By Felicity Bradstock, a freelance writer specializing in energy and finance. Originally published at OilPrice.com.
- Governments and international organizations have made ambitious pledges to reduce their emissions, a reduction that will require the phase-out of coal.
- Despite these pledges, countries including the UK and Australia have announced plans to build new coal mines in order to boost energy security.
- The major exception to a general trend of a decline in new coal mine development is China, which approved the equivalent of two new coal plants a week in 2022.
Despite big promises of a green transition and the creation of ambitious climate pledges, some countries are continuing to support the development of new coal mines. The U.K. and Australia both have coal facility plans that could go against their climate pledges, while there is no sign of slowing down China’s coal industry. So, just what does this mean for the green transition of these countries and globally?
In December 2022, the U.K. announced plans to build its first new coal mine in three decades. The $204 million project will be constructed in Whitehaven in Cumbria and is expected to produce 2.8 million tonnes of coking coal annually, as well as create 500 jobs. The plan is to export most of the coal produced, as the U.K. expects to increase its renewable energy capacity to stop the need for domestic coal use.
Many U.K. steelmakers have already stated that they will not be using coal from the development. And several European steel producers are also transitioning away from coal in response to mounting pressure from governments to decarbonize operations. Companies working in the heavy industry sector are now looking to renewable energy to power their facilities, where possible.
The mine is expected to produce 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, equivalent to around 200,000 car emissions. This will contribute heavily to the U.K.’s carbon emissions at a time when it is expected to shift away from carbon-intensive energy production in support of an accelerated green transition. Although the government has stated that the development is still possible within the scope of the U.K.’s climate legislation, with no doubt that it can achieve the net-zero scenario by 2050 following the closing of all coal operations by 2049. However, an analysis published in January suggested that this view is overly optimistic and that the coal project will likely break U.K. climate pledges.
Laura Clarke, the CEO of environmental law firm Client Earth, said the move is “unforgivable” and “Makes no sense in terms of the science, the economics, or indeed the UK’s legally binding netzero commitments.” This is a widely felt sentiment and many believe that the government will face a legal battle if it wants the development of the coal mine to go ahead.
In May, in Australia, the government approved a new coal mine for the first time since it was elected last year. The Isaac River mine will be constructed near Moranbah, in the Queensland Bowen basin, with a projected production capacity of 2.5 million tonnes of coal over five years. Much like the U.K. project, the development will be aimed at extracting coking coal used for steelmaking.
Environmental groups quickly responded to the news, asking the government to reconsider the mine as it does not align with Australia’s climate pledges. Several organizations have suggested that it could be detrimental to the habitats of several endangered species, such as the koala, the central greater glider, and the ornamental snake. If the development goes ahead, it could lead to the emission of 7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in its lifetime.
The approval of the mine came as a surprise to many, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese won the 2022 election with his Labour government on his campaign for greater climate action. The government has announced the ambitious target of a 43% reduction in emissions by 2030, as well as introducing a carbon cap. However, Albanese is continuing to back new coal and gas projects, with the announcement of the approval of a $1.5 billion investment in Darwin harbor’s Middle Arm precinct, which could include two natural gas fields and petrochemical production, this month.
And we must not forget the world’s biggest coal player – China. In 2022, the Asian superpower approved the equivalent of two new coal plants a week, making its highest approval number since 2015. according to a study from earlier this year. Despite promises to cut its carbon emissions, China is continuing to rapidly build new power plants. The report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) found that the coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined.
Flora Champenois, a research analyst at GEM stated: “China continues to be the glaring exception to the ongoing global decline in coal plant development.” She added, “The speed at which projects progressed through permitting to construction in 2022 was extraordinary, with many projects sprouting up, gaining permits, obtaining financing and breaking ground apparently in a matter of months.”
Despite ambitious promises to transition away from fossil fuels, particularly the most polluting energy sources, several countries around the globe are continuing to invest heavily in the development of new coal projects. While the governments of the states assure the public that these projects will not hinder the achievement of their climate pledges, studies are repeatedly showing that this is not the case and that new coal projects are highly inconsistent with their carbon targets.