UK coal mine’s climate impact is ‘indefensible,’ watchdog says

Woodhouse Colliery would be the UK’s first new deep coal mine in three decades. (Image courtesy of West Cumbria Mining)

Plans to build the UK’s first deep coal mine in three decades are “absolutely indefensible” because the resulting pollution would blow holes through the nation’s pledge to reduce emissions by 2050, the climate change watchdog said.

The government is expected to decide next week whether to allow the mine in Cumbria, northwest England. The ruling was put on hold last year after concerns were raised that the mine is at odds with the country’s legally binding goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted last week he supported the project, which would produce coking coal that’s used to make steel. He told Parliament that it made no sense for the UK to import coal when it could be produced at home.

“All it means is that we create another example of Britain saying one thing and doing another,” said John Gummer, chair of the independent Climate Change Committee. “We do not need this coal mine.”

He added that 80% of what the mine produces would be exported, anyway.

The committee released its annual report on how the UK is progressing toward reaching net-zero through five-year increments known as carbon budgets. The government isn’t living up to those ambitious pledges and needs to fill major policy gaps, particularly for insulating homes, decarbonizing agriculture and optimizing land use.

“In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the country is crying out to end its dependence on expensive fossil fuels,” Gummer said. “The window to deliver real progress is short. We are eagle-eyed for the promised action.”

A spokesman for the Business and Energy Department said the UK has reduced emissions faster than any other Group of Seven country in the past 30 years, and it pushed other nations to set their net-zero targets during leadership of the COP26 climate summit last November.

This year, the CCC found that greenhouse-gas emissions have almost halved from 1990 levels. Though there was a 4% increase last year as the economy started recovering from the pandemic, emissions still were 10% lower than in 2019. Car usage has increased, but flights remain suppressed.

Like most of Europe, the UK is searching for new sources of fossil fuels to help wean itself off Russian oil and gas. The UK now wants to keep a reserve of coal-fired plants available this winter rather than shutting almost all of them during the next three months as originally planned.

The CCC said it’s unconcerned by those plans since keeping the lights on should be a priority during the energy crisis. The emissions impact of the insurance supply deal is “very tiny,” said Chris Stark, the commission’s chief executive. The same goes for government plans announced last month to give tax breaks to companies that want to start new oil-and-gas production in the North Sea.

It also praised the nation’s progress in deploying renewable sources of electricity and promoting the use of electric vehicles.

(By Jessica Shankleman)

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