And Britain is among countries that have been 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 the making of iron and steel rather than burned to generate electricity.
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. They also argue: If Britain is going to burn coking coal to make steel for many years to come, why not burn coal that doesn’t need to be imported and can be produced at mines officials can monitor?
The proposed mine has become something of a political headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is trying to lead on climate but 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. But a panel advising Johnson’s government on climate issues urged 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 will then need to decide whether it accepts 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. It revolutionized manufacturing.
In his new book, “Black Gold,” journalist 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. It was once the lifeblood of regions including the county of Cumbria, where Whitehaven lies.
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, less than 2 percent of Britain’s electricity comes from burning coal.
Coal is still used the world over, though, by heavy industry to manufacture steel, which is used to make a vast array of items including cars, bridges, home appliances and wind turbines. The British steel industry imports most of its coal from the United States, 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 to 95 percent of people around Whitehaven support it.”
He also bristled at outsiders — from countries that consume far more coal than Britain — weighing in on the issue. “It’s kinda irritating when John Kerry says, ‘Don’t mine coal, we’ll sell you ours’ and ship it around the world, leaving a carbon footprint from transport,” he said.
Trudy Harrison, a Conservative member of Parliament for the area, says there are both economic and environmental arguments for the mine. She told a recent public inquiry that it would contribute an estimated $2.45 billion to the country’s gross domestic product in its first decade. “This could be invested into research and development for new steelmaking processes,” she said.
But the mine also has many detractors.
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.
The panel suggested that there may be no need for coking coal after 2035. And it 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. “What West Cumbria Mining did was actually say, ‘Here’s a 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. It is that simple,” she said, adding that there was enough coal in existing mines around the world to meet 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. And one way to accelerate innovation would be to stop opening coal mines, because restricting supply would drive up the costs of the materials traditionally used to make steel, he said.
“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, a beautiful seaside town with sweeping views of the Irish Sea, was once a thriving economic hub, home to coal mining, iron ore mining, shipbuilding, farming and a major chemical plant. Today, the economy is dominated by one company, Sellafield, a nuclear processing site that is being decommissioned.
But in towns such as this, a new mine is not just an economic draw. It also has social and cultural appeal.
Darren King, 47, a business manager at Sellafield, said his father and both his grandfathers worked in the mines. “I think it should go ahead. . . . It’s part of the town’s history,” he said. “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. “We need coal, in the country, and much better to have it mined locally than import it from Australia,” he said. “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. “I’m fully in support of our environment, so I’m fully against it,” he said. “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, there is over 25 percent child poverty, she said. The roads have potholes, shops are closing at an “alarming rate,” and main shopping streets “are decimated,” Williamson added. She said she is in touch with many former miners, some of whom fell into destitution after the last mine here closed.
“If this mine doesn’t go ahead, what’s going to replace it?” she said.