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12 Jan 2021

CEO Blog: Green pickle

Enough is enough, it’s time for industry to stand up, be proud, be counted and challenge more

Get the recipe wrong and green pickle will make you grimace and your eyes water. I feel much the same about the rising rhetoric of those late to the global warming debate who think that shouting more loudly, sounding greener or adopting ever more unachievable target dates to achieve Net Zero proves their environmental sincerity. We have no time for signalling: the only show in town now is delivery. If it’s not actual mitigation or adaptation, stop talking.

It is heartening therefore that Bill Gates says out loud what those of us who are committed to delivery already know. Transitioning to a low carbon economy will be neither quick, nor cheap, nor easy. Do-able, yes, if all the ‘ifs’ align, and we stick with them and some prove to be winners, but that may be the most ‘iffy’ of all conjectures. Eating less meat, walking a bit more and replacing the boiler are all ‘the right thing’, but we must be aware it will be far from enough. Re-engineering total global production and rethinking consumption is not an academic task, it is rebuilding decades of the way we have lived.

The UK is talking a good game on climate change, but we are like the sub who comes on with a minute to play. We are ‘one percenters’. I have no doubt we can reduce our 1% of global carbon emissions to Net Zero and the sooner the better. Our ‘global leadership’ may well influence other players, and I hope it does, but I doubt that in and of itself it will be enough to change the game. Improvements locally cannot offset greater worsening globally. Jeopardising responsible jobs at home in favour of less sustainable jobs elsewhere is arguably an act of self-harm and whilst we will and should grow ‘green jobs’ we must be careful that we do the right things for the right reasons. We need a better means of evaluating costs and benefits under the umbrella of sustainability.

I believe we have turned a corner on raising awareness, commitment and determination to respond to global warming in this country. All right and proper albeit a generation too late. But we are still falling short on the strategic picture. We are not really addressing what drives demand and consumption; we are still focusing more on ‘end of pipe’. It’s the producers who are getting the blame. The inextricable link to what drives demand is still not being made.

For example, there is uproar about a potential new coking coal mine in Cumbria. The proposed mine will produce around 2.7 million tonnes of coal per annum. Global consumption over the last 10 years has exceeded 7 billion tonnes per annum and is likely to remain so for some time with production declines in the West being offset by increases in the East. With China accounting for roughly half of consumption, their journey to Net Zero looks the hardest of all and unless they succeed, we all have a problem. Clearly there are complex issues of perspective and proportionality that must be addressed before you can evaluate the balance sheet of more specific project related issues.

Our Government has in less than a year simultaneously refused planning for a new open cast coal mine in the North East whilst deferring a new coal mine in the North West to the County Council as it is a ‘local decision’. Odd. You would hope that there might be a golden thread. Both projects are predicated on industrial use rather than power. Should both be determined centrally, or both be determined locally? The coke will have to come from somewhere; surely better from a highly regulated country than not? Are we going to continue to delude ourselves that we are cutting our carbon emissions by ignoring our consumption footprint and simply exporting our emissions overseas to still hang in our atmosphere? The County Council is revisiting its decision; if they change their minds the ‘green lobby’ will claim victory, whilst in reality we will just export both jobs and carbon and undermine ‘localism’.

The Cumbrian project is something of a test case raising questions about how we intend to meet all of our primary resource needs sustainably. Currently however the ire is only directed at the obvious heavy industrial projects, whether it’s a temporary mine, or more permanent infrastructure such as a road, a railway or a runway.

Apparently, we are less anxious about an Amazon distribution centre, a supermarket, fast food chains, forestry and agriculture. They appear to be benign. In reality they are no more or less benign than any other activity, but attract less concern because we don’t compare all activities rigorously over their whole lives. We don’t make the link between need and impacts in any strategic way. We don’t look at whole life costs and benefits. We don’t know what to subsidise or tax based on any common approach, we go for easy targets with popular appeal. Why not a burger tax, a pesticides tax and why not an online shopping tax?

Professor Dasgupta’s recent report argues in favour of including the value of nature within our economic model linking economic outputs with the natural inputs upon which our economy relies. Quite right. But do we ever value a sewer, a road, a bridge, a tunnel, a reservoir, assets which connect us and keep us healthy? We know the cost but not the value. We really do need a better balance sheet and scorecard to judge ourselves by.

We are not having the ‘complete’ debate yet. We are still looking mainly at ‘end of pipe’. The question is ‘why the pipe’? Until we can create a strategic valuation approach which links economics, environmental and social issues together for the whole economy we will continue to lurch between each pillar depending on what suits us best at the time. In truth we have not applied the principles of sustainable development rigorously enough at a national level across all sectors to enable us to evaluate the bigger picture. It makes it easier to oppose individual developments in a detached way.

If we want to transition from carbon to electron by converting cars to be fuelled by batteries, we’d better accept that we need steel, lithium and other raw materials that have to be ‘hewn’ from somewhere. We’d better be sure we can get them safely and sustain their supply as the rest of the world tries to do the same. Ironically, we have the coal, we have the steel manufacturing, and we may even have the lithium. Who is joining up all the dots?

We are an island nation which has traded globally for centuries. We import, we export, we always have, we always will. Both activities will come under increasing scrutiny as we transition to low carbon. Why do we import so much without batting an eyelid whether it is coal or timber when we have indigenous resources of our own? Why do we sit idly by whilst other nations tie up critical mineral assets overseas because they are thinking more strategically than us? What many countries may not own they will seek to access to elsewhere. 

We could learn a lot from taking a more global view. Global Britain may only be as global as others allow us to be in the new era of resource availability. Are we already too late on some strategic mineral resources? Do we even pose the question?

As an industry we know that our ‘amazing material: concrete’ (Bill Gates February 2021) is responsible for 1.5% of UK carbon emissions, but we also know that we have reduced those emissions by 53% since 1990 (faster than the economy as a whole) and we will continue to reduce them in line with our Beyond Net Zero roadmap. We also know that the use of this most essential of man-made materials provides the very fabric and foundation of our built environment, both onshore and offshore, above ground, on the ground and below the ground. Concrete and cement are taking criticism because of their carbon emissions as if the industry was unaware and in spite of tremendous improvements that have been made over the decades. Fortunately, there are those bold enough to realise that the world’s most sought-after man-made material is in demand because of its outstanding and versatile properties which help civilise our way of life. All consumption creates environmental costs, consequences and benefits. These considerations need balancing as a suite and not in a fragmented way.

The industry has produced a UK Minerals Strategy to help the country understand and address mineral supply issues. No supply of any primary resource should be assumed; it all needs planning, monitoring and managing. The industry does not create the demand, it supplies that demand. In doing so it is responsible, sustainable and increasingly accountable. That does not deny there are impacts which can be and are mitigated. Unlike most sectors we are massively regulated and critically pay around £1 billion in environmental taxes whilst creating ‘public goods’ in creating net gain for nature. We are not subsidised for doing so, why should anyone be when it is the right thing to do? When will we adopt a consistent approach to all sectors of the economy?

Industry has got to stand up more and proudly advocate the value of business and what it does and why to society and challenge the presumption that only the environmental lobby and activists care and know best about the planet. There is a significant cohort of young, committed scientists and practitioners within the mineral industry who know what they are talking about and we will be making sure that their voices are heard in the din that surrounds complex and difficult environmental issues. We need a lot less confrontation, more mutual understanding and better engagement. Our industry will continue to reach out for the common good. If only Government would reach out to us.

We are in a green pickle and we need a better recipe.

Author: 
MPA Chief Executive Nigel Jackson

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