A true test for Boris Johnson’s green credentials

How does the British prime minister host a UN climate summit and approve a new coal mine?

Published : 19 Feb 2021 08:50 PM | Updated : 20 Feb 2021 01:46 AM

I have always been fascinated by accents and, specifically, how people who in the same country can differ so much in the musicality and inflection of their voices. Accents bring a texture of colour and add detail to people as soon as they open their mouth.

As a young reporters starting out in the news business nearly four decades ago, I would challenge myself to be able to identify where a person was from as soon as they started talking. If anything else, it was an icebreaker in any conversation to be able to ask where a person is from.

And mostly, we all take pride in where we’re from. Even if we don’t, and our accent betrays us, then it’s a good way to start a conversation. And journalism is all about starting conversation and listening, then telling, to as many sides of a story as possible.

I had an issue with my house and booked the expertise of a tradesman. He duly came by and the conversation flowed easily. His accent told me he was from Durham, or somewhere in the wider Newcastle area of northeast England.

“Durham?” I chanced. He was actually from Cumbria, in the northwest, on the other side of the Pennines, the spiney backbone that divides east from west. But I wasn’t that wrong as he explained, telling me the story of how his grandparents were from Durham, were deep pit coal miners and took three days in a horse and cart to move to Cumbria because a new mine was opening up in Whitehaven. A lot of miners from Durham moved too, and to this day the Durham accent dominates in Whitehaven. To this day too, the issue of coal still dominates in Whitehaven.

Right now, there is a proposal to build a huge coal mine that will produce coking coal needed to produce steel, creating jobs and securing industries that put ‘great’ into Great Britain at the start of the industrial revolution. If the new Whitehaven mine opens up, it will be the first in a nation that suffered a decade of upheaval and social unrest as towns and communities came to grips — many still are — with the loss of their pits and collieries.

Avoiding the carbon footprint 

Naturally, the economic case for the new mine is that it will bring decades of prosperity and well-paying jobs in an area where the nuclear plant of Sellafield or a submarine-building yard in Barrow-in-Furness are the only real alternatives. Using British coal, the proponents say, would avoid the carbon footprint caused by shipping coal in from Australia or North America.

And naturally, environmentalists are up in arms.

The UK, along with other countries, has agreed to drastically cut carbon. The government’s climate advisory Climate Change Committee also worries that allowing the Whitehaven pit to open would drive a horse and carriage through that commitment.

The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson says to meet its carbon-cutting timetable, steel firms must stop burning coal by 2035. There is a provision that they can continue if they fit expensive technology to capture the carbon emissions and bury them underground — out of sight is out of mind.

United Nations Cop26 summit

As with most issues in politics, perception is key. How can a government that is playing host to a global gathering — the United Nations Cop26 summit — on the environment in November possibly give the go-ahead to a mine that will be responsible directly or indirectly to carbon emissions?

As things stand now, steel production is a problem area for climate change. Just the very thought of it brings images of huge plants belching out smoke as molten iron bubbles away in furnaces, with sooty men in hard hats sweating over the molten metal.

But companies are trying to produce alternatives — electric arc furnaces that are cleaner and that can melt down old cars and turn them into tomorrow’s fridges and dishwashers. And the mine’s supporters say that long after that 2035 deadline, steel will still be needed. Those wind turbines that produce green and clean energy, don’t grow on trees.

And then there’s the jobs — some 500 of them. Support locally is behind the mine and the project has been twice passed by the local council’s planning authorities. The national government decided not to intervene in the planning process, meaning that it looked as if the mine would indeed go ahead.

Decision under review

More than a few in the government suspect that there was a hope that the project would just quietly get underway with as little fuss as possible. That, of course, is wishful thinking. Now, even Greta Thunberg has gotten involved along with the more vociferous elements of the environmental movement, and the brakes have been put on the mine while the decision is again under review.

The issue, however, isn’t just a local one. There’s broad international agreement that carbon emissions must be cut as this blue planet we all share on its trips around the sun heats up with each passing month.

Naturally, nations that are sitting on vast amounts of fossil fuel reserves won’t necessarily want to forget about them.

By 2024, all of the electricity used in the UK will come from renewable sources. That’s fine, but the UK is a leading voice in the global Powering Past Coal alliance of nations that are trying to convince others to swap jobs in the coal industry for jobs in clean industries. Allowing the Cumbria mine to go ahead would clearly then be a case of do as I say not do as I do.

The mine’s planning application has been kicked back to the country council level so that local politicians can look at the file again and assess environmental information that was available when they made their original decision. If they approve it, the UK environment secretary will have a say. And no doubt the prime minister too.

Somehow, I have a feeling, the final decision on the mine will be put off as a full and robust review of the case will be conducted. And that will allow that UN summit to go ahead with the issue safely shelved for another few years.

No decision in political terms is better than any decision for now.

Mick O'Reilly is a Foreign Correspondent of Gulf News. Source: Gulf News