Politics Explained

What do plans for a new coal mine say about Britain’s climate leadership?

Stopping the development would set a fine example to the world – and demonstrate how a democratic country can take tough decisions, writes Sean O'Grady

Thursday 04 February 2021 21:30
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<p>An artist’s impression of the proposed site in Cumbria</p>

An artist’s impression of the proposed site in Cumbria

It cannot be comfortable for the prime minister to come under sustained criticism from leading environmental figures over a proposal to open one relatively small coal mine in Cumbria. Boris Johnson, sincerely or not, has put sustainability at the core of his “build back better” policy, has set ever more exacting deadlines to reduce CO2 emissions and has placed huge importance on the Cop26 international climate conference in Glasgow scheduled for November. 

And yet James Hansen, the “godfather of climate change” and one of the world’s leading scientists, says in an open letter that Mr Johnson risks “humiliation” if he doesn’t somehow intervene to stop the pit. It will create precious jobs in a “left behind” part of the north, precisely the kind of place Mr Johnson’s “people’s government” pledged to “level up”. The coal mining scheme was granted planning permission from the local authority, and the communities secretary Robert Jenrick, has upheld the decision. Downing Street says the decision will not be overruled by Mr Johnson. That doesn’t, of course, rule out a U-turn.

For a government that likes to boast about its green credentials, the new coal mine is deeply embarrassing. It joins the HS2 line and the expansion of Heathrow as symbols of green hypocrisy on the part of the government, no matter about its plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars. In the case of the new coal mine, the arguments are especially complicated. 

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