Coal is the past: time to plan for the future.

Appeals to a fantasy past won't save us. We need to imagine—and plan for—a better, greener future.

Coal is central to the history of British capitalism, as a source of energy and as a site of class struggle. UK production peaked in 1913 at 292 million tonnes per year, and has been in terminal decline since the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. By 2006, the UK was consuming nearly 70 million tonnes per year.

William Jevons had argued in The Coal Question (1865) that the ‘natural’ limit to coal was a weakness for the British Empire, and the move from British to U.S. imperialism in the 20th century is due in part to a shift towards different energy sources (such as oil), over which the British state had less control. Jevons’s book shows it was a source of anxiety for the bourgeoisie even in a supposed ‘golden age’:

Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.

The production of energy remains a central concern for the British state today, and many of the goods consumed in the UK are still manufactured using coal-powered electricity, albeit outside the UK. Gas and oil supplies, rather than coal, are the focus of these concerns, with just 3 million of the 14.2 million tonnes of coal that is consumed in the UK produced domestically. This more recent decline is largely due to a move away from coal-fired power stations, with the eventual goal of phasing them out entirely. There is, however, still a small demand for coal for use in steel production, blast furnaces, and the manufacture of particular products.

In 2015, a few days before Christmas, thousands of people marched from Knottingley to Kellingley in Yorkshire to mark the closure of the last deep coal mine. They raised the banners of several miners’ union branches, told stories of their own and their families’ lives, and shared anger at the still-unresolved past. In the evening, they had a party to celebrate the astonishing achievements of coal miners over centuries of labour and class struggle. A quiet ending to an era of triumph and tragedy. But then, in early 2019, hints emerged of a mini-revival in coal mining. In Whitehaven, Cumbria, a new deep mine was granted planning permission. This followed the opening of an open-cast coal mine in County Durham, and the forwarding of a still-contested proposal in Druridge Bay in Northumberland. A further proposal is causing controversy in Throckley, near Newcastle. In addition, there are at least another 12 surface mines that have continued to operate since the closure of Kellingley.

These new mines are not going to (and nor do they promise to) return the UK to 2006 levels of coal production, never mind 1913. The open cast mines generally employ a small amount of people, and will not sustain whole communities. Nonetheless, it seems strange that in a period following the Paris Climate Agreement, where climate breakdown is an increasingly urgent problem, and with councils across the UK declaring climate emergencies, extraction of the most heavily polluting fossil fuel continues, with encouragement from planners and councillors.

What follows is a little look into this mini-revival of coal production. It shows us the limits of current political structures (particularly planning) for facing climate change, and some of the logics used by industry to exploit this system—logics which are, in fact, limiting the futures of the communities whose history they exploit.

Coal is good for the environment?

Greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions are generally measured in their CO2 equivalent. Whether this measurement is based on production or consumption varies nationally and internationally. These differing approaches often produce differing results, so it is important to understand that the measurement and accounting of GhG emissions has a lot in common with the process of arriving at GDP estimates, rather than being a precise scientific method. With coal, this is perhaps a little more straightforward. Coking coal in particular is close to being pure carbon, meaning that X tonnes should roughly equate to the same amount of CO2 released. But in discussions related to sites, regions, countries, etc., there is a complex set of estimates and modelling—meaning that we only find out what has actually happened several years later. In order to keep up with current climate change targets, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, there has already been a huge reduction in coal consumption and production. When considering applications for coal sites, this Act, as well as several government policies and guidelines, should make it difficult for coal mining to make a comeback. But—as we have seen in Whitehaven, and in Throckley now too—mining corporations are making a specific argument that creates a loophole through which they can be granted permission to extract. This is from the website of Banks, who operate and are proposing various sites in the North East of England:

“Importing coal into the UK generates more carbon emissions that from indigenous UK production. Importing of coal increases carbon emissions”


“Increasing imports of coal simply ‘off-shores’ of the UK’s environmental responsibilities without the significant local economic and employment opportunities and environmental enhancements that indigenous coal production deliver”

In the decision to approve the new deep mine at Whitehaven, we also see this argument used, successfully, as a form of mitigation: that effectively mining coal in the UK offsets the transportation costs of importing coal from elsewhere. The argument is basically that, as coal is still being used (in this case primarily for steel production) then it is better to use UK coal than coal from Russia, the US, or Australia. It is notable that the Whitehaven planning officer doesn’t attempt to confirm or quantify this, but intuitively accepts the argument—despite an objector from a local environmental group countering that transportation accounts for 1% of the total CO2 emissions of the mine, which has a projected 50 year lifespan.

