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Coal and climate
Sensemaker audio

Coal and climate

Coal and climate

In Cumbria, there’s a plan for a new coal mine. Should we say no to it for the sake of the planet?

Claudia Williams, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world. 

Today, carbon is killing the planet – so why is Cumbria fighting for a new coal mine?


“Good afternoon. Today I gave my evidence to the ongoing inquiry into the West Cumbria Mining planning application for Woodhouse Colliery…”

Mike Starkie, Mayor of Copeland

This is Mike Starkie.

“As promised, I’ll keep you updated as we go through this inquiry…”

Mike Starkie, Mayor of Copeland

He’s the Mayor of Copeland in Cumbria. 

And since he was elected in 2015, Mike Starkie has been pushing for new investment in an old harbour town: Whitehaven.

“Cumbria County Council has given unanimous consent for Britain’s first deep coal mine in more than 30 years. It aims to produce 3 million tonnes of coking coal for the steel industry each year.”

ITV News

West Cumbria Mining wants to build a new, deep coal mine in Whitehaven. It’s the first proposal like it in decades. 

They claim that it will create 500 jobs, and stop the UK steelmaking industry being so dependent on Australia and North America for the coal needed to fire its furnaces.

Now you might be thinking, wait a second, coal is a fossil fuel. It pollutes. It creates greenhouse gases. 

And it’s hard not to notice that we’re currently in the middle of COP. The United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, just 134 miles up the road from Whitehaven. Just this week Boris Johnson told the conference he was no longer “in favour” of coal. 

It looks a little hypocritical to be planning to build a coal mine just down the road while the UK is urging other nations to ditch carbon. 

So the question is, what’s going on?


“All through the night, all through this coal, the finest in the world, has travelled down to the sea, down to the ships, to sail to every land whose commodities Great Britain need in exchange. Outward bound to complete the full cycle of trade and commerce on which depends the prosperity of all the people int eh world.”

The Coal Miners Of Britain, 1941, Charlie Dean Archives

Coal powered the Industrial Revolution. It helped turn Britain into one the world’s leading economies.  And it brought jobs: in 1920, there were almost 1.2 million miners in the UK.    

But Britain has radically reduced its dependence on coal over the last 100 years. Fewer than 2,000 people now work in mining.

“And what I think the whole world needs to understand is that you can reduce dependence on coal very fast… and I think people can see what Britain has done.”

Boris Johnson

In the last decade alone, Britain’s coal production has dropped more than 90 per cent. And the last deep coal mine in the country was closed the same year Mike Starkie was elected in 2015. 

By 2024, the UK plans to phase out coal for electricity completely. 

So why is Mike Starkie so keen on coal?

One word. Jobs.

“The West Cumbria mining project will deliver a vital economic boost at local and regional levels…”

Mike Starkie, Mayor of Copeland

Whitehaven has had a tough time over the years. Local chemical factories and steel works have closed and as a result, jobs have gone. 

“The wards around the mine are some of the most deprived in England. Many are indeed ex-mining communities. We have severely high levels of child poverty and deprivation, health issues, and worklessness…”

Mike Starkie, Mayor of Copeland

And so Mike Starkie has been putting pressure on Boris Johnson to stick to his promise of “levelling up” the country. Because like lots of other “Red Wall” constituencies, Copeland turned Tory in 2017 after being a Labour stronghold since 1935.  

Wanting to boost the local economy is understandable but is this coal mine really necessary, especially when it comes to making steel?


Having coal on your doorstep has its appeal – especially when you take into account the cost of shipping it around the world.   

But if the UK is to meet its carbon-cutting timetable, steelmakers need to stop using coal by 2035 anyway unless their mills are fitted with expensive carbon capture technology. 

Plus, it’s likely that investors will want to put money into so-called “green steel” production in the near future.  

But Mike Starkie maintains the mine would have little impact on overall emissions.

“And this mine will be responsible for no more than 0.1 of the UK’s 1.1 per cent. It barely registered in terms of the impact on climate change… We’ve got to focus on where we can make the big gains. Not little marginal gains that hardly register on the scale.”

Mike Starkie, Mayor of Copeland

A decision isn’t likely to be made until the new year… but it leaves Boris Johnson with a clear choice to make: economic development for a region desperate for new investment, or sticking to the promised “Green Industrial Revolution”?

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.