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Britain Steel and Coal: Good or Bad?

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

A friend sent me a link to an article about a huge green initiative given the go-ahead in Denmark. £24billion ($34bil) investment in building an ‘energy island’ in the North Sea to supply 3 million homes across Northern Europe with clean power and hydrogen for industrial use. Aims to be operational by 2033.


Incredible.


Contrast that with UK headlines currently centred around the approval (or not?) of a coal mine in Cumbria.


The argument ‘for’ being that the mine will provide coking coal for the British Steel industry. Creating 500 jobs and supporting 2,000 more.


But is this a long-term solution? At best, it provides some jobs for maybe a decade before the tide turns and alternatives put further pressure on the British Steel industry and profit margins which are already low. A crutch to a suffering industry that will likely break within that decade bringing us back to square one, with no tangible scalable solution to making steel without coal... Just as our neighbours are hitting stride. Not only will it negatively impact the health and wellbeing of locals, but it’ll also compromise the UK’s commitments to tackling climate change and reaching net-zero carbon emissions.


At worst, it’s a multi-billion pound sinkhole that never gets off the ground. Across the world and political spectrum, people are waking up to the reality – and opportunity, frankly – that we need to transition away from fossil fuels. It takes the planet thousands of years to absorb such massive amounts of carbon, as it did numerous times after global volcanic eruptions and extinction events. We emit carbon at an insane pace. Thousands of years to form; a few weeks from extraction to ignition. See the issue?


If the mine is opened, every minute it operates the opposition will grow. And over a decade, there’s every chance that increased momentum in the climate movement and diminished enthusiasm for coal will simply create more awkward conversations and potential for disappointed communities.


So, back to the tangible alternatives to burning coal in the making of steel. I looked into it and actually, we’re (like, the ‘humanity’ we) not that far off a few genuine options… There are several companies across Europe currently trialling the use of Hydrogen – sure, some will say Hydrogen isn’t green yet at scale, but even hydrogen derived from natural gas is cleaner than coal and, to be honest, this is further indication that R&D in renewables needs to match the scale of the problem.


Other alternatives include using waste materials such as tyres or agricultural waste instead of coal, so that at least new resources aren’t being extracted. While this isn’t a long-term solution either, as we move towards sustainability, it could be a viable option to support the transition to low carbon steel, right? Think of the jobs! Not to mention the unknown benefit from R&D and outcomes that could be delivered to support other industries and circularity. I’m amazed those supporting approval of the coal mine in Cumbria aren’t considering more innovative ideas, it just seems short-sighted. “Build back better” but go for the easiest and most damaging option. Screw the kids.


Just imagine if instead of investing in a coal mine – which will export 85% of its coal – we built an R&D hub(s) to source and scale low-carbon alternatives for making steel, in the heart of some former mining communities. Maybe I’m just an idealist, but that could be the start of something seriously beneficial for Not London. Ya know, phoenix, flames, let the northerners drive progress in the steel industry, instead of leaving it limping behind our neighbours. It’s just one of the dozens of ‘crazy’ ideas that seem less crazy than opening up a new coal plant in 2021!


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