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Druridge Bay, Northumberland - just the place for an opencast coal mine? Photo: SAGT via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Druridge Bay, Northumberland - just the place for an opencast coal mine? Photo: SAGT via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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The end is nigh for coal - the UK must stop digging!

Deniz Kemal

6th March 2017

The UK Government is planning a coal-free energy future by 2025, writes Deniz Kemal. But it has failed to take the first step to make it happen: give clear guidance to local planners to block new coal mines on climate change grounds - like one application going to public inquiry this summer for a huge opencast mine on the Northumberland coast.

Local planning decisions, logically, need to be consistent with the climate aspirations of the whole country. That means that they should fit with the goal of our climate change law: driving emissions down.

Right now, the UK government is figuring out how to make a decisive break from using coal for electricity - by 2025.

At the same time, it's deciding whether to approve a brand new coalmine - the UK's largest - on a beautiful stretch of north-eastern coastline.

Are we the only ones who feel there's only one clear choice here?

Last year, Northumberland County Council made the astonishing decision to approve plans for a three million tonne opencast coalmine near Druridge Bay.

Then, in September, the approval was 'called in' by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid. It's believed to be the first planning decision called in on climate grounds. The next step will be a public inquiry, expected in June this year.

It's a significant and symbolic move by the government. A massive coalmine would be totally inconsistent with governmental commitments to address climate change. It's vital this mine is not given permission to go ahead.

Banks Mining's backward logic

Banks Mining group, the project's owner, argues that the Highthorn planning application "allows for a five year extraction period, meaning it will be completed well in advance of the government's 2025 date for phasing out energy generation from unabated coal."

This message unfortunately misses the point of the coal phase-out and ignores the disastrous effects of fossil fuels' contribution to climate change. We are not in a race against time to mine and burn as much coal as possible before we're no longer allowed to. We're on a serious mission to decarbonise.

Over its lifetime this mine would be responsible for the release of more than 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - roughly the entire annual output of Belize or Albania. That is the equivalent of driving 1.8 million cars for a year - or, more pertinently, installing 2,150 wind turbines.

Approving this application cannot be in line with the UK's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement - nor the UK's coal phaseout, which, by definition, implies measured steps and the gradual reduction of coal energy with a deadline of 2025.

The 2025 deadline should not be used to grant coal unbridled use for another eight years!

Coal developments mean stranded assets

Coal is, by popular admission, on its way out. Even large coal players such as Drax Group have converted a large sector of the Drax power station to biomass.

ClientEarth does not condone the industrial use of biomass energy due to its dubious status as a 'renewable' source of energy. But we do take this move by Drax to transition from coal as testimony to the speed at which it is vanishing from British energy culture.

And take the brand new coal facilities that have come online in the Netherlands - and just as quickly found that they'll most likely need to close to meet carbon commitments. We need consistent decisions from the UK that make it clear that investment in coal is now unviable.

At the top of the list of questions considered at the public inquiry this summer should be the grave impact burning coal has on human health and the environment. Last year's 'Lifting Europe's Dark Cloud' report showed mitigating coal use would reduce the EU's thousands of premature deaths from coal by nearly 90% each year.

Are councils hampered when it comes to considering climate change?

The council's approval was a reckless, short-sighted move. Coal is increasingly uneconomic and the project is - by Banks' own admission - short-lived. The mine would leave a hole in a landscape that supports a rich and self-sustaining tourism industry.

Concerns are so high in Northumberland over the loss of beautiful land and valuable wildlife habitats, and the increase of pollution in the region, that local campaigners are raising money to take the decision to court.

Local planning decisions, logically, need to be consistent with the climate aspirations of the whole country. That means that they should fit with the goal of our climate change law: driving emissions down.

But local councils may feel nervous about making planning decisions to refuse permission for developments, only for applications to be upheld on appeal - leaving cash-strapped local authorities stuck for substantial costs.

Local authorities need a clear instruction from the UK government to requiring them to uphold national climate change obligations. This would ideally take the form of an addition to the National Planning Policy Framework or a National Policy Statement. Instructions need to be clear enough that climate considerations come out on top of conflicting priorities - including the financial worth of a development project to the developer and landowner.

An opencast mine has no place in this transitional time. UK, European and world leaders have committed to the vital journey to a low-carbon economy. This decision has been called-in in large part due to its threat to the climate. Those carrying out the planning inquiry must keep this at the front of their minds.

 


 

Deniz Kemal works with the Energy team at environment lawyers ClientEarth.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Reclaim the power! Progress towards a fossil-free UK'.

Contact: Ellen Baker, ClientEarth - 0203 030 5951 / ebaker@clientearth.org

 

 

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