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UK Government faces lawsuit over Cumbrian coal mine

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Friends of the Earth is suing the UK Government over its decision to approve a new coal mine in Cumbria, alleging a disregard for the climate impacts of the mine.

  • Friends of the Earth is taking legal action against the UK Government over the approval a coal mine.
  • The lawsuit alleges that the decision is not only wrong for the climate while doing little for the economy, but it is also unlawful.
  • There has been a rise in climate litigations against government policies, some of which have had relative success, providing hope to Friends of the Earth.

Mishandling of planning inquiry process deemed unlawful by climate action groups

The legal action being brought by Friends of the Earth alleges that the UK Government has acted unlawfully in approving a new coal mine in Cumbria. The charity had opposed the application for planning permission at the Planning Inquiry, citing the impact it would have on the UK’s legally-binding climate targets.

Friends of the Earth also contends that government officials had not fully considered the impact of the message the country was sending to the rest of the world with this decision. The UK had lobbied other countries to “consign coal to history” when it hosted COP 26 in Glasgow in 2021. 

Niall Toru, lawyer at Friends of the Earth, said: “By giving the go-ahead to this polluting and totally unnecessary coal mine the government has not only made the wrong decision for our economy and the climate, we believe it has also acted unlawfully.”

“Michael Gove has failed to account for the significant climate impacts of this mine, or how the much-needed move to green steelmaking will be impacted by its approval,” he added. “The steel industry is under no illusion that it must decarbonise if we’re to meet our climate goals, which calls into doubt the long-term viability of the mine and the jobs used to justify it.”

The other main opponent of the mine, South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC), is also considering legal action and sent a letter to the Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, in December seeking more information and setting out some of the errors in law in his decision.

Government’s justification for new mine does not seem to add up

The Government justified its decision to approve the new mine based on the economic benefits it would provide, and its own assessment that the mine would do no significant environmental damage.

The Cumbrian mine is expected to provide coking coal for steel production in the UK and globally, while also creating around 500 jobs. Steel production in the UK, however, is moving towards lower carbon production methods, which would mean that most of the coal from the new mine would be exported.  

In a letter outlining the decision of the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Secretary of State agrees with the assessment of the planning inspector, stating that “the emissions from the use of coking coal are inevitable whether coal from the proposed development or other sources is used”.

The letter added: “the proposed development would have a broadly neutral effect on the global release of GHG from coal used in steel making.”

In summarising its conclusions on climate change in the letter, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities also states that the proposed development “is thus consistent with Government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change”.

Trend in climate change litigation may provide hope to climate action charities

A recent rise in the number of cases challenging governmental policy responses to climate change may provide hope to Friends of the Earth and SLACC. Framework litigation cases filed against national and sub-national governments are on the rise, with just under half of all filed since 2005 occurring in 2021 alone.

A report by the Grantham Research Institute and the London School of Economics and Political Science shows that a favourable outcome for climate action has resulted in seven of the nine cases that have challenged national-level policies.

The research was focused on government framework litigation, a term the authors use to describe climate litigation which is specific to governments, focusing as it does on the ambition or implementation of whole-of-government responses to climate change.

Claims that delays by the UK Government in enacting climate change policies have cost households amid the current cost-of-living crisis may also weigh in favour of the legal action being brought by Friends of the Earth, especially as the next election cycle approaches.

Toru concluded: “With the world facing a climate emergency, we shouldn’t have to take this challenge to court. Any sensible government should be choosing to leave coal in the ground, and accelerating the transition to a safe, clean and sustainable future.”

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