Exclusive: Prof Sir Robert Watson says backing of Cumbrian mine refutes claims of climate leadership
Prof Sir Robert Watson has led the UN’s scientific organisations for climate and biodiversity. Photograph: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images
One of the UK’s most eminent environmental scientists has called the government’s failure to block a new coalmine in Cumbria “absolutely ridiculous”.
Prof Sir Robert Watson said the UK’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 to tackle the climate crisis was “wonderful”, but that there had to be a focus on immediate actions. The UK is hosting a UN climate summit, Cop26, in November and Boris Johnson has pledged to lead a green industrial revolution.
“The British government says, ‘We’re going to lead Cop26 in Glasgow, we really care about climate change. But, by the way, we won’t override the council in Cumbria, and we’ll have a new coalmine.’ Absolutely ridiculous!” Watson said. “You get these wonderful statements by governments and then they have an action that goes completely against it.”
Watson has led the UN’s scientific organisations for climate and biodiversity, is a former chief scientific adviser at the UK’s environment department and worked for Bill Clinton when he was US president. He has also held senior positions at Nasa and the World Bank.
The underground mine would be the UK’s first in 30 years. Critics, including the government’s official climate advisers, say it seriously undermines Johnson’s ability to lead a successful UN summit, which is seen as vital in averting the worst impacts of global heating. Ministers have repeatedly said the decision on the mine is a local one.
Supporters of the £165m mine say it would provide 500 jobs in an area which is among the most deprived in the country. On Thursday, 40 Conservative MPs wrote to the leader of Cumbria county council warning that stopping the mine would “represent a serious risk to Cumbria’s economic growth”.
The council approved the mine in October and communities and the local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, chose not to “call in” the plan for a central government decision, which is allowed if a project conflicts with national policy. Amid growing controversy, the council said earlier in February that it would reconsider the decision to take into account climate advice published in December by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).
Watson said decisions to stop carbon emissions were needed immediately: “We need action now. A lot of governments have said, ‘We’ll be zero carbon by 2050’. That’s wonderful [but] it’s 30 years away. The key message on climate is we need to have a 50% reduction of emissions by 2030. We’ve got to focus on short-term actions, not [just] long-term targets and goals.”
Other leading scientists have criticised the mine. Prof James Hansen, who has been called the “godfather of climate change”, told Johnson his “actions and decisions now will either establish or undermine your claim to climate leadership”. Prof Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, said the mine “is a big mistake”.
The mine would produce 2.7m tonnes a year of coking coal, which is used in steel-making rather than burned in power stations. About 85% of the coal from the mine is planned for export, although there is no shortage of such coal globally.
The mine has planning permission to 2049 but the CCC has said “there may be no domestic use [for coking coal] after 2035”. Green experts say steelmakers will have to deploy new technology to reduce their emissions under the UK’s net zero targets and that green industries provide more secure jobs.
Cumbria council has yet to set a date for its planning committee to meet and reconsider the mine application, but it is expected before council elections in May. It is thought locally that the council is unlikely to overturn the original backing for the mine, but Jenrick could yet call in the decision.
Earlier in February, the website Responsible Investor revealed that EMR Capital, the firm financing the mine, is a signatory to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, which requires “incorporating environmental, social, and governance issues into decision-making processes”.
The UK has cut emissions faster than any other rich nation in recent decades by phasing out coal burning for electricity, as well as with the closure of much of the country’s heavy industry and importing more manufactured goods from overseas.
But ministers are being criticised over a series of decisions that run counter to cutting emissions, including backing a gas-fired power station that would be the biggest in Europe, a third runway at Heathrow airport and committing £27bn to new roads, a policy now under legal challenge. It was also reported last week that one of Johnson’s flagship green policies, a £1.5bn green homes grant scheme, is likely to be scrapped having reached just 4% of the homes intended.
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