Behind the Scenes: Stupid Britain

Behind the Scenes: Stupid Britain
Copyright: National Museum Wales

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

Weekly analysis and untold stories

With SAM MORGAN

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Stupid Britain

The UK government did something this week that perfectly summarises its last half-decade of operations: it approved the opening of a new coal mine. The potential damage that decision will cause might not be limited to British shores.

For all the sourness of Brexit, its immigration policies and the quality of politicians chosen to be prime minister, the UK has done rather well when it comes to the climate.

Living on a wind-swept archipelago has its advantages when you can plonk hundreds of wind turbines off the coast to power your economy. The country is by no means as green as it could be but for a developed nation, it is comparatively impressive.

Someone should explain that to the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak, because this week it approved a new coal mine, potentially undoing a lot of the good faith that has been accrued thanks to other climate policies.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ chief economics writer, wrote a brilliant commentary piece at the end of November urging the UK government to “stop doing stupid stuff”. It is a simple ask but one which has been rather ignored.

At the beginning of the week, it actually appeared that the advice had been heeded. A de facto ban on onshore wind — which Tory voters actually love — was lifted and a planned moratorium on solar farms was shelved.

Onshore wind and solar power are two of the cheapest power sources available. According to the International Energy Agency, renewables will outpace coal as an energy provider in the next couple of years and solar alone will achieve that feat not long after.

So far so good. A windy country with loads of flat farmland that can either be repurposed to provide energy or even perform dual functions. Contrary to popular belief it seems, animals like sheep and even crops can coexist with solar panels.

But then came the news that many were dreading and which many optimistic people thought even this government would not stoop to: the government gave its approval for a new coal mine in Cumbria.

The company behind the project says the coal will be clean and even carbon-neutral, claiming that the operations will run on renewable energy and they will pull out all the stops when it comes to offsetting and other greenwashing practices.

Climate experts involved with the consultation chopped down that logic with relative ease, demonstrating that new coal is completely incompatible with current climate targets. The climate panel that advises on government policy were aghast at the decision.

It also — like Brexit itself — makes zero economic sense. The coal will be used by the steel industry, not the power sector. But the British steel industry says it does not need more coal, that is not the main problem facing the sector.

Other issues, which the government could easily help with, are at stake. Lack of capacity, lack of investment in new technologies which cut coal out of the equation completely, cheap alternatives from foreign shores, and so on.

The few advocates of this project have even had the cheek to say that it is a cultural project, that Britain’s long history with coal should be respected and even preserved. This is total crap.

Your columnist hails from Wales; one grandfather worked in the steel mills in Ebbw Vale and other relatives down the generations all worked in the mines. Families were wrecked when the industry was shut down but it must not come back.

Instead of leveraging the UK’s immense potential for clean energy and the jobs that would be created by that industry, the government has put the local community in an impossible position: do you want dirty, insecure jobs or no jobs at all?

The mine may never dig out a single lump of coal. Legal challenges and even simple market forces may doom it to the scrapheap before mining even starts. But this decision by the government has created an even bigger, more toxic problem.

Plan B — if coal is actually mined but nobody wants it at home — is to export it. If that ever takes off, any credibility the UK has left on the international climate diplomacy scene will go up in polluting flames and smoke.

It is laughable to think that UK delegates would go to the next COP and insist that countries like China and India ramp down their burning of coal and other fossil fuels. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ does not work in modern geopolitics.

Across the Channel, here in the EU, things are certainly not perfect but coal is gradually going extinct. Decent climate policies are the executioner and green steel mills, heatpumps, new nuclear and loads of wind are the axe.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what stupid decision will come next from Westminster. Asbestos back in homes to help improve insulation? A ban on seat belts to save on plastic costs?

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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