Cumbria coalmine plan is ‘backward step’, says Alok Sharma

<span>Photograph: Jon Super/AP</span>
Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Tory division over green policy deepened last night when the party’s climate change champion said a proposed new coalmine on the outskirts of Whitehaven in Cumbria would send “completely the wrong signal” about the fight against climate breakdown.

Before an imminent decision on the mine’s future, expected this week, Alok Sharma, whose presidency of Cop26 ended last month, made clear his opposition to any move to approve the venture.

“Over the past three years the UK has sought to persuade other nations to consign coal to history, because we are fighting to limit global warming to 1.5C and coal is the most polluting energy source,” Sharma said. “A decision to open a new coalmine would send completely the wrong message and be an own goal. This proposed new mine will have no impact on reducing energy bills or ensuring our energy security.”

Sharma tweeted that more jobs would be created by developing green industries in the area than if Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, were to give the plan the green light, as government insiders believe is likely.

Sharma’s intervention is evidence of the growing divisions in Conservative ranks over environmental policies. Tory MPs are already riven by disagreement over whether an effective ban on more onshore wind developments should be lifted to boost the supply of energy from renewable sources.

He noted that the main prospective customers for the mine – UK steel producers – had already rejected it. “85% of coal produced would be for export, not domestic use – two major UK steel producers won’t necessarily use much of the coal, not least due to its composition and sulphur content.”

Sharma led the UK’s presidency of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in 2021. He was sacked from the cabinet by Rishi Sunak in September, leaving him as the backbench Tory MP for Reading West, but one who wields huge influence as the party’s leading green figure.

His intervention is likely to rally green Tories who are concerned about the impact of the Cumbrian coalmine, which experts have said could end up as an expensive white elephant as steelmakers increasingly move to low-carbon alternatives.

The former environment secretary George Eustice said he could understand the case for allowing the coalmine to open and supply steel producers but he agreed that “the optics are not good”.

Sunak has been heavily petitioned by local Tory MPs with seats close to the proposed mine and by the right wing of his party, who want the new mine for what they say will be new jobs in an area in need of levelling up.

The decision on the mine has been delayed for more than two years. Ministers first gave the green light to the project in 2020, but early in 2021 the government came under fire from leading international figures in advance of the UK’s presidency of the Cop26 UN climate talks.

They said it was “contemptuous” for the government to consider a new coalmine while urging developing countries to stop using coal. Sharma is known to have argued strongly against the mine in cabinet.

The mine was then subject to a public inquiry. A final decision was expected this summer but was put off during the Tory leadership contest, and then put off again while the UK handed over the presidency of the Cop climate talks to Egypt last month.

Related: Alok Sharma backs bid to lift ban on onshore windfarms in England

If the mine is given the green light this week, it will be while the UK is still under green scrutiny on the international stage – the Cop15 summit on biodiversity opens this week in Montreal, Canada. The UK has been one of the leading countries pushing for a global commitment to preserve 30% of the planet for wildlife and nature by 2030.

Lord Stern of Brentford, the acclaimed economist who has worked on the climate, development and public policy, told the Observer the mine would be damaging to the UK, and the world, in multiple ways.

“Opening a coalmine in the UK now is a serious mistake: economic, social, environmental, financial and political,” he said. “Economically, it is investing in the technologies of the last century, not this, and that is the wrong path to growth. Socially, it is pursuing jobs in industries that are on the way out, creating future job insecurity. Environmentally, it is adding to world supply and thus consumption of coal and releasing greenhouse gases, when there is an urgent need to reduce them. And politically, it is undermining the UK’s authority on the most important global issue of our times.”