The U.K. has repeatedly stated that it will no longer use coal to generate electricity starting in 2024, a year earlier than originally planned, in a view to reducing the country’s reliance on coal significantly over the coming decade. However, news that the U.K. will open its first new coal mine in decades has many questioning the seriousness of its climate pledges when it comes to coal. This month, the U.K. approved its first new deep coal mine in 30 years, having closed its last deep pit mine in 2015. The project will cover 23 hectares of land, taking two years to construct at $201 million, as estimated in 2019. The government expects the mine to run until 2049, just before its net-zero deadline comes into place.
The approval of the development was met with severe criticism, with many suggesting that the new plant proves that the U.K. isn’t doing enough to meet its climate targets. The Woodhouse Colliery will be developed in the northwest of England by West Cumbria Mining, producing coal to be used in the steel industry. It is expected to boost job opportunities in the industry, with around 500 new positions. The proposal was originally approved by Cumbria County Council in October 2020 but has been awaiting government approval until now. In addition to direct jobs, it is expected to spur 1,500 much-needed indirect jobs.
Most of the coal produced in the facility will be shipped to Europe – around 80 percent is expected to be exported after the initial five years of operations. Despite plans for use outside of the U.K., John Gummer, the chair of Britain’s independent Climate Change Committee (UKCCC), believes the approval of the new plant is “absolutely indefensible”. Greenhouse gas emissions released from burning coal are the biggest contributor to climate change. Over the last year, and particularly following the COP26 climate summit, we have seen mounting global pressure to curb coal use in favor of cleaner energy sources. And the EU has thrown a large net by including non-renewable energy sources, like natural gas and nuclear power, as a means of ensuring a movement away from coal to ‘less dirty’ energy. Yet, the U.K. appears to be open to supplying coal while international demand remains high.
Steel production requires coal to be heated to high temperatures to be combined with iron, with 770kg of coal going into one tonne of steel. At present, the U.K. has an output of 7.4 million tonnes of steel each year. However, around half of the coal used in U.K. steel comes from Russia. And following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent sanctions on Russian energy, the U.K. is looking to curb its reliance on Russia for energy and other imports. Although experts point out that by the time Woodhouse is up and running the U.K. will have curbed its reliance on coal, requiring little of the production for its own needs.
The UKCCC advised the government in 2021 that the steel-making industry should phase out its use of coal by 2035 if the U.K. hopes to meet its 2050 net-zero emissions targets. And the approval of Woodhouse threatens to undermine the British political system once again, having gone back and forth on many economic decisions in recent months, it now appears to be doing the same with its climate policy. As a world leader in climate change action and having hosted the COP climate summit last year, this action could encourage other countries to continue using coal.
All too aware of the imminent shift away from carbon, steelmakers are exploring alternative sources of energy for their production. One potential means is through the use of electric arc furnaces (EAF), which use electricity to melt scrap steel, reducing the coal input and releasing fewer emissions. Alternatively, iron can be replaced by hydrogen to decrease emissions by around 61 percent. Around 41 percent of European steel already uses EAF, and hydrogen use is growing in popularity as greater investment is pumped into green hydrogen technology. However, the IEA has made it clear that there needs to be a roadmap for the steel industry to follow to curb its carbon emissions, with most of the alternative low-carbon options for production still underdeveloped.
In Europe, Euorfer – the European Steel Association, launched a Steel Roadmap for Low Carbon Europe 2050. Similarly, in the U.K., British Steel released its 2021 Low-Carbon Roadmap. However, despite positive steps forward in the shift to low-carbon steel, there needs to be a comprehensive international movement towards cleaner steel production, with a greater focus on the development of alternative production means and new supply chains for hydrogen and technologies that can boost low-carbon steel output. Without these, governments may continue to rely on traditional coal plants such as Woodhouse.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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