Commentary: Coal mining ends in England, but Earth Overshoot Day points way forward

File photo of haul trucks at the Shotton open pit coal mine in northern England, which closed in June 2020. Credit: Smurrayinchester, Wikimedia Commons.

It has been a difficult week for English mining engineers. A coal open pit closed in Durham on the same day (Aug. 17) as a thought-provoking press release by Global Footprint Network (GFN). The closure left just one industrial-scale coal mine operating in the country, and means that a once proud (and important) industry is almost at an end.

Coal is still needed globally, of course, and it remains mining’s most valuable extracted commodity, worth over US$600 billion annually. However, the closure of an unremarkable mine in Durham is a lesson for miners everywhere: you need to be extracting commodities that people want.

It has been a long time coming but the end itself has been sudden. Coal mining in Britain dates back to the Romans, and 100 years ago there were some 1,500 underground and 100 surface coal mines on this small island, producing almost 300 million tonnes annually and employing nearly 1.2 million people. Even eight years ago, coal accounted for 40% of British electricity generation, but it had collapsed to a share of only 2% last year.

The last underground coal mine in England (Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire) closed five years ago, and closure of the Bradley surface mine on Aug. 17 left just the Hartington mine, in Derbyshire, operating, and that mine is expected to close within months.

True, there are still some tiny coal-mining operations (by ‘free miners’) in Cumbria and the Forest of Dean, but, effectively, coal mining in England has come to an end, and it is also about to cease in Scotland and Wales.

The reason is mainly attributable to climate change and the adverse impact of carbon emissions. Indeed, California-based GFN reminded us of the importance of carbon emissions this week by announcing that Aug. 22 is Earth Overshoot Day. On that date, “humanity will have demanded as much from nature as the Earth can renew in the whole year.” In effect, we are using as many ecological resources as if we lived on 1.6 Earths.

GFN estimates that the Earth crossed a critical threshold in the mid-1970s when human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce. In one of the few positive effects of Covid-19, however, GFN notes that the coronavirus-induced lockdowns this year have caused the global ecological footprint to contract almost 10%. Covid-19 has pushed Earth Overshoot Day back more than three weeks compared with last year, when it was July 29.

Nevertheless, the organization stresses that decisions need to be made around “how we produce food, move around, power ourselves, consume and how much land we protect for wildlife.” Reducing our carbon footprint by 50% would reduce the ‘overshoot’ date by 93 days.

GFN also calculates an Overshoot Day for individual countries should all humanity consume like the people in that country. Canada has the eighth earliest date globally (March 18), which is better than only four oil-rich Arab nations, oil producer Trinidad, Luxembourg and the United States. The relatively low-consuming U.K. is ranked in a smug 50th place (we overshot on May 16 this year).

With food systems currently using 50% of our planet’s biocapacity, GFN notes that what we eat matters. Policies aimed at reducing the carbon-intensity of food and the impact of food production on biodiversity — while improving public health — deserve special attention, GFN says.

It is possible to live within the means of our planet, and miners are part of the solution. The industry’s focus needs to move — quickly — from oil and coal to battery metals and fertilizers. GFN calculates that if we move the Earth Overshoot Day back by five days each year, humanity would be using less than one planet before 2050. With our help it is doable.

— Dr. Chris Hinde is a mining engineer and the director of Pick and Pen Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm he set up in 2018 specializing in mining industry trends. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Metals and Mining division.


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