Future of Coal in the UK

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 3rd December 2020.

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Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 3:03 pm, 3rd December 2020

I congratulate Luke Pollard on filling in for his colleague at such short notice. I thought that he gave a very succinct and clear exposition, and I welcome him to his position if it is somewhat unusual for him.

Many people spoke about the history. It is very easy to pretend that the history does not matter or that it is somehow irrelevant to our new and shiny future, but actually the history of these mining communities, the history of Great Britain, and the history of economic development in this country are things that we should think about and debate in this House. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Holden for bringing our attention to this issue and congratulate him on calling this debate.

I fully accept that we should not be making partisan points all the time from the Dispatch Box, but I found it very striking that, in a Backbench debate about the coal industry, we should have had eight Conservative speakers and only three Labour speakers. At any other time in the recent parliamentary history of this country, such a mismatch and such a large number of Conservatives speaking passionately and with great experience about this subject would have been extraordinary. I commend all my hon. Friends for speaking in this debate very passionately, and I also commend Opposition Members for doing so. I thought it was a very good debate.

As far as the substance is concerned, we know that we have come a very long way. I think most Members on both sides are conscious of the fact that we have really come a long way from the heady days when we mined—in 1913, which was the record year for coal production in this country—288 million tonnes of coal in a single year. That really staggers the imagination: 1 million tonnes of coal coming out every single working day. As Members on both sides have said, through family links and through representing their communities, there is still a very strong living sense of the incredible sacrifice that many workers underwent simply to keep the lights on and simply to keep economic progress flowing. Even in the 1950s—I have looked at the figures—we were mining more than 200 million tonnes of coal every year during the decade, so it is an incredible legacy. When one thinks of the lives lost, the limbs shattered and the many hours spent in very difficult and dark conditions, I think Members of this House are right to pay tribute to that legacy and to commend these great communities for the efforts and sacrifices they made.

However, we have to look forward. Acknowledging the past and recognising the huge efforts that have been made to build the communities and the life we enjoy today does not mean that we should not very much be looking forward in the future. In that vein, I am proud of what our Government are doing. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is still committed to the 2030 target, which most industry specialists feel is completely unrealistic, but I would be very happy to debate that with him. We also have to recognise, as many of us have done, that there are going to be new jobs, new industries and new challenges. The 10-point plan that the Prime Minister outlined only a couple of weeks ago really pointed the way to some of those new technologies. We have carbon capture, usage and storage, to which we are committing £1 billion. We also have hydrogen, with the possibilities of low-carbon hydrogen. I am very pleased to be leading the work within the Department on trying to come up with a hydrogen strategy and see how we can decarbonise the industry.

As many of my hon. Friends mentioned, there is still a large role for decarbonisation in industry. They made the point, I think very ably, that still in our industrial processes—particularly in steel and also in construction—there is a dependence on coking coal. We have to distinguish between the coking coal used in industrial processes and the coal used to generate electricity, but all the same, Government Members were quite right to point out that it does not make any sense for us simply to export carbon emissions to other countries. That is precisely why the United Kingdom and Canada have set up the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Only this week, I have been speaking to Polish counterparts and other counterparts in eastern Europe to find ways in which we can actually remove coal from the equation, as it were, and seek decarbonised forms of industry, and that is very much our focus. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham mentioned the fact that we import 5 million to 10 million tonnes of coal a year, which is a considerable amount, but we will look to decarbonise further our industrial processes. When we contrast the 5 million to 10 million tonnes that we import with the 288 million tonnes that was mined in 1913, we can see the transition that we have made. I think that coal in industry will not disappear immediately, but we have to look at new ways of decarbonising that industry, which is precisely why we are looking at hydrogen and carbon capture to drive that decarbonisation process.

Finally, the net zero target, which has shaped all our energy policy in the last year, is vital for us to meet our aspirations for the kind of community and economy that we want to see. Everyone in the House today is in agreement on that, which is particularly significant. When we consider our position with respect to net zero, we have to look at the international context as well. Britain on its own will not be able to decarbonise the planet, but we can provide leadership. Many people around the world look to the United Kingdom and to our energy policy, and they feel that we are paving the way on this.

As we enter 2021, we can look forward to two events that will help us to shape the global debate. We will host COP26 in Glasgow in November next year, where we will forge a plan and show our friends how we think net zero can be achieved. We will also enjoy the presidency of the G7. Given what has happened in the United States over the last few weeks with the election, there are huge opportunities in the G7 to drive forward this decarbonisation and net zero agenda.