You may have seen recently in the news that the UK's first deep coal mine for 30 years have been given approval for the third time in Cumbira by the council. This has raised outrage from environmentalists and many questions from people, including me. So let's talk about this proposed coal mine.

I think anyone with a basic working knowledge of global warming and the climate crisis knows that (despite the fact that coal is a very useful material) when it comes to the environment, the health of people, and our future on this planet... coal is better kept in the ground. So why is a brand new coal mine potentially being built in the UK?

Well it's not for electricity. Coal has a deep history in the UK, we were once world leaders in its production, and it was used in making and powering most of our industrial era machines. But coal use in the UK has dropped massively offer the last few years, dropping 84% from 2014-2019 with 2019 being the lowest year for coal use in 250 years. We do still have five coal power plants left in the UK but they're set to be phased out by 2024[1]. And promisingly for combatting global warming we are going for longer and longer stretches without burning any coal, the longest so far being 67 days, 22 hours, and 55 minutes during the first lockdown (though the UK does still rely heavily on natural gas for electricity and heat)[2].

Instead this mine is for metallurgic coal, or coking coal, for use in the steel industry. Coal has a very important part to play in the making of steel, and steel has an important part to play in building including being a constituent part in building for renewables like wind turbines, But steel production's heavy reliance on coal makes it a big polluter, with steel and iron production accounting for 11% of welsh GHG emissions[3]. Plus in 2013 and 2014 the two towns with the highest emissions per capita were both steel making towns, Swansea and Middlesborough.[4]

Currently the UK imports massive amounts of coking coal for use in the steel industry, for example Neath Port Talbot's steel works three primary sources for coal are Australia, Brazil and Russia. The new Cumbrian mine is set to produce 2.7 million tonnes of coking coal each year[5] to make up some of the tens of millions of tonnes that we currently import, so the justification for this coal mine is that the emissions created from the mine itself will be offset by the emissions saved from not importing. You can see the justification there especially now Boris has decided the UK is going to be powered by wind with turbines made in the UK; things that require a lot of steel. But is a new coal mine really the answer to our coking coal problem when we're working to decarbonise the UK economy?

Carbon free and lower carbon alternatives for the steel industry already exist[6], even if they're not used widely yet. Hydrogen can be used in the reduction process instead of coking coal (taking away the need for new coal mines) creating potentially carbon free steel production. Plus steel is highly recyclable, with recycling using arc furnaces taking a lot less energy and producing a lot less CO2 compared to the making of new steel. So why are we still looking to build a new coal mine? Could we not instead be investing in the production or clean hydrogen for making steel? And in implementing it into the industry? Recycling more of what we already have?

One of the biggest barriers in decarbonising the steel industry is getting the investment into changing the infrastructure so that low carbon and carbon free steel is financially viable[7]. The technology exists, it just needs backing. And the biggest reason this mine was approved in Cumbria? A desperate need for jobs in the area. If there was investment into implementing green tech here we can solve both issues, continuing to work towards decarbonising the steel industry (and ultimately the whole of the UK economy) while created much needed jobs across the UK.

This mine is still going through the approval process and local government could decide not to let it go ahead. But whether they will is another question entirely.

What do you think of the mine? A temporary necessity, or a step backwards in the UK's goals to decarbonise?


[1]“End of coal power to be brought forward in drive towards net zero - GOV.UK.” (accessed Oct. 07, 2020).
[2] “Global CO2 emissions in 2019 – Analysis - IEA,” Feb. 11, 2020. (accessed Oct. 08, 2020).
[3] Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales. (
[4] “17: Total CO2 emissions per capita | Centre for Cities.” (accessed Oct. 08, 2020).
[5] “Woodhouse Colliery Planning Application Press Statement 2 nd October 2020.”
[6] J. Morfeldt, W. Nijs, and S. Silveira, “The impact of climate targets on future steel production - An analysis based on a global energy system model,” J. Clean. Prod., vol. 103, pp. 469–482, Sep. 2015, doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.04.045.
[7] “INDUSTRIAL DECARBONISATION AND ENERGY EFFICIENCY ROADMAPS TO 2050 – IRON AND STEEL,” 2015. Accessed: Oct. 08, 2020. [Online]. Available:

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