There is a sleight of hand in this industry line. Whilst it is true that transporting coal down a train track a few hundred miles is likely to produce lower GhG emissions than shipping it 3000 miles, it is not true that swapping one for the other constitutes an environmental gain. There is absolutely no reason to suggest that the production of an extra 2.5 milllion tonnes of coking coal in Cumbria will mean that anyone anywhere else will stop, mitigate, or change their production. If steel plants in the UK and Western Europe stop importing US coal, that will likely find a home somewhere else. This is how global markets tend to ‘work’.

Therefore, in terms of both global and UK emissions, this can hardly be considered a saving. Taking more coal out of the ground is a net contribution to emissions—which do not respect borders—whether you are making transport savings or not. It may be that the companies and decision-makers don’t care about that, or that they think we can keep pushing the earth that little bit more, but it cannot be that we have a supposedly technical and democratic system that accepts these utter absurdities. This is underlined by the fact there are no restrictions on where and to whom these companies sells ‘their’ coal: they could ship it to Japan if they so desired. And all of this is before we even raise the issue of global climate justice—it is more than generous to say that the U.K. has extracted and burnt its fair share of coal over the centuries.

Planning for coal

Even though national policy has tightened up over the last few years, these loopholes remain. The main framework for planning (the NPPF), which was updated in 2018, still allows for other benefits to be considered against the environmental cost of coal production:

Planning permission should not be granted for the extraction of coal unless: a) the proposal is environmentally acceptable, or can be made so by planning conditions or obligations; or b) if it is not environmentally acceptable, then it provides national, local or community benefits which clearly outweigh its likely impacts (taking all relevant matters into account, including any residual environmental impacts).

The GhG emissions from one specific mine are not going to destroy the planet singlehandedly, and it can usually be shown (though some don’t even go this far) that the reductions are only a small % of either regional (if these exist) or national carbon budgets for the particular site. At this point it is usually decided, as in Whitehaven, that “these issues are far broader than can be addressed or influenced through consideration of this planning application”. As long as something relatively generic to any form of development can be said in favour of the site (jobs, investment, etc.), then this can be said to weigh against the several million tonnes of carbon that will be ejected into the atmosphere. A local planning authority has no statutory duty to measure or monitor emissions, just to adopt ‘pro-active’ strategies.

This raises a significant question: under this system, when will enough be enough? Are we to rely on planners with an environmentalist streak? Or a particularly radical set of councillors? Even then, denied applications would likely go to appeal with central government, and even if the minister in question rejects the proposals on climate change grounds—as did Sajid Javid in the case of Druridge Bay, an open cast mine in Northumbria—this decision can still be (and indeed was) overturned at the High Court, due to Javid’s failure to provide evidence, and the laxity of policy and regulation in these matters.

Effectively, legislation and policy—even after the Paris Climate Agreement—is not robust enough for councils, ministers, planners or courts to argue against further coal extraction (assuming that they would want to). Rather, the legal framework is loose enough that companies with good lobbyists can easily game the system, often using bogus lines about coal extraction being an ‘environmental enhancement’. These lines rely on absurd assumptions about the behaviour of other producers, and draw upon a highly quantitative and technocratic approach to climate crisis which ignores the simple principle that scientists and activists continue to assert in the starkest terms—we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to start doing that now.

Coal nostalgia

I included the above example of Kellingley because coal mining is an important part of UK history. It was the fuel of Empire, and the site of class struggles throughout the 20th century. It defined whole towns and landscapes, and its rapid decline has devastated communities through a deliberate economic war fought by neoliberal Conservatives. It has become commonplace for politicans and commentators to sit and lament about the ‘left-behind’, but when we are talking about coal mining areas like Durham, South Yorkshire, Northumberland, South Wales, Cumbria, and even Nottinghamshire, we are talking about communities that were devastated as part of a deliberate assault on working class power. ‘Left-behind’ sounds like an accident. This was done on purpose.

It is basically insulting to use this history, repackaged in glossy brochures, and emptied of both the class conflict and the horrific working conditions experienced by mine workers, as a means by which to promote the mini-revival of this industry. This is a key means by which these new sites aim to show that there are ‘local or community benefits’, drawing upon a nostalgic and fetishised version of working class life. The Whitehaven site looks to draw upon the “generations of mining experience in the area” to provide approximately 400 jobs. Mining in Whitehaven and the nearby area had ceased by the late 1980s, and, as with anywhere else, the local history of coal mining is one characterised by poor working conditions, explosions, decreased life expectancy, long term health problems, and exploitation. In most cases, the industry was only sustainable because of the unpaid domestic labour of women within the community.

