Cumbria’s new coal mine and the great jobs fallacy

A green transition could transform the region into an economic powerhouse.

A statue of a coal miner

Anne Chapman is Director of the Green House think tank.

In the past, calls to clean up our act and stop polluting our environment have often been seen as a threat to jobs. Lots of people’s livelihoods are tied to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. We see it now too, with the plans for a new coal mine in west Cumbria being welcomed by many in the local community because they come with a promise of 500 jobs (the project now has been ‘called in’ by the PM, to the fury of some Northern MPs).

West Cumbria lies between the mountains and the sea – an area formerly dominated by coal and iron ore mining, steel and other industries, and now by economically deprived post-industrial communities, along with the country’s nuclear waste repository: Sellafield. Though only a few miles away, it is a far cry from the tourist traps of the Lake District. It is easy to see why many in west Cumbria, left with few opportunities, might welcome the return of an industry from the past. 

More recently the debate has shifted. Numerous reports have pointed out that a transition to a zero carbon economy would create jobs. Green House has worked with Cumbria Action for Sustainability and Opal Research and Consulting on The potential for green jobs in Cumbria.

This project is in the context of a target date of 2037 for the county to achieve net zero, set by the Zero Carbon Cumbria Partnership. The report, released last week, estimates that achieving that zero carbon target would create around 9,000 jobs up to 2037, and then 3,800 jobs in the long term.

The reality is that there is an awful lot to do to get ourselves in a position where we can stop using fossil fuels. For a start we need to upgrade the insulation and air-tightness of over 70% of our housing stock, then we need to fit just about all of them with a low carbon form of heating, such as an air source heat pump.

In Cumbria, that means over 175,000 homes, with substantial work also needed on offices, schools and community buildings. We estimate that just sorting out the buildings in Cumbria will provide, on average, 2000 jobs in the county over 15 years (2022 to 2037). 

As a rural county with plenty of land – and ports at Barrow, Whitehaven and Workington – Cumbria has opportunities that other areas do not. It has huge potential for increasing the generation of renewable energy, and providing a home for industrial processes that require lots of electricity, such as making steel from scrap using electric arc furnaces.

Much of this renewable energy potential is offshore, using the big tidal range in the Solway Firth, as well as wind. Renewable energy could provide an average of 3,500 jobs in west Cumbria over 15 years, reducing to 1,500 in the long term: several times more than a life-limited coal mine. Over the whole county, generating electricity from renewables could provide nearly 6,000 jobs on average over the 15-year transition period and over 2,000 in the long term.

It is only human to want to hang on to what we know and resist change. But change we must. We do not need to worry that there will not be enough jobs, because there is plenty of work to do. We do not need keep doing damaging things because they provide jobs.

The issue is ensuring that appropriate investment goes to all communities and that people are provided with the skills required for the work that needs to be done – that there is a Just Transition away from fossil fuels.

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