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Health professionals condemn the UK government’s decision to open a coal mine in Cumbria

14th December 2022
The decision is a major setback for health and the environment.

The UK has emerged as a global leader in climate action by being the first country to legally commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and leading the COP26 presidency into phasing out coal power. The UK and Canada also formed the Powering Past Coal Alliance at COP23 in 2017 with the aim of reducing the generation and use of coal power while increasing investments in clean energy. In 2021, the UK government declared that it would phase out coal power by 2024 instead of its original commitment of 2025. But this week’s approval to open a coal mine in Cumbria, the first one in decades, is a major setback in terms of health and the environment. The decision also taints the UK’s credibility and leadership in reducing emissions and tackling climate change. The Climate Change Committee has reported that even though the UK government has set a legally binding target of becoming a net zero economy in the next 28 years, the implementation of measures to achieve this has been poor. And the opening of the new coal mine confirms this.

The coal mines will be contributing significantly to greenhouse emissions in addition to adding noxious pollutants to the atmosphere. Air pollution is associated with poor lung development in children; respiratory conditions including infections, lung cancer; and exacerbation of asthma, heart disease, stroke, and neurological conditions like dementia. It is also linked with adverse outcomes in pregnancy and diabetes. In the UK every year around 36 000 premature deaths are attributable to air pollution. Climate change and air pollution disproportionately affect socio-economically deprived communities and other vulnerable groups, thus exacerbating existing health inequalities within society. The chief medical officer’s annual report published on 8 December 2022, a day after the decision on the Cumbria coal mine was announced, highlights the progress made in tackling outdoor air pollution, but also emphasises the fact that further action is necessary. Implementation of measures such as active travel, such as cycling and walking, to decrease air pollution has co-benefits such as reducing carbon emissions and improved health due to better air quality and physical activity. The report also adds that currently there is limited action and research on indoor air pollution with recommendations to focus on improving indoor air quality. Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that the operation of the coal mines would take us backwards and hinder the progress we have made in tackling air pollution and climate change.

Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The rationale behind the decision to open the coal mine is that it would help reduce UK’s coal imports for steelmaking and create over 500 new jobs. However, the fact is that 85% of the coal will be exported as the UK steel companies aim to move away from coal by the 2030s. And the coal-generated would not have any positive impact on the energy crises the nation is currently facing. We are living in a time when investments in renewable energy would be more sustainable, reliable, and healthy while creating a considerable number of secure green jobs. Instead of focusing on long-term solutions to our economic and health crises, this untoward decision makes us wonder if the government is serious about achieving net zero targets by 2050 and providing clean air to the people of the UK.

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This piece is written by Anandita Pattnaik, policy officer at the UKHACC. It was originally published in the BMJ.

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References:

  1. Climate Change Committee. Current programmes will not deliver net zero. https://www.theccc.org.uk/2022/06/29/current-programmes-will-not-deliver-net-zero/
  2. Air pollution applying all our health. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/air-pollution-applying-all-our-health/air-pollution-applying-all-our-health#:~:text=In%20the%20UK%2C%20air%20pollution,and%2036%2C000%20deaths%20every%20yea
  3. Iacobucci G. Government must take air pollution more seriously, says England’s chief medical officer in annual report. BMJ2022;379:o2962. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o296