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The Next Economy
Climate Policymakers Denounce UK Approval of New ‘Net-Zero’ Coal Mine

The mine’s operator and UK government pledge to offset nearly 500,000 annual tons of emissions through carbon credits; but the clear greenwashing has been lambasted by critics the world over.

The UK government’s recent decision to move ahead with the construction of a new coal mine in northwest England is being widely condemned as the worst climate-related decision of the modern era.

The Woodhouse Colliery, developed by local mining entity West Cumbria Mining, will seek to extract coking coal (used in the steel business rather than electricity generation). The project was praised by UK Leveling Up, Housing and Communities minister Michael Gove as a way to produce steel at home rather than through importing. Coking (also known as metallurgical) coal is considered a vital mineral in industry by the European Union, with no current suitable alternative as a key component of steel production.

Beyond the obvious, disastrous effects of a new plant projected to produce 400,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually (not even factoring in emissions from when the coal is actually used), the mine’s operator is claiming it will achieve “net-zero” operations through the use of verified offsets — a claim that has propelled a concerted and wide-ranging critical backlash from politicians, advocacy groups and others around the world in a year when global coal use is projected to hit an all-time high, as we edge ever closer to our 2030 deadline to avert climate catastrophe.

West Cumbria Mining (and the UK government) seem to believe that the physical polluting output of the mine can be offset through credits — an idea that was lambasted by the operator’s preferred offset vendor, Gold Standard, as greenwashing, even before the formal approval of the mine.

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“Justifying the development of a new coal mine with our carbon credits and using them to claim ‘carbon neutrality’ for the project is nonsense,” Gold Standard CEO Margaret Kim said in a statement. “We are in a climate emergency and new extraction of fossil fuels is unjustifiable. Our claims guidelines make it clear that to make an offset claim, organizations should prioritize the avoidance and reduction of emissions — something that is clearly impossible for a coal mine.”

As Gold Standard CTO Owen Hewlett told Responsible Investor: “While we may not have control over who can buy carbon credits, our guidance specifies what Gold Standard does and doesn’t consider to be offsetting. If you want us to support your offsetting claim, you’re going to have to follow this claims guidance. … The approach needs to start with what a responsible company is doing in the context of a climate emergency – and then think about where carbon markets fit in, rather than the other way around.”

The issue with offsets

Aside from the audacious and willful ignorance required to propose the idea of net-zero coal mine, the heart of this criticism is the ongoing debate about the true efficacy of carbon offsets. In all reality, offsets are a stop-gap solution that do not equate to a 1-for-1 emissions reduction and should not form the bulk of a climate-action strategy. Companies buy them as a means to invest in sustainability-focused projects and initiatives that ideally reduce emissions in other ways; but there’s no surefire way to understand the equality of that effort.

No matter how you slice it, there’s no reasonable way that West Cumbria Mining can purchase and facilitate enough offsets to compensate for the addition of upwards of half a million tons of GHGs into the air each year.

Lack of leadership

Another big issue here is the message that the approval of this coal mine sends.

For some time, the UK was seen as a leader in climate policy — committing to the world’s first net-zero target in 2019, among other efforts; and working towards modernization of many of the country’s industries for a more climate-resilient future. By rubber-stamping this project, the government is essentially putting the value of steel production and traditional industry above the potential of transitioning the proposed creation of 500 jobs into more environmentally forward-thinking opportunities.

It tells developing countries that coal is okay, as long as you can substantiate a link to offsets and credits. It tells world powers that the UK is willing to embrace old technology, if it means short-term job creation and a better outcome in the polls.

If leading, developed nations like the UK stop walking their pioneering talk on climate action in favor of short-sighted, short-term solutions, what’s to stop other countries from following suit?