the project into a “net zero mine.” Gove said that the coal would help the environment by replacing fuel from other mines that are not “net zero compliant.” The usage of offsets, according to him, is “neither exceptional nor wrong.”
This is at odds with the recommendations made by a recent UN taskforce, which were supported by the UK and all of the nations present at Cop27. They suggested adopting offsets only as a last resort. According to the report’s author, Catherine McKenna, a former Canadian environment minister, “you cannot be a net zero leader while continuing to grow or invest in fossil fuel supply.” Think-tank Ember said that the mine’s environmental impact study overestimated the amount of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, that its operations would release. According to their data, similar mines around the world often leak four times as much. “Methane from coal mines poses a serious threat to the environment. We can’t afford for it to be undervalued and ignored once more, according to Anatoli Launay-Smirnov, a senior analyst at Ember. Green organizations anticipate challenging the ruling in court.