Put a green thorn in fossil site planning laws

A solar panel farm

“I take your point,” Alok Sharma replied, when asked if the approval of a new coal mine was “an embarrassment” ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 Climate Summit.

The questions to Mr Sharma, President of the UK-hosted COP26 in Glasgow in November, came from the Commons business select committee.

Even Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, told the committee there was a “slight tension” between Cumbria County Council approving the mine and national efforts to clean up – or green up – the economy.

Ministers could have reversed the decision by “calling in” the plans. But they declined to do so, saying that the coal was required for creating the heat to make steel. Otherwise coal would have to be imported, the applicant and council agreed. This would increase carbon emissions, given the travel to reach the UK.

The difficulty for the Government is that to reverse the decision would undermine its own planning laws. These gives local authorities the powers to make decisions. But crucially, at national level they conflict with their own Climate Emergency declaration. This hinders councils in their decision making, if they want to be seen to be environmentally friendly.

Coal drops in energy grid mix

The Committee on Climate Change, the UK’s independent adviser, says coal – including coking coal for steel – should be phased out by 2035. Furthermore, the use of coal in the UK’s energy grid mix has been dropping substantially in the past 20 years. In 1998 through to 2008, coal made up anything between 38% and 48% of our national energy grid.

Since about 2016, its biggest quarterly contribution has been just under 14%. In quarters one and four of 2019, coal fired up just over 2% of our grid. For long periods last year, Britain’s grid gave off record low carbon emissions and ran for record periods without using coal at all. Wind and solar continue to pick up the reigns.

The oil and gas industry – the main energy suppliers – might be tentative on casting their eyes to the future. However, BP is targeting a 40% reduction in oil and gas over the next decade. It aims to increase its low-carbon, renewables-based energy 10-fold from 2.5GW in 2019 to 50GW in 2030. More investments will be needed in smaller energy firms for BP to achieve this, say critics. Another traditional energy giant, Shell, recently withdrew its joint plan with Velocycs. This latter company is devising plans to turn waste into aviation fuel.

Ironies of UK decision making

Ironically for the Government and Mr Sharma, not so long ago the UK founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Globally – to persuade other nations not to use coal. Global leadership is therefore undermined, as it is when approving new oil drilling sites such as the one at Horse Hill. The UK Government’s Climate Emergency declaration was fresh then, with no real structure in place to back it up. Planning laws remain unaligned with the Climate Emergency declaration. This is because oil and gas – and coal it seems – remain part of the Government’s energy mix.

But are there ways to make steel – essential for much of our house and road building – without using coking coal, or fossil fuels? Making steel is incredibly energy intensive. Globally, 7-9 per cent of emissions come from burning fossil fuels to make steel. This is according to Green Biz, which is one of several platforms suggesting there are alternative ways to construct steel. Hydrogen energy could provide an alternative. But it isn’t available yet, on the scale equivalent to opening a new mine. A Swedish company, Hybrit, aims to bring their groundbreaking process to market in 2026, the article says.

A green clause in fossil planning

So let’s raise another question: could the land in Cumbria – or Horse Hill – have been used for a different form of energy? Instead of marking the land with a mine, why not propose a wind farm or field full of solar panels? This energy could be used to feed the national grid perhaps, or even to power homes on a regional basis.

Why not change the planning laws, not just for planning applications but also usage of sites? For example, dictate that where there is an application for a fossil fuel-removing project, there must be another, given equal weight and consideration, for wind or solar? This alternative application should come from an applicant that is not the proposer of the fossil fuel extraction. Then there is no chance of bias within the application process.

As David Attenborough argues – briefly – in each episode of the BBC’s A Perfect Planet series, we should put natural resources such as the sun and the weather to extensive use.

Such a policy change doesn’t serve the “need” to make more steel. But it does show leadership and create jobs in green technology. After all, our Prime Minister Boris Johnson was keen for British inventors to lead the world in his summer address titled Build Back Better. He mentioned, as an example, they could create alternatives to fossil fuels in aviation. However, the over-arching argument would have been for any green technology.