COP26 host U.K. pledges to phase out coal power while considering its first new coal mine in 30 years

And Britain is among countries pledging this week to end all investment in new power generation from coal, internationally and domestically.

At the same time, however, Britain is mulling whether to approve what would be its first new deep coal mine in more than 30 years.

This week’s pledges would not apply to the mine being contemplated, because the coal taken from it would be used in iron and steelmaking rather than being burned to generate electricity.

Nonetheless, critics say a new mine would increase global emissions and be a bad look at a time when the world is watching. The mine proposal has attracted unfavorable attention from the likes of the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry .

Supporters, including many in this Georgian town in northwest England, say it would bring prosperity to an area that is postcard-pretty but struggles economically. The supporters also argue that if Britain wants to use coking coal for steel production, then why not make it from local English coal? This is a mine they have control over.

The proposed mine has become something of a political headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is trying to lead on climate but who also campaigned on a pledge to promote economic activity in the north of England. In a BBC interview at COP26, Johnson said, “I’m not in favor of more coal,” but he also said the decision wasn’t up to him.

It is up to his government, though.

The Cumbria County Council approved the project. A panel of experts on climate issues advised Johnson’s government and demanded a reconsideration. A top official has put the project on hold pending an assessment of whether proceeding with it is “consistent with Government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change.”

An independent planning official intends to make a recommendation early next year to cabinet minister Michael Gove. Johnson’s government must then decide whether or not it will accept the recommendation.

The significance of coal in Britain’s becoming the world’s first industrialized nation cannot be overstated. The country has an abundance of coal deposits, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, coal transformed the nation: powering steamships across oceans and locomotives across the land. This revolutionized the manufacturing industry.

In his new book, “Black Gold,” the author Jeremy Paxman writes: “The history of its extraction is the story of Britain.”

The industry provided jobs for more than a million Britons in its heyday. The industry was the heartbeat of many regions, including Cumbria where Whitehaven is located.

But Britain has largely weaned itself off coal, replacing it with natural gas and renewable energy including a world-leading network of offshore wind farms. In 1950, 97 percent of British electricity came from burning coal to drive steam turbines in power plants. Today, only 2% of Britain’s electricity is generated from coal.

Coal is still used, though, the world over, by heavy industry to manufacture steel, which is used to make a vast array of items including cars, bridges, home appliances and wind turbines. Most of the coal used in British steel production comes from America, Russia, and Australia.

West Cumbria Mining, funded by Australian venture capital, wants to dig a coal mine on the edge of Whitehaven that it says would provide 500 jobs, paying about $82,000 to $95,000 a year and creating an estimated 1,500 indirect jobs.

Walking along the grassy expanse of the proposed mine site, local mayor Mike Starkie said the kind of investment that is on the table “is almost heaven-sent. … This mine will be transformational for the community.” He estimated that “90-95 percent of people around Whitehaven support it.”

He also bristled at outsiders, from countries that consume far more coal than Britain, who have weighed in. He said, “It is kinda annoying when John Kerry says that ‘Don’t mine coal. We’ll sell it to you’ and ship it all over the globe, leaving a footprint of transport carbon emissions.”

Trudy Harrison, a local Conservative member of Parliament for the area, says there are both economic and environmental arguments for the mine. At a public inquiry, she stated that the mine would bring in $2. 45 billion to the country’s gross domestic product in its first decade. She said that the money could be used to develop new steelmaking technologies and research.

But the mine also has many detractors.

Neil Hudson, another local Conservative member of Parliament, initially was a supporter, but said he has come to think the mine is a bad idea. He cited extreme weather in North America and Europe, as well as a U.N. report released in August on climate, as factors that led him to change his mind.

The Climate Change Committee, the government’s independent climate advisory panel, objected to the mine on the grounds that it would increase global emissions of greenhouse gases and impede the country’s effort to meet its legally binding carbon budgets.

They suggested that there may be no need for coking coal after 2035. And they warned that permitting the mine “gives a negative impression of the U.K.’s climate priorities” in the year it is hosting COP26.

Robert Falkner, an environment expert at the London School of Economics, agreed that the mine plan was undermining Britain’s credibility.

“The U.K. is trying to convince the Chinese to scale down their coal plants, but how can you make that argument when you are considering opening a new coal mine?” he said.

West Cumbria Mining, the company seeking a permit, declined a request for an interview. But at a recent public inquiry, its lawyer Gregory Jones said objections to the mine “amount to little more than emissions offshoring.”

“The reality is that some industries, especially the steel industry, will continue to need coking coal for many years. Once it’s recognized as a continuing need, which will be met with imports from the USA, irrespective of whether this development gets [approval], the objections to this mine amount to little more than emissions offshoring.”

Rebecca Willis, a professor of energy and climate governance at Lancaster University, said it was understandable that people in the community would want to say yes to a mine when jobs were being dangled in front of them.

“What really upsets me is you have forgotten communities, and then along comes a coal mine being really nice to them,” she said. “West Cumbria Mining actually said, “Here’s the register. You can write your name down if you want a job, and as soon as we have vacancies, we’ll email you.’ Obviously, they are going to go for it.”

She said the argument that steel is needed to create wind turbines — while true — was a “distraction.”

“The fundamental point is: If coal is dug out the ground, it will be burned, and burning coal causes climate change. She said that it was that easy, and that the existing coal mines in all countries were sufficient to supply demand.

Frans Berkhout, a professor of environment, society and climate at King’s College London, said emissions from the shipping of imported coal were equivalent to only 1 to 5 percent of the emissions from steel production itself.

The focus, he said, should be on decarbonizing steel production. He said that one of the best ways to speed up innovation is to close down coal mines. This would reduce the supply and increase the cost of traditional steel-making materials.

“Hydrogen steel is something that seems a little bit far off, but there is quite-advanced research and development going on in that area,” he said, citing Sweden as a leader in the production of low-carbon steel.

Many neglected, ex-industrial towns in the north of England would welcome an influx of new jobs. Whitehaven is a picturesque seaside resort with stunning views overlooking the Irish Sea. It was once an economic center that supported shipbuilding and iron ore mining as well as coal mining. Sellafield is the dominant company in today’s economy. This is a decommissioned nuclear processing facility.

But in towns such as this, a new mine is not just an economic draw. The new mine has a social and cultural impact.

Darren King, 47, a business manager at Sellafield, said his father and both his grandfathers worked in the mines. It should be allowed. He said that it was part of the history of the community. “As long as there’s not a major environmental impact, I don’t see the problem.”

Fred Spires, 77 and retired, expressed a similar sentiment. He said, “We need coal in our country and it’s better to mine it locally than import it form Australia.” “The opportunity of so many jobs is too good of an opportunity to let go.”

Sharon Graham, 52, a secretary who was walking her German pointer dog, said she had mixed feelings on the mine: “It’s good for jobs for the area but not so good for the environment.” But her son, Bradley, 22, had no such conflict. He said, “I am fully supportive of the environment. So I’m completely against it.” “You got to have a world to live on in order to have jobs in the first place.”

The last coal mine in town, which has been called a “Georgian gem” for its architecture, was closed in the 1980s, after a faceoff between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and striking miners.

Emma Williamson, a local Labour Party councilor, pointed out a darker side. In her ward, where the mine would be built, she said there is over 25 percent child poverty. According to her, roads are in disarray, shops close at “alarming rates” and major shopping streets have been “decimated.”

“If this mine doesn’t go ahead, what’s going to replace it?” she said.

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