Many politicians want you to believe that economic growth, jobs and policies to reduce greenhouse gases go hand-in-hand. For example, wind and solar power are being pushed to reduce emissions despite their installers making half the salary of workers in the oil, gas and coal industries and many of solar panels and the materials need to manufacture wind turbines being imported. Currently, England, who is host to the next U.N. climate conference in November, is faced with a challenge to its climate commitment. A company wants to open a coal mine, which will feed the country’s steel mills that, of course, emit greenhouse gases. The company argues that the coal will be imported if not mined domestically and the steel is needed to make wind turbines. Further, British Steel warned in mid-September that a 50-fold price increase could be on the horizon
West Cumbria Mining will invest 160 million pounds ($218 million) in a coal mine that would create over 500 well-paying jobs, ranging up to £60,000 ($70,860) a year. Britain’s production of coal dropped more than 90 percent over the past decade, as the country pushed renewable energy sources, like solar and wind power, on its citizenry. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to make Britain the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
Britain’s Climate Change Committee, created by Parliament, warned that the mine would increase emissions and “have an appreciable impact” on Britain’s carbon targets. But Mr. Johnson is under pressure to bolster the economies of England’s northern constituencies, where large local employers, including a chemical factory and a steel works, have shut down over the years.
A planning committee of the Cumbria County Council approved the mine three times, but the threat of legal challenges has held it up. West Cumbria Mining argues that it will use modern, safe mining machines capable of digging out nearly 30 metric tons of coal per minute. The company has already spent £36 million ($42.5 million) on preparations for the mine despite “a very real risk that the project will never be delivered.” In March, Mr. Johnson’s government indicated it would decide the matter, arguing that the mine’s application raises “issues of more than local importance.” In a recent filing, the company noted that despite a “reasonable expectation” the government would approve its plans, it had begun a “cost saving” effort by telling staff members that they would be terminated and by cutting all expenses except those related to the inquiry.
China Dominates Production of Materials for Solar panels and Wind Turbines
According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind turbines are predominantly made of steel (71 to 79 percent of total turbine mass). China produces 57 percent of the world’s steel while the European Union, United Kingdom and North America combined produce about 13 percent of global production. China’s steel furnaces are relatively new, with an average age of 12 years, compared with 53 and 45 years in North America and Europe, respectively. In the first half of 2021, 18 new blast furnace projects were announced in China. According to the World Steel Association, over 70 percent of steel is produced using the blast furnace process, in which coal is burned at high temperatures to reduce the oxygen in iron ore, turning it into steel. About 90 percent of China’s steel is made using blast furnaces that are less carbon efficient than electric arc furnaces.
China also dominates the global supply chain for solar power, producing the vast majority of the materials and parts for solar panels that countries rely on for renewable energy. The United States relies almost entirely on Chinese manufacturers for low-cost solar modules, many of which are imported from Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. China also supplies many of the key components in solar panels, including more than 80 percent of the world’s polysilicon. Nearly half of the global supply of polysilicon comes from Xinjiang; 35 percent from other regions in China. In 2019, less than 5 percent of the world’s polysilicon came from U.S.-owned companies.
China has become dominant due to many factors, including cheap coal and their willingness to use it, poor environmental standards, government subsidies, and alleged forced labor. Polysilicon production is centered in the western region of Xinjiang, which relies heavily on cheap coal for electricity and which is where the allegations of forced labor of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are most concentrated. Because renewable energy (sources such as wind and solar power) are intermittent and unstable, China’s officials indicate that they must rely on a stable power source and coal is readily available.
Global Coal Mine Capacity Expansion
The world’s coal producers are planning 432 new mine projects with 2.28 billion metric tons of annual output capacity—a 30 percent expansion of world capacity by 2030. China, Australia, India, and Russia account for more than three-quarters of the new projects. China is building 452 million metric tons of new annual production capacity and has another 157 million metric tons in planning for a total of 609 million metric tons. For comparison, the Energy Information Administration estimates total U.S. production of coal in 2021 will be 607 million short tons (551 million metric tons). India has 13 million metric tons under construction and 363 million metric tons in planning stages; Australia has 31 million metric tons under construction and 435 million metric tons in planning; and Russia has 59 million metric tons under construction and 240 million metric tons in planning. Unlike China, where 74 percent of projects are already under construction, the vast majority of proposed mining capacity in Australia (94 percent), India (96 percent), and Russia (80 percent) are in pre-construction phases and have yet to undergo the build-out of mine infrastructure.
The Brits have the right idea for economic growth and job creation—opening a coal mine to support the country’s steel mills. Boris Johnson is mulling over whether to approve the mine opening, which is providing a challenge because Britain is in charge of the next U.N. climate meeting. However, England’s northern region is in need of jobs and development. Will economic growth and jobs for citizens in England win out over criticism from world powers that are pushing for a net zero carbon future?