The UK approves its first coal mine in decades. But what about the climate?

Environmentalists are up in arms.
Fabienne Lang
A dump truck loading and transporting minerals.
A dump truck loading and transporting minerals.

Hello my names is james,I'm photographer./iStock 

The U.K. has approved its first coal mine in 30 years, despite climate concerns. The British government approved the move on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, just one year after it hosted the major climate summit, COP26, reported the BBC.

The mine, near Whitehaven in Cumbria, will take two years to build and is set to produce around 2.8 tonnes of coking coal per year, according to the Washington Post.

Environmentalists have voiced their concerns, saying the new mine will stoke global emissions and spread a negative message around the world about Britain's climate image.

Coal, its uses, and its impact

Coking coal is used in the production of iron and steel, with over 66 percent of steel production relying on inputs of coal, explains Science Direct. World crude steel production stood at 1.6 billion tons in 2013. Around 0.6 t (600 kg) of coke produces 1 t (1000 kg) of steel, which means that around 770 kg of coal are used to produce 1 t of steel through this production route.

Coke is produced by baking coal in the absence of oxygen to remove the volatile hydrocarbons contained in coal, Science Direct explained. Coke making is extremely problematic from an environmental perspective, as many of the hydrocarbons given off during the coking process are hazardous.

To dig a little deeper and explain the effects of coal mining, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated (as of Oct. 2022) that in 2021, CO2 emissions from burning coal for energy accounted for about 20 percent of total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions, and for nearly 60 percent of total CO2 emissions from the electric power sector. 

Burning coal creates a number of harmful emissions, including sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses, nitrogen oxides, which contributes to smog and respiratory illnesses, and carbon dioxide, which is the primary greenhouse gas produced from burning fossil fuels, among others.

The British government has underlined that if the country didn't have its own coking coal mine, coal would need to be imported into the U.K. and that the coal mined from this project wouldn't be used for generating electricity. Instead, it would focus on the production of steel. Moreover, it stressed nearly 80 percent of the coal would be exported to mainland Europe and that over 500 regional jobs would be created thanks to the mine.

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However, climate supporters are not convinced.

Nicolas Stern, a climate expert at the London School of Economics, told the Washington Post that opening a coal mine in the U.K. now is "a serious mistake."

“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," Stern explained.

Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee (UKCCC), described the proposal to the BBC as "absolutely indefensible" and said the approval of the coal mine would bruise the U.K.'s stance on climate change.

On the other side of the debate, the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the decision was consistent with the government's policies on curbing carbon emissions. It said in a statement, “The mine seeks to be net zero in its operations and is expected to contribute to local employment and the wider economy.”