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The government’s approval of a new coal mine is a betrayal of net zero

14 December 2022

What Sheffield's journey from coal and steel to new tech can teach others. 

The government’s approval of a new coal mine is a betrayal of net zero
Sheffield has shown it's possible to move on from its coal-dependent, steel past, says Ian Parke. Image credit: Shutterstock

Having been born and brought up in Sheffield, you could say that coal and steel are in my blood.

Were it not for Henry Bessemer, who developed a process for making industrial amounts of steel in the 19th century, the city of Sheffield would likely be a much smaller and less important place.

Upon leaving school in the late 1970s, most of my contemporaries began apprenticeships in the steel industry.

There was very little else on offer.

My own apprenticeship as a civil engineering technician was unusual, but even this was with a company making and exporting steel rolling mills all over the globe.

Sheffield steel

Sheffield at this time was still synonymous with steel.

The sailors on board HMS Sheffield when she was commissioned in 1975 called her ‘Shiny Sheff’ because of all the stainless steel on board.

Forty years on from the industrial decline of the 1980s, Sheffield still has a steel industry but much manufacturing has moved to developing countries.

Coal became history

Advances in technology have not only resulted in a much reduced workforce, but allowed the steel industry to reduce its dependency on coal.

Meanwhile, Sheffield has become a leader in high tech manufacturing.

The Advanced Manufacturing Park at Waverley is home to several specialist companies including Boeing, Rolls Royce, McLaren, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and several academic outposts.

One of these is the Translational Energy Research Centre, with whom the ICE’s low carbon energy community advisory board (CAB) is collaborating.

Ironically, this hive of high-tech innovation is located adjacent to the former Orgreave Coking Plant, site of the iconic Battle of Orgreave when striking coal miners fought against the police in 1984.

I won’t pretend the transition to a world without plentiful jobs in coal or steel was not traumatic, or that we don’t still have too many low-paid and low-skilled jobs.

But ultimately, I believe the region has embraced the change.

Coal became history and new industries grew up to replace it.

The questions around Cumbria’s new coal mine

The government’s approval last week of a new coal mine in Cumbria is a decision that raises many questions.

The mining of coal is considered by many to belong in the past.

The country has moved on and is rapidly embracing the technological and environmental benefits that will ensure the journey to net zero carbon is as smooth and as painless as possible.

The coal that will be mined in Cumbria will be used in the steel manufacturing process, either in the UK or exported overseas.

'Look at Sheffield'

I sympathise with the residents of Cumbria who want well-paid high-skilled jobs, but to them I would say: look at Sheffield.

Or for that matter, look at Derbyshire, which has seen all of its 68 coal mines closed, but now has 14,000 people employed in high tech jobs according to Derbyshire Observatory.

Some workers from the oil and gas industry in the North Sea have successfully transferred to offshore wind farms off the Scottish coast.

The answer is to accelerate the move to low-carbon energy sources while promoting the economic survival of areas that have legacy skills, existing infrastructure, and high unemployment.

We must re-skill those with experience in legacy industries to new, greener technologies such as hydrogen, tidal energy offshore wind.

No doubt there will be significant challenges and setbacks ahead, but I believe success will be achieved.

Just ask the good people of Sheffield about their journey away from coal to a cleaner and brighter future.

'Is the government turning the clock back?'

The government’s decision to approve a new coal mine is a puzzling and retrograde step.

It is a decision that is at odds with its own agenda for zero carbon, and defies the overwhelming logic of our time to reduce our dependence on carbon.

The communities of Sheffield and South Yorkshire sacrificed a lot with the closure of the coal mines and the reduction in steel manufacturing.

Is the government really turning the clock back and abandoning so much that has been achieved towards a zero-carbon future?

  • Ian Parke, co-chair, Low Carbon Energy Advisory Board at Institution of Civil Engineers