The curious case of the Cumbrian coal mine: UK decision stuns environmentalists

Last year’s cascade of positive noises coming out of Westminster led many of us to hope for a renewed ministerial focus on climate change through 2021.

However, with just half of January gone, it’s clear that some high-level decisions have not prioritized renewables or the environment, leading to concerns of Government backtracking.

Last week, the Government’s chief planning officer, Joanna Averley, was forced to defend the recent decision to permit a new coal mine in Cumbria. This regressive step has sent shockwaves through environmentalist networks, with many warning that the “decision will diminish the UK’s credibility.”

With the UK playing host to the Climate Summit in Glasgow later this year, all eyes are on Britain to lead the way. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been clear in his ambition to forge a “green industrial revolution”, but many are baffled as to how opening the first deep coal mine in thirty years contributes to that goal.

When pressed as to why Westminster hasn’t blocked the development, Ms Averley stated that the decision was one for ‘local democracy’. In response, John Sauven from Greenpeace said that, “It’s extraordinary that anyone still believes burning coal is only a local issue and has no global impacts. Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view or the world will be toast. It certainly isn’t setting the global leadership on climate that the prime minister says he’s aspiring to.”

Paul Miner, from CPRE, said: “All coal mines should be refused planning permission, according to current government policy. So, it beggars belief why ministers have not stepped in and refused the planning application for this coal mine in Cumbria. Not only does coal mining scar the landscape and cause pollution for countryside communities, it further fuels climate and ecological breakdown. If the UK is to host COP26 while simultaneously approving the extraction of coal, we risk becoming an international laughing stock.”

Ruth Chapman of Dulas added that, “there are always alternatives. The UK is leading the way in solar, wind, hydro and marine. These technologies now have a proven track record to deliver clean, cheap and efficient energy so it makes no sense to take this backstep. If local impacts are what the Government is looking to achieve, investment into clean energies provides a better option for transformative and long-lasting benefits.”

In an era when most developed nations are striving to consign coal mining to history, it is certainly counterintuitive that the UK is making moves to dig new pits.

Germany and Spain closed their last coal mines in 2018 and most other European nations (even the coal-intensive countries such as Poland) have made hard commitments to rapid phase-outs.

Some areas of the press have pointed to the decision as evidence of the negative impacts of Brexit but in fact, British energy policy has always been the preserve of London rather than Brussels.

From that perspective then, this isn’t a case of ‘the first out of the gates after the deal was done’, this is simply the case of an erroneous and peculiar decision.

Bad news for bees

However, another negative environmental ruling that has hit the headlines this week is influenced by Brexit. It is now legal to use ‘bee-killing’ pesticides banned by the EU throughout the UK.

Environment secretary George Eustice has agreed that the UK’s farmers can use a product containing poisonous neonicotinoid thiamethoxam to protect beet crops from a virus.

This doubling up of bad environmental news has been read by many as a portent of Government u-turns to come.

It’s hoped that UK ministers won’t follow the pesticide ruling with more ‘backward’ rulings, but there is some positive news on the horizon.

Ambitious framework

The EU Commission document, published after the Brexit deal had been signed, “establishes an ambitious framework for cooperation on renewable energy and tackling climate change.”

The document outlines that the Brexit deal will be revoked if either party (the UK and Europe) breaches their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. It also denotes that both the UK and Europe are in broad agreement about the measures that need to be taken to achieve a “green Europe”, and that both parties will cooperate fully to meet their shared climate goals.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen even highlighted the importance of renewables during her speech announcing the conclusion of the deal. “We will continue to cooperate with the UK in all areas of mutual interest, for example in the fields of climate change [and] energy.”

Agreements have already been reached on topics such as the production of energy in the North Sea, and the UK has announced its own emissions trading scheme (ETS) to replace the legislation that EU member countries operate under.

More record breaking figures

The UK’s January renewables news hasn’t been entirely swallowed up by bad news and Brexit deals.

We’ve also started to see some incredible statistics trickling through in relation to 2020’s energy use and pollution levels.

The big news story is that we’ve seen the biggest decline in emissions since WWII. Additionally, for the first time since records began, Scotland’s cities have seen their pollution levels drop to within legal limits.

COVID19 has given us an intervention and the results are undeniably humbling. We may never again be given such an opportunity to realize the error of our ways, and to do something about it.

Let’s hope Westminster doesn’t let us down.