Britain’s climate change leadership is being undercut by a government decision to allow a new coal mine in Cumbria, MPs have warned.
The UK is hosting a UN climate summit in November, where it will urge other nations to phase out fossil fuels.
The MPs say the government’s decision to allow a new colliery at home will make it harder to secure a deal.
The Woodhouse mine was approved by Cumbria County Council because it will create jobs in an area of high unemployment.
The planning minister Robert Jenrick could have overruled it, but said the issue was best decided at a local level.
That verdict was derided by environmentalists, who pointed out that climate change from fossil fuel burning is a global problem.
Alok Sharma, who is leading the COP26 climate summit and who co-ordinates UK policies on climate change, was asked by the Commons business select committee whether the mine approval was “an embarrassment”. He replied: “I take your point”.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told the committee there was a “slight tension” between approving the mine, near Whitehaven, and broader attempts to clean up the economy.
But he said ministers decided to allow the pit because it will produce coking coal for steel-making, which otherwise would have to be imported.
He said: “There’s a slight tension between the decision to open this mine and our avowed intention to take coal off the grid… there was a debate in the government about what we could do about this, but this was a local planning decision.
“If we don’t have sources of coking coal in the UK we would be importing those anyway”.
This appears to run counter to advice from the Climate Change Committee which has said all coal – including coking coal – should be phased out by 2035. Doubts have been raised about investors in the mine being left with a “stranded asset” if the pit is forced to close on climate grounds.
‘Laziness of thinking’
The mine approval is even more poignant because the UK founded the ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance” – a global club to persuade nations to leave coal in the ground.
A source close to the Alliance secretariat told BBC News that staff were enraged by the decision. They believed the decision had been made to help secure so-called “Red Wall” votes in areas which previously voted Labour .
Mohamed Adow, from a pressure group, Powershift Africa, told BBC News: “It is quite bizarre that the UK government, in the year it hosts the biggest global climate talks since the signing of the Paris Agreement, has approved a new coal mine.”
The young campaigner Greta Thunberg said the decision showed pledges to achieve net zero emissions targets by 2050 “basically mean nothing”.
Darren Jones, chair of the business committee, told BBC News it would be hard for the UK to persuade countries like Poland to abandon coal whilst building a mine.
He argued that the government should have found another way to bring jobs to Cumbria. He said: “Carbon-intensive industries are looking to the government for leadership on the transition to a green future.
“Backing coal at home doesn’t look in line with the recent Energy White Paper and certainly makes our efforts to secure international agreement on ambitious decarbonisation harder to achieve.”
The Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Philip Dunne, told BBC News: “If the UK is to achieve its ambition to be an environmental world leader, the government must offer clear guidance on how we can take every industry to net-zero, and offer a pipeline of investable projects.
“The steel sector needs to develop alternatives to importing coking coal. This could also support the next generation of green jobs – which are urgently needed.”
The cross-bench peer Baroness Worthington told BBC News: “This decision is real laziness of thinking from the government. Just think of signal it sends to all those countries who want to cling on to coal.
“The government doesn’t yet have a cohesive strategy that makes sense. It’s crazy. Absolute madness.”