The government is accused of “environmental vandalism” for a new coal mine, while experts question the signals of the movement.
The underground mine, the first of its kind in 30 years on the edge of Whitehaven in Cumbria, has been approved by the Government after a series of delays.
About 2.8 million tons of coal are expected to be extracted annually for use in steelmaking rather than power generation, and supporters say the program will create around 500 jobs for the local area.
But opponents warn that this will create more greenhouse gas emissions and say Britain is hypocritical in its efforts to show climate leadership on the international stage and urge the world to give up coal.
They want to see investment in green businesses.
Business and engineering experts have questioned investment in “1850s technology” to supply coal for steelmaking as the industry moves towards cleaner production methods.
And they warned it was giving the wrong signal to the industry about climate commitments to reduce emissions to zero (known as net zero) by 2050.
Communities Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged that the plan may be subject to legal challenge, but insisted it would be a net-zero emissions project, claiming it would “support the net zero transition to some degree”.
Mr Gove told Commons that “all scenarios and forecasts for future coking coal use” submitted to the public inquiry into the application show that demand for the product will continue for decades.
He also said the UK is “almost entirely dependent on imports of coking coal” to meet its steelmaking needs.
But shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy has accused Conservatives of being “environmental vandalism” and warned that her own climate advisers say the mine will increase emissions by 0.4 million tons a year.
He also said that the two major steelmakers, Tata and British Steel, are phasing out coal in favor of lower carbon production methods, so that “at best, the UK will use less than 10% of the mine’s output” by the mid-2030s. Global demand was predicted to fall 88% off the cliff by 2050.
He said that the people of Cumbria deserve a long-term future with permanent, well-paying jobs, but the Government has recently rejected a plan to bring new nuclear to Cumbria and create 10,000 jobs.
The resolution “flies in the face of Britain’s net zero targets”, he added, telling MPs: “The Conservatives were once the party of protection, now they are the party of environmental vandalism”.
Scientists and engineers also pointed to warnings from British steel companies that they would not be able to use coal due to its sulfur content, which would mean most of it would be exported.
And a number of plans around the world, including Europe, are investing in new alternatives to using coal in steelmaking to reduce emissions.
Sir David King, former government chief scientist and chair of the independent Climate Crisis Advisory Group, called the decision an “incomprehensible act of self-harm”.
“It should not be a new venture into coal, oil or gas recovery worldwide.
“This act of a leading advanced economy sets a completely false example to the rest of the world.
“Our only real impact on the world’s climate crisis has been seriously set aside by this action.”
Sam Fankhauser, from Oxford University’s Smith School of Business and Environment, said the decision sent the “completely wrong message” about the UK’s commitment to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2050 to tackle climate change.
“It looks hypocritical in the eyes of low-income countries, whose fossil fuel ambitions we’ve repeatedly criticized.”
Prof Stuart Haszeldine, from Edinburgh University’s School of GeoSciences, said: “Opening a coal mine in Cumbria is an investment in 1850s technology and does not look forward to the low carbon domestic energy future of the 2030s.
“We have studied Cumbrian coals and it is clear that they are very high in sulfur and are not wanted by the two UK iron and steel producers.”
“Steel production in Europe is changing rapidly, hydrogen is used instead of coal.
“Most and perhaps all of this coking coal will be exported outside of Europe to avoid environmental restrictions on its use. The UK will become a global supplier of dirty fuels.”
Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an alliance of business, academics and civil society that supports a sustainable economy, said the decision was “deeply disappointing from an industrial strategy, market signal, environmental and diplomatic standpoint”.
He said: “Many steelmakers in the UK and around the world are now planning to move away from coal and instead produce green steel through cleaner technologies such as electric arc furnaces powered by renewable energy or direct hydrogen reduction.
“These are the technologies and globally relevant supply chains that the UK must look for to gain competitive advantage and where new and secure jobs can be created across the country and over the long term.”
He added that the move comes a year after the UK Government launched a campaign encouraging businesses and investors to step up their emissions reductions.
“The approval of a new open coal mine in the UK a year later sends a very confusing signal to the business and investment community and is in no way consistent with the actions of a government seeking to reduce risks and accelerate investment flows. towards low carbon technologies to reach net zero.”