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The Cumbria coal mine is an insult to the North

While the world moves on, the UK government is trying to fob off northerners with an outdated project that is economically, socially and environmentally destructive - and that will entrench, rather than resolve, poverty in Cumbria. 

December 10 2022, 09.42am

“Diversifying our energy supplies by investing in renewables is precisely the way to insure ourselves against the risks of energy dependency. It is also a fantastic source of new jobs and growth.”

These were the words UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blithely parroted at COP27 in Egypt last month. This week, his government approved a new coal mine - the first such project in the UK in 30 years. 

It’s tempting to see this almost comical about-face as a product of energy shortages, or, at a pinch, as a  political sop to an area beset by high poverty and unemployment: after devastating the North economically through decades of deindustrialization, Thatcher’s party is bringing back the coal industry. 

But the truth is that the coal mine will likely make unemployment in Cumbria worse, not better, over the long term. It will do nothing to address the UK’s energy crisis. And far from being a sop to the North, the move is a patronising insult to Cumbrians. 

Let’s start with employment. The mayor of Copeland has said the mine will create 500 jobs directly, with potentially another 1,500 in the supply chain. Yet, as the government knows only too well, the jobs that will be created will be short-lived in a world that can only have net zero as the direction of travel, if dangerous levels of global heating are to be avoided. 

Moreover, the mine is not even meant to help with the energy crisis. It won’t produce coal for electricity, but coking coal - 2.8 million tonnes of it a year - meant largely for steelmaking. But exactly who will buy the mine’s produce remains a mystery. At least two UK steel-makers — Tata Steel and British Steel — have said they are unlikely to use it, and steel-makers across Europe are trialling low-carbon steel-making techniques, such as electric arc furnaces with energy from renewables. Indeed, the International Energy Agency forecasts that coking coal in a net-zero scenario will “decline rapidly to 2030”. 

As  Cumbrian MP Tim Farron told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, praising the mine’s opening was a “bit like celebrating the opening of a Betamax factory”. Just as we will not see the return of video cassette tapes any time soon, coal is not about to make a comeback. 

Farron is not alone. He is joined by Adair Turner, former director-general of the CBI and later chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change. The decision to back the coal mine is “climate vandalism and economic incompetence,” tweeted he tweeted, adding that future  governments “will have to bail out bankrupt assets and deal with unemployed workers stuck in dead end jobs.” 

This is where the insult comes in. If this government wanted to genuinely re-industrialize the North, they could have taken a far-sighted, holistic approach that takes us closer to net-zero, not away from it, and that guarantees transition to green employment instead of undermining it. They could, for instance, take the lead from companies like SSAB in Sweden, which aims to make steel with almost no carbon footprint a reality by 2026, by using hydrogen produced from renewable energy like wind power instead of coal in the ore reduction process, and emitting water instead of carbon dioxide. Imagine metalworks powered by the same process producing parts for wind turbines in the UK and beyond. A virtuous circuit and decades of employment in an industry of the future, not the past. 

Instead,  as Lord Stern, the British economist who has led the way on analyzing the costs of climate action and inaction said about this government: “Economically, it is investing in the technologies of the last century, not this, and that is the wrong path to growth. Socially, it is pursuing jobs in industries that are on the way out, creating future job insecurity.” Far from guaranteeing a future for the north, the government is trying to saddle another generation of Cumbrians with non-transferable skills that will result in layoffs and hardship when the mine succumbs to the forces of an increasingly green market, and shut down. 

As environment secretary, Gove promised to ensure a “green Brexit”, and at a conference in Liverpool in February, he insisted: “We simply can’t allow the gulf between rich and poor, and North and South to grow…wherever you stand on the political spectrum, or whatever your background, [leveling up the North] has to be the central economic, social and moral mission.” 

Building a soon-to-be-outdated coal mine that will produce an estimated 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, according to the government’s own advisors, makes no sense economically, socially or morally, and will only further level down the North.  That they believe people in the North are so incapable of long-term thinking as to not see it is offensive.