Cumbria coalmine plan is ‘backward step’, says Alok Sharma

A mooted new coalmine in Cumbria would be “a backward step”, the UK government’s climate champion has warned before an imminent decision on the controversial plan’s future, expected this week.

Alok Sharma, whose presidency of the Cop26 international climate talks ended last month criticised plans for the mine, which would produce coking coal for steel production.

“Opening a new coalmine will not only be a backward step for UK climate action, but also damage the UK’s hard-won international reputation, through our Cop26 presidency, as a leader in the global fight against climate change,” Sharma tweeted.

The robust intervention by the Tory party’s most respected figure on the climate will stoke further turmoil within the government over energy, the cost of living and green policy.

“The new coalmine [is] expected to create 500 jobs, but [the Local Government Association] says [there is] potential for 6,000 green jobs in Cumbria by 2030,” Sharma tweeted. “[The Committee on Climate Change] has noted the mine would increase CO2 emissions by 0.4Mt [megatonnes] annually [with] clear implications for our legally binding carbon budgets.”

He noted that the main prospective customers for the mine – UK steel producers – had already rejected it. “As a decision on granting permission looms, some facts: 85% of coal produced would be for export, not domestic use – two major UK steel producers won’t necessarily use much of the coal, not least due to its composition and sulphur content.”

Sharma led the UK’s widely lauded presidency of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in 2021. He was sacked from the cabinet by Rishi Sunak in September, and his presidency of the Cop26 talks ended last month at Cop27 in Egypt, leaving him as the backbench Tory MP for Reading, but one who wields huge influence as the party’s leading green figure.

His threat to resign, made to the Observer during the Tory leadership contest, if the UK’s net zero target was ditched, prompted Sunak and Liz Truss to step up their green rhetoric markedly.

His intervention is likely to rally green Tories who are concerned about the impact of the Cumbrian coalmine, which experts have said will do nothing to alleviate the UK’s energy supply crunch and could end up as an expensive white elephant as steel makers increasingly move to low-carbon alternatives, including renewable energy and green furnaces.

But Sunak is also being petitioned by the right wing of his party, who want the new mine for what they say will be new jobs in an area in need of levelling up.

The decision on the mine has been delayed for more than two years. Ministers first gave the green light to the project in 2020, but early in 2021 the government came under severe fire from leading international figures on the climate, ahead of the UK’s presidency of the Cop26 UN climate talks in Glasgow in November 2021.

They said it was “contemptuous” of the government to consider a new coalmine while urging developing countries to stop using coal. Sharma is known to have argued strongly against the mine in cabinet.

The mine was then subject to a public inquiry. A final decision was expected this summer but was put off during the Tory leadership contest, and then put off again while the UK handed over the presidency of the climate talks to Egypt at the Cop27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh last month.

If the mine is given the green light this week, it will be while the UK is still under green scrutiny on the international stage – the UN Cop15 summit on biodiversity opens this week in Montreal, Canada. The UK has been one of the leading countries pushing for a global commitment to preserve 30% of the planet for wildlife and nature by 2030.

Nicholas Stern, the internationally acclaimed economist who has worked on the climate, development and public policy, also told the Observer the mine would be damaging to the UK and the world in multiple ways.

“Opening a coalmine in the UK now is a serious mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political,” he said. “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 – there are surely better ways to promote employment and levelling up. Environmentally, it is adding to world supply and thus consumption of coal and releasing greenhouse gases, when there is an urgent need to reduce them.

“Financially, it is creating a potential stranded asset. And politically, it is undermining the UK’s authority, leadership and seriousness on the most important global issue of our times.”


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