At the conclusion to COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, the UK’s chair of the event, minister Alok Sharma, was almost in tears as he had to admit the conference had failed, at the 11th hour, to deliver an eagerly anticipated global commitment to phasing out all fossil fuels. At the COP in 2022, the commitment to eliminating fossil fuels was weakened further, in that the door has been left open for continuing use of gas.
West Cumbria Mining
There is a back story to the events of COP26. A planning application had been made in Cumbria by an Australian mining interest – West Cumbria Mining – to establish a mine to extract coke gas coal, the quality of which is particularly suited for use in the production of high-quality steel. The local county council had given approval to the scheme in January 2021 – attracted no doubt by the employment it would bring to a part of the country in which new investment is generally sparse. Workington is a former red wall seat that the Conservatives won in the 2019 general election.
The ultimate owner (and beneficiary) of the proposed mine is a private equity group, EMR Capital, based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands with mining interests from Russia to Australia. The proposal has two characteristics the UK should oppose, as both taxable revenue and CO2 emissions would be exported. The government could have stepped in to withhold approval given that the proposal was diametrically opposed to the UK’s commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. It chose not to.
COP26 and the pall of hypocrisy
The ministers and advisers with responsibility for the environment clearly fought a rearguard action over this irresponsible nodding through of the county council’s approval; not only because it made a nonsense of UK commitments to doing what it has promised for the environment, but in addition, it put us in an ethically compromised position at the COP26 event (to be held later that year) at which the UK was supposed to be leading the charge to see fossil fuels phased out.
In March 2021 an appeal was lodged against approval because of the environmental impact of the operation. We’re not talking about how much of an eyesore it will be in a fundamentally rural setting, but the enormous level of CO2 emissions (250 megatonnes) that it would contribute somewhere in the world over its predicted 30 year lifespan. In addition, there would be 17,500 tonnes of methane emitted annually from the mining process itself.
The appeals ruled against the development of the mine. The COP26 event went ahead with the spectre of the Cumbrian coal mine removed and accusations of UK hypocrisy neutralised.
Reversing the decision on West Cumbria Mining
Fast forward to December 2022 – two months after COP27 in Egypt and three significant announcements were made:
- Notwithstanding the cold start to December the Met Office declared on 28 December that 2022 was set to be the warmest year on record for the UK.
- The Met Office forecasts 2023 to be warmer than 2022.
- The National Trust has warned that extreme weather seen in the UK in 2022 has set a benchmark for what a normal year could be like from now on.
So what are we to make of Michael Gove’s announcement in December 2022 that the government has overturned its previous decision and approved the mining of coking coal in Cumbria? It is irresponsible, not to say immoral, for the UK to be enabling megatonnes of carbon emissions to be released outside the UK, rather than encouraging those producers to modify their steel production methods as soon as possible.
Rationally, if they have sincere concerns about the immediacy of the threat to the planet, the foremost priority of politicians should be to align policy and action to mitigate the climate crisis with their political rhetoric. Could the government be pandering to a red wall seat in Cumbria with the alluring prospect of jobs and economic growth, while hoping to bluff its way out of an indefensible decision that flies in the face of its own emission policy?
UK’s actions do not live up to the politicians’ rhetoric or net zero commitments
There is a vanishing market in the UK for this coal – and very little elsewhere – because new production methods using electric arc furnaces are making coke gas coal unnecessary. The destination of the coal is opaque, with vague suggestions it could be the outside the EU, or possibly Turkey. But whoever uses it will be adding significant CO2 and CH4 emissions to the planet’s already stressed environment. It is irresponsible – not to say immoral – for the UK to be exporting to those producers who instead need to be pressured into adopting steel production methods that reduce carbon emissions. Instead, we seem content to add to avoidable emissions.
Meanwhile climate change activists are being described by government ministers as “selfish” and their campaign methods outlawed as “extreme”, because they disrupt people from going about their daily lives.
Try explaining those notions of selfishness and extreme disruption to the people of Pakistan (where one third of the country was covered by flood waters during 2022 and 33 million people displaced from their homes). Would people profoundly displaced, impoverished and bereaved by such a catastrophe condemn campaigns drawing attention to the human cost of climate change? Would you, if you put yourselves in the place of the people of Pakistan?
The danger in the face of so many current crises is that we lapse into a state of frustrated resignation. Meanwhile, the government seems content to profit politically by adding to global emissions. It is a despicable example of statistical game-playing to claim as they do, that our target to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 will not be compromised because we will stop production in 2049.
This critically undermines our COP agreement both in the spirit and the detail of our commitments. Any CO2 put into the atmosphere has a detrimental effect. It is not environmentally cost free to keep emitting CO2 until 2030 as if it were homework being handed in a second before deadline.
Extreme climate change effects are now commonplace
Looking back over 2022 there is increasing evidence – if any were needed – that the extreme effects of climate change are becoming more commonplace.
Anthropogenic climate change is unprecedented in geological time and the cliche ‘we really are in this together’ has never held more truth in relation to our common dependency on the security of our environment. The double injustice of climate change, is that the biggest damage is first striking parts of the world that have made the smallest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. That is why the UK and countries worldwide should be leaving all fossil fuels below ground.
Too often, political leaders including our own, declare the climate crisis to be the biggest threat to humanity’s survival, only to act within a short time in contradiction of their own pronouncements. Actions do speak louder than words and never more so when the gap between them is already taking the lives of human beings around the planet and accelerating mass extinctions in flora and fauna.
Do we have to witness the inevitable destruction of lives and livelihoods and the natural world in the UK before politicians takes full personal responsibility to limit further damage to our planet?
This is the first in a series of articles. Part two is available here.