Labour would stop the new coalmine in Cumbria from going ahead if elected, and will seek to prevent it progressing before then, the party has said.
Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, said: “A Labour government will leave no stone unturned in seeking to prevent the opening of this climate-destroying coalmine, and instead ensure we deliver the green jobs that people in Cumbria deserve.”
Labour expects the mine to run into serious legal challenges long before the general election. Activists are already planning to seek a judicial review of the government’s decision to grant permission for the mine.
The Woodhouse Colliery, near Whitehaven in Cumbria, is the first new coalmine to be given a green light in 30 years. The £165m project, which would create about 500 jobs and produce 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year for steelmaking, was first proposed in 2014. Ministers allowed planning permission to go ahead in early 2021, before rescinding that decision while the UK prepared to host the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow last November.
Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, told the House of Commons on Thursday: “I am satisfied that in my role as secretary of state it is the right thing to do to grant this planning application.”
The government has argued the mine will be compatible with the UK’s legally binding target of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the coal would help the UK make the transition to a low-carbon economy.
However, about 83% of the coal produced is likely to be for export, and its high sulphur content may make it unsuitable for many steelmakers.
Lawyers for civil society groups including Friends of the Earth and Client Earth are poring over the government’s 419-page decision to grant permission, published on Wednesday. Possible grounds to challenge the decision include the government’s legally binding commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the UK’s international climate commitments, including the Paris climate agreement of 2015.
Protesters are also crowdfunding for legal challenges, and a demonstration is planned at the mine site this weekend.
The government’s decision has provoked a global outcry, with experts telling the Guardian they feared it would harm prospects for international climate crisis talks. The UK made phasing out coal a central plank of the Cop26 talks last year, and at Cop27 in Egypt last month supported an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get countries to commit to phasing down all fossil fuels.
People in developing countries, on the frontline of the climate crisis, would be viewing the go-ahead for a new mine “with horror”, said Mohamed Adow, the director of the Power Shift Africa thinktank, in Kenya.
“It’s the height of hypocrisy,” he said. “The UK claims to be a climate leader but it is trashing its record and making a mockery of its green credentials with this decision. The fact that the UK itself has now undermined [the agreement reached at Cop26] this is breathtaking in its stupidity.”
Catherine Abreu, the executive director of the climate advocacy group Destination Zero, pointed out the UK helped to found the Powering Past Coal Alliance of countries committed to phasing out the use of coal. Although that initiative is focused on the use of coal for power generation, Abreu said the new mine ran counter to the spirit of the Cop26 agreement.
“It’s unbelievable to see the UK … destroy its climate credibility,” she said, at the same time that “science and global politics cannot be more clear that rich developed countries like the UK have to be first movers in stopping the production of all fossil fuels”.
Makoma Lekalakala of Earthlife Africa, based in South Africa, said: “What an irony! The UK is … supporting South Africa to transition to a low carbon economic development. The coal phase down that was included in the climate convention negotiation at Glasgow is still fresh to be disregarded by the very proponents.”
Sasha Kinney, a Nairobi-based senior associate at the energy research group E3G, said: “The announcement that [the UK] is building an unnecessary new coalmine in 2022 fundamentally undermines its credibility across the developing world.
“Moreover, the decision misleadingly implies that coal remains economically viable, prompting many in Africa to ask – if one of the world’s richest countries is opening a new coalmine, why shouldn’t developing countries pursue fossil fuel-driven development? A new coalmine in Cumbria unhelpfully justifies fossil fuel development everywhere.”
Omar Elmawi, the director of the organisation Muslims for Human Rights, based in Kenya, added: “It shows that the UK government doesn’t give the required global climate action the seriousness it deserves. For them, the interests of corporates and the profits they stand to make is far more important than the people, nature and climate that stand to be impacted by thiscoalmine.”