The new business secretary has admitted that there is tension between the government’s climate commitments and its decision not to block plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria.
Plans for the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years were given the green light by Cumbria county councillors in 2019 and it emerged earlier this month that Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, opted not to use his powers to block the decision – despite the government’s pledges to rapidly decarbonise the UK’s economy.
Speaking at a parliamentary committee today, Kwasi Kwarteng admitted that there was “a slight tension” between the decision not to block the mine and the country’s commitments to tackling the climate crisis, but said there was a fair argument for allowing it to go ahead.
“There’s two types of coal we’re talking about,” he told the committee. “In terms of thermal coal, which is burnt for electricity generation, we want to take that off the grid by 2025 and we’re looking to do so by 2024. So it’s a rare example of a government target actually being reached ahead of time.
“The coking coal, which is used in industrial processes, is a different issue.”
The coal mine planned for Whitehaven, Cumbria would extract coking coal for use in steel production, rather than for power generation.
“This was a local planning decision,” Mr Kwarteng said. “And the argument, [which] I think is a fair one, says we have steel processes, industrial processes. And if we don’t have sources of coking coal in the UK then we would be importing those anyway.”
However, he also conceded that curbing the use of coal for steel production would be necessary to meet the government’s climate goals.
“My mission as secretary of state is to try to decarbonise the industrial process,” he said. “We’ve got an industrial decarbonisation strategy coming out in the first quarter of this year. We have a clean steel fund which is encouraging steel manufacturers to decarbonise the manufacturing process.”
In response to Mr Kwarteng’s comments, Friends of the Earth coal campaigner Tony Bosworth said: “Giving the go-ahead to a new coal mine does more than create a ‘slight tension’ with climate policy, it drives a coach and horses through it.
“As the UK government prepares to host this year’s crucial climate [talks], its hopes of showing global leadership have been severely dented by this short-sighted decision.”
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “One ‘tension’ in this decision is that the government thinks that global climate change is a local planning issue – a mistake some Chinese local authorities have also been making, to disastrous effect.
“Another is that, in the middle of a climate emergency, we are opening a brand new coal mine using the arms dealer’s favourite excuse that if we didn’t produce and sell the means of our own destruction, somebody else would.
“Building back better means supporting the low-carbon production technologies that steel makers have developed and giving UK industry a viable future, not digging ourselves further into our high-carbon hole.”
The UK’s independent climate advisers have previously said that the steel industry will need to undergo deep decarbonisation if the UK is to reach its 2050 net zero target.
Alok Sharma, who recently stepped back from the business secretary role in order to focus on his role of president of Cop26 – the upcoming climate talks being hosted by the UK – also spoke at the business, energy and industrial strategy (Beis) committee session.
Beis committee chair Darren Jones asked Mr Sharma if it was not embarrassing that the UK had plans for a new coal mine despite its role as host country for Cop26.
In response, Mr Sharma said: “What I don’t want to do is go into the details of discussions we may have had in government. But the direction of travel for the UK is very clear and I completely understand the point you’re making.”
The Independent has approached the government for comment.