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Only ideas can save our climate

Humans are endlessly creative, and creativity is about having space to fail and try again. Our government's climate policy needs to open up that space – by leaving coal in the ground.

Whitehaven coastline

The UK's first new coal mine for 30 years, to be located in Whitehaven, Cumbria, was approved by Michael Gove in December 2022.

Jonny Gios (Unsplash)

I once saw a musical play at the Labour Club in Park Hill, telling the story of women in the 1984 miners’ strike. Miners and their families had courage and camaraderie, but also first-hand knowledge of coal’s dark side. Industries were built and industrialists’ fortunes were made at great human cost and, it turns out, environmental cost too.

Michael Gove’s recent approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria, the first for 30 years, has been met with dismay and ridicule. As reflections of a government’s climate credentials go, it cracks the mirror. But national planning policy is well behind the climate curve, because it’s built on the tired assumption that securing an energy supply is inherently beneficial to society, no matter what the source of the energy.

Gove argues that the producer of the coal isn’t accountable for how it’s used. Fair enough? If I was making beautiful kitchen knives, I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for the very rare occasions when someone uses one as a murder weapon. But knives are usually used safely, whereas burning coal is inherently harmful as far as the planet is concerned. Sure, carbon capture and storage technologies might come partially to the rescue in a few years’ time, but when you dig it up and sell it you have a pretty clear idea of what’s going to happen to it. It’s high time for regulation to catch up with reality.

In Mission Economy, economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that government’s role should be to set the overall goal, regulations and access to funding, and then giving businesses and institutions freedom to experiment, to work towards that mission in their own ways. Our government’s approach is the polar opposite – micro-managing individual policies and decisions, but with inconsistent goals and precious little funding. For the climate this is a disaster, because most organisations want to make progress and be able to operate in a green, low-carbon future. Increasingly they see national government as the barrier.

Coal is just one example. Government could set the mission by committing to phase out coal completely, fund the industries that currently burn coal to help them transform, but not instruct them as to which technologies they can use. Similarly, there has been debate as energy prices rise about whether to prioritise heat pumps or hydrogen boilers, but it’s a false choice – industries need to invest and experiment in both. Should farmers switch to producing crops for plant-based diets or to alternative methods of livestock farming that can regenerate soils? Again, a false choice. The mission should be a low-carbon food system and there is room for many solutions.

I’ve written before for Now Then about the need to be positive and hopeful in a changing climate. This optimism is becoming an obsession for me. The future must be a place we want to go to. Humans are endlessly creative – we can fix the climate crisis. I don’t mean placing blind faith in technology, but I do mean trusting our ability to generate ideas. Creativity is about having room to experiment, room to fail and try again.

The mission should be clear by now: leave fossil fuels behind and allow nature to recover. The coal should stay in the hole because, when it's no longer an option, the new ideas will flow.

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Andrew Wood is Senior Engagement & Impact Officer at Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission. These views are his own.

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