The government’s decision in January 2021 to wave through a new coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, was greeted with howls of protest. Climate scientists called it an “extraordinary and highly reckless” move, 80 environmental groups urged the prime minister to reconsider, and the Liberal Democrat leader called for the former business secretary Alok Sharma to resign as president of November’s COP26, the UN’s climate change conference.
The current business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has admitted there is a “slight tension” between the net-zero goal and the opening of the first new deep coal mine in 30 years – an eye-watering understatement, given the government’s own climate change committee has said the new mine is incompatible with the UK’s already too modest climate targets.
On 10 February, Cumbria County Council announced it will reconsider its decision to approve the coal mine. Regardless of whether this leads to the mine’s eventual rejection, the council’s move doesn’t address the underlying issues that made opening the mine an appealing prospect in the first place. Without a national and local industrial strategy that provides decent, secure work in low-carbon sectors, polluting projects will continue to be seen as a source of badly needed jobs.
For Whitehaven, in the borough of Copeland, 300 miles north of Westminster, the £165m Woodhouse Colliery project and its promise of 500 jobs has obvious appeal. The community has been scarred by deindustrialisation since the 1980s and is now reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Copeland’s mayor says he has “never known a project to carry so much public support”, citing the prospect of jobs and prosperity in one of the UK’s most deprived areas. The secretary of state for housing, communities and local government Robert Jenrick, declined to “call in” the decision on the mine, which would add a projected 420 million tonnes of CO2 to UK emissions over its lifetime, describing it as a “local issue”.
Kwasi Kwarteng admitted there was a “slight tension” between the net-zero goal and the opening of the first new deep coal mine in 30 years – an eye-watering understatement
So much for the government’s efforts to position itself as a global climate leader. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has said he is “obsessed” with what can be achieved at COP26, and the UK has campaigned against coal internationally as co-chair of the Powering Past Coal Alliance.
These contradictions are emblematic of the government’s climate policy, but in this case there is also likely to have been pressure from within the Conservative Party. Copeland MP Trudy Harrison, who is Johnson’s personal private secretary, is a vocal supporter of the mine.
Harrison, along with several other MPs who won seats in former Labour strongholds in 2017 and 2019, is a member of the Blue Collar Conservatives, who are keen to deliver on the promise to “level up” their regions through investment and jobs. The offer of a few hundred jobs and the chance to restore a proud historical identity associated with coal seems too good to pass up.
This point should not be lost on those opposing the mine, or on progressive forces hoping to mobilise in regions that stand to lose most from efforts to decarbonise our economy. In the UK’s industrial heartlands, jobs in high-carbon sectors like energy are relatively well paid, secure and unionised. It’s no surprise these are highly sought-after when the alternative is often low-paid, precarious work in the service sector – much of which has been decimated by the pandemic.
But it is dishonest to pit climate against jobs. The mine plans to provide coking coal for the steel industry, despite the climate change committee’s position that coal must be phased out of steel manufacturing by 2035. If the UK follows the committee’s path to net zero, the new mine would be left high and dry and the jobs would disappear. And thousands of job losses are expected over the next decade as Sellafield nuclear site – one of the area’s largest employers – moves into decommissioning.
Yet the government has presented no alternative vision for good, green jobs that could give workers and communities the opportunities they need, while fighting the climate crisis. The Institute of Public Policy Research estimates that 1.6 million good quality green jobs could be created over the next decade as part of a green COVID-19 recovery package.
One conservative estimate suggests West Cumbria alone could see 2,600 transitional and 1,350 long-term jobs created in green industries such as retrofitting, renewables and public transport, plus many thousands more in inherently low-carbon and socially valuable jobs like care and education.
The government has chosen to bottle the big decision required to level up and is allowing polluters to set up shop instead. Five hundred jobs for 30 years or thousands of clean and well-paid jobs for much longer. It is a no brainer.
There is an appetite for a real green industrial revolution, but residents in the area have reason to be sceptical. As one local worker told me, they have seen “failed promise after failed promise… and now the government has chosen to bottle the big decision required to level up and are allowing polluters to set up shop instead. Five hundred jobs for 30 years or thousands of clean and well-paid jobs for much longer. It is a no brainer.”
The government has work to do to persuade people that it’s serious about creating those jobs. A just transition would see high-carbon workers have a say in how to decarbonise their industries, or be supported through retraining into equivalent, sustainable work in other sectors. It would create good, green jobs and equip workers with the skills to fill them.
That process will not happen if the transition is left to market forces. It will need national investment, coherent policy and – most importantly – the involvement of workers and communities themselves. It is crucial to build trust in areas betrayed and neglected in previous industrial transitions – but fighting back against fossil fuel projects also means pushing for a proper plan for green jobs, if campaigners want to get local support for the changes to come.
Editors note: The article has been edited to correct the attribution of a quote, it was Kwasi Kwarteng not Alok Sharma who acknowledged a "slight tension" between the mine decision and the government's climate change targets.