Ensuring energy sustainability in the long term is one issue among many that has been utterly obscured by the combination of COVID and Brexit. Time that could have gone into a debate over how Britain should be powered has instead been spent dealing with a horrific pandemic.
It is a cliche, but fundamentally true, to say the impact of the pandemic and lockdown will be felt for many years. This doesn’t make a discussion surrounding energy policy redundant. Rather, it is all the more important precisely because it has been neglected.
Life has often felt like it has come to a standstill.
Just imagine, however, what things would be like if there was a national blackout. No electricity to houses, hospitals and public services. Fridges storing the vaccines reliant on emergency generators. Food in supermarkets going off. Individuals unable to travel safely at night.
Though perhaps a farfetched scenario, that was how many people viewed the likelihood of a pandemic before it happened.
Energy policy therefore cannot be reserved to a discussion on climate change. It is all encompassing, like the pandemic, over how we live and what we are able to do.
A planned new coal mine in Cumbria, the UK’s first new deep operational mine in 30 years, is surely not the answer to the energy supply question. Originally backing the decision, Cumbria County Council have now reviewed their plans. While West Cumbria Mining have promised hundreds of well paid jobs, the councillors will reconsider the application with new climate change evidence, with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick responsible for whether to approve its go-ahead. Apparently, the coal would be produced for helping the need for UK steel production.
For those who drive, steel is one material that is an essential part of life. Used for creating cars, mine supporters suggest the coal will be needed for steel for an undefined amount of time.
Naturally, the proposals have generated much opposition. The government has recently announced a ten point plan for tackling climate change. Part of this must be reduced carbon emissions by burning fossil fuels which increase global warming. The environmental costs of the mine are obvious, not least when the UK fully closed its last coal mine in 2016.
Proponents of the mine make the argument that, in 2018, the UK and European steel making industries imported 52 million tonnes of coal from the USA, Australia, Russia and Colombia. Our reliance on other countries in an age of globalisation is obvious. By having a mine domestically, the carbon emissions from such travel would be reduced.
Unfortunately, this argument falls down on numerous counts. Firstly, 85% of the proposed coal mined in Cumbria would be exported overseas, increasing emissions, even though there is no current shortage of coal. Furthermore, a coal mine in the UK wouldn’t stop other European countries being reliant on imports, increasing travel emissions. Before you even consider the environment costs of mining the coal, the travel pollution has rapidly increased.
Most importantly, while the UK, along with the rest of the world, moves towards more reliable sources of energy, it is better to continue importing coal temporarily. It is like a running tap that can be swiftly turned off where necessary. That is not the case for creating a brand new coal mine, the equivalent of building an entirely new kitchen sink. The mine would generate 2.7 million tonnes of coal a year for industrial applications, which will undoubtedly have a cost.
It is insulting to argue that a new coal mine is the best way to brings jobs and prosperity to the north west. I have nothing wrong with a levelling up agenda and spreading the benefits of growth more fairly across the country. Indeed, it was this promise, along with delivering Brexit, that was so influential in granting Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority in December 2019.
The growth of green industries can just as easily provide more jobs, prosperity and community to the area without damaging both the planet and individuals by making them work underground. Offshore wind along the Humber coast, for example, could spark numerous jobs in Grimsby and Hull.
Similarly, hydrogen plants in Teeside would appeal to precisely the voters Johnson won over while helping the planet. Indeed, many steel plants supposedly reliant on this coal are already trying to develop more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of manufacturing steel, meaning any new coal generated could soon be redundant.
Any claims the coal will be carbon neutral can be easily disputed. Green Alliance, an independent environmental think tank, have stated that an increased supply of coal will reduce the price, increasing demand and therefore more emissions. The proposal is also especially ironic and costly given the UK will be hosting the COP26 in Glasgow this November. Though it is meant to be a key sign for countries to show their commitment to climate change, the optics of doing so while developing a coal mine aren’t brilliant. There are numerous ways to ensure individuals and regions have sustainable jobs and access to energy for decades to come.
A new coal mine is not one of them.