This life was a monumental struggle, and one that we should rightly be proud of in its displays of solidarity and the power of collective action—values we so desperately need today. This story is not one for capitalists to tell in order to support continued extraction, when it is the renewable and green sectors that actually hold real promise for communities across the UK. Coal extraction was a point of class struggle because it was so essential, but it was also a point of severe exploitation. Can we not imagine better? Do we have to be so nostalgic in our view? A mass of skilled unionised work in the renewable sector is a possibility that we continually fail to embrace. It cannot be backed up with a fantasy past, but it promises a better future for communities across the North and the world by prevent devastating climate change as well as improving living standards in a way fossil fuels will not.

What is perhaps most perverse about this is that we can see the same logics that were used against coal miners in the 1980s being deployed in support of the industry now it no longer poses a threat to capital. Thatcher argued that mines were inefficient, environmentally unfriendly, and that mining was a dying industry. Now companies are telling us that it is cheaper, environmentally friendly, and an opportunity for growth in a time of stagnation—one that will allow Britain some self-sufficiency, as opposed to embracing global competition. This is not part of a democratic or reasoned discussion about the future. The industry wants to extract as much as possible, and it is the role of government to limit this. In both cases, the support is for capital rather than workers, even if the same logics are used to justify contradictory actions.

An absence of strategy

There is an element of truth to the argument made by the coal revivalists, which is that, in the very short term, there is probably a need for coking coal (which is more or less dead for energy) to produce steel. There are emergent possibilities that can mean moving away from coal in steel production that are at an experimental stage in Sweden, as well as the possibility of using recycled steel to decrease the need for coking coal. If there was a wider strategy to pursue and invest in greening metal production (something the UK is well placed to do), then there may be a place for a small public industry for coking coal production working under strict carbon limitations that could even support this investment—allowing us to set a clear end point for coal production. This is the politics of the problem, which the above examples let us explore. The UK goverment does not have a coherent climate change strategy that addresses the substantial changes required across the country. When it comes to planning decisions, whether at a local or level or in the High Court, it is possible for companies to argue that their proposal isn’t really going to have such an impact in the scheme of things, whilst utilising nostalgic and effectively nationalist arguments to win over at least some decision makers (some of which couldn’t give a shit about climate change).

This can fix us into several decades of production which can perpetuate the present state of affairs. They are only allowed to do this because of an absence of an overall planning strategy, one which actually specifies both time frames and investment to phase out particular fuels, rather than just hoping the market will figure this all out for us. This is in part related to the design of the NPPF, which sets a framework for weighing up considerations, rather than any defined strategy towards a public interest. It is an expression of the contradiction of neoliberal governance—it is a state intervention that is against state intervention. There are some investors who would likely welcome this clarity—and the Tories have been abundantly clear about their intentions to destroy the onshore wind industry. With regards to fossil fuels, though, companies can keep fighting the case for their individual sites—all of which add up to levels of consumption that we cannot afford. Within planning decisions and energy policy there needs to be a clear strategy for phasing out coal and gas, which takes account of their necessary uses within specific time limits. As I have shown here, it is possible for any company to argue that their project is meeting a short term, exceptional requirement for coal. This overall approach is at once market-oriented (it is derived from current demand and lacks overall strategy) and highly centralised, in that a number of these decisions have and will be referred to central government through an appeals process. Local decisions increasingly rely on consultants to make the case for the industry (and sometimes activists), as well as to advise councils on their decision. Time and energy is being wasted fighting these battles along often absurd technical lines rather than developing a coherent strategy to deal with the greatest challenge of the century—and all because of the ideological commitment to this fusion of the supposedly neutral market and pro-industry state intervention (i.e. neoliberalism).

The aim here has not been to suggest that there is a wave of new coal development coming (unless you live, as I do, in the North East of England), but that the way in which these new coal mines have been considered, defended, and decided upon is revealing of the sort of political processes and arguments that are currently used to make the decisions that will determine whether the climate will, by the end of the century, be supportive of human life. It is the worst possible time to be encumbered with a technocratic paradigm of governance so riven with the contradictions of neoliberalism; this framework can, as I have shown, so easily be manipulated by a capitalist class desperate to keep extracting just that little bit more without any serious consideration for the future.

It isn’t a hard trap to escape. We need to embrace the idea that democratic processes and strategic planning can be more effective in making decisions than an imaginary market or the whims of ministers, which is the focus of the Green New Deal. Rather than using the nostalgia of a fantasy past, we can imagine a better future—which would be a fitting tribute to the sacrifices and lives of those who worked down the pit.

Part of the Political Ecologies series.