Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Latest From NPR

The U.K. considers its 1st new coal mine in decades even as it calls to phase out coal

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference at the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference at the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday.

GLASGOW, Scotland — Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened this week's climate summit in Glasgow by warning world leaders to take the necessary measures to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or face catastrophic damage from climate change.

"It's one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now. If we don't get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow," Johnson said Monday. He stressed that countries should "get real" on protecting trees and reducing harmful gas emissions — and zeroed in on one fossil fuel in particular: "We can end the use of coal-fired power stations. We can do it by 2040 in the developing world, 2030 in the richer nations," he said.

It was one of the more impassioned speeches of the summit's opening day. But Johnson failed to mention that even as the United Kingdom hosts the U.N. climate summit, it is also considering plans to open a new coal mine, the country's first in decades.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal generates the greenhouse gas pollution now heating up the planet. Climate scientists warn that the vast portion of carbon-based fuels have to remain in the ground, including 90% of global coal reserves, if the world hopes to keep global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

When the BBC confronted Johnson about the mine on Monday, the prime minister said: "I'm not in favor of more coal, but it's not a decision for me, it's a decision for local planning authorities."

That's not true. Officials in Cumbria, a county in the northwest of England, overwhelmingly approved the mine last year, but the British government set up an inquiry amid outrage from environmentalists. British officials are expected to make a final decision next year.

Local officials want the mine

At a hearing on the mine proposal in September, Mike Starkie, the mayor of the Borough of Copeland, had a message that would be anathema in Glasgow right now.

"Give us our mine," he said. "Give us our future."

Starkie said his community desperately needs jobs, and he doesn't think one coal mine will make any difference to the planet's future. He pointed out that five countries — China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan — produce nearly 60% of all global carbon emissions. The U.K. generates just 1%, which British environmentalists are quick to praise.

"That's where the challenge lies," Starkie said. "We've got to focus on where we can make the big gains, not little marginal gains that hardly register on the scale."

John Ashton, who served as the British government's special representative for climate change from 2006 to 2012, said the mining proposal could undermine the U.K.'s credibility, especially in Glasgow as Johnson tries to take a lead role, and in the future.

"If the mine goes ahead, we would be saying to the world, judge us by what we say and ignore what we do," Ashton told the inquiry.

Activists hold a banner against West Cumbria's planned coking coal mine as they stand near the Scottish Event Campus, the venue for the U.N. climate summit, in Glasgow.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
Activists hold a banner against West Cumbria's planned coking coal mine as they stand near the Scottish Event Campus, the venue for the U.N. climate summit, in Glasgow.

The mining company, West Cumbria Mining, insists the new mine won't increase global CO2 emissions. The company argues that the mine — which would produce coking coal to make steel — is so close to European markets and will be so cost effective, it will drive competing American mines out of business and actually reduce U.S. coal production. Alexander Greaves, a lawyer for the company, said the project in West Cumbria will be "the first net-zero coking coal mine."

But Simon Nicholas, an Australian energy finance analyst who served as a witness for environmental groups in the inquiry, says those American mines will continue to operate as they meet growing demand from China. He described the company's argument as "plain wrong," and "a little bit on the desperate side."

But the community is divided

At the heart of this conflict is a tension between the need for global cooperation to reduce emissions and the economic costs those efforts could impose on poorer areas. The mine, which would be located about 300 miles northwest of London, is expected to create 500 well-paying jobs in West Cumbria, where such opportunities are few and far between.

Suzanne Caldwell, who leads the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, says the community is split.

"Some people are very supportive," Caldwell said. "Some people are completely in the opposite direction and a lot of people in the middle are actually quite conflicted."

Stroll through Whitehaven, a town along the Cumbrian coast that would benefit most from the mining jobs, and it's easy to understand why people there are supportive. Along one street you can see all the hallmarks of an economically struggling English community. There's a slot machine parlor, a shop that buys gold, an old bandstand with peeling paint and some storefronts that have been empty for so long, you can't tell what kind of business last occupied the space.

Nathan Ryan, 30, who works in ground maintenance, desperately wants the mine to open.

"There's still ordinary people like me working ordinary jobs, and it's not right," says Ryan, referring to low-wage manual labor and service employment. Ryan, who earns as little as $250 a week, has watched friend after friend move away from this town of 23,000 along the Irish Sea. He thinks he could earn far more at the new mine and has already put in an application.

"If that coal mine was opened, I think there'd be jobs for everyone," he says.

On the other side of the debate in West Cumbria are environmentalists such as Jill Perry, a retired teacher and secretary for the local Green Party. The region had been home to coal mining for centuries before the last mine closed in 1986. Perry says the area has never recovered from the loss, nor outgrown its industrial heritage.

Jill Perry, a retired teacher and secretary for the local Green Party, opposes the new mine. She says the local economy has never recovered from the closure of the mines and some people here "regard their heritage as something that can be revived."
Frank Langfitt / NPR
Jill Perry, a retired teacher and secretary for the local Green Party, opposes the new mine. She says the local economy has never recovered from the closure of the mines and some people here "regard their heritage as something that can be revived."

"People do want to hark back to the past," she says as she leads me along a muddy valley dotted with sheep. The coal company intends to use a rail line here to ship the coal out. "They do regard their heritage as something that can be revived."

Climate change exacerbates floods

But Perry says that's not realistic, noting that the local mining museum closed five years ago because of financial problems. She sees West Cumbria as an example of why tackling climate change can be so hard around the world.

"People recognize the seriousness of climate change, but they think what needs to be done is important for everybody else to do it," she says. "It's very difficult to make people see that local action is really important on a global scale."

The region has suffered three major floods in 15 years, which scientists say have been intensified by climate change — and will only get worse.

John McGibbon is managing director of PaR Systems, which maintains robots and cranes to work in the nuclear power industry, the best source of good jobs here. In 2009, he was working at a seal and gasket factory when nearly 12 inches of rain fell in just 24 hours. The river went from about 30 feet wide to more than 200. Water poured into the factory.

John McGibbon works in the robotics industry. He has seen the damage from flooding, which is exacerbated by climate change. But he still supports the new mine because of the 500 good-paying jobs it would create.
Frank Langfitt / NPR
John McGibbon works in the robotics industry. He has seen the damage from flooding, which is exacerbated by climate change. But he still supports the new mine because of the 500 good-paying jobs it would create.

"I remember paddling in the water up to my waist in the middle of the night, guys helping out with diggers and things to try and barricade us in," McGibbon recalled, "but it was just a scene of devastation."

The flood did more than $15 million in damage, but McGibbon says he still supports the new mine because there is so much poverty in West Cumbria and so little good work.

However, he also acknowledges that the government considering a new coal mine while — about 130 miles away — the prime minister is hosting a global climate summit is problematic.

"It looks ridiculous," McGibbon says. "It should have either been approved long before this or shelved. It does look very foolish on our entire country."

NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.