The government has defended its decision to allow the UK’s first deep coal mine in decades despite its policy of phasing out fossil fuels.
Joanna Averley, chief planning officer at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said the mine in Cumbria had been given the go-ahead as it was deemed a “local” issue.
Her comments dismayed environmental campaigners, who previously described the decision to approve West Cumbria Mining’s plant as a “kick in teeth in fight to tackle climate change".
The government was urged to intervene after Cumbria county councillors gave the project the green light in March 2019. But Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, opted not to use his powers to overrule the decision.
Ms Avelery was asked to explain the decision at an online conference held by countryside charity CPRE on Thursday.
In comments reported by the BBC, she said: “The secretary of state has to make a judgement based on whether the impacts of the scheme are more than local.
“And in this case, the decision was that this was a decision for local determination, and the application was approved by the local authority… a decision for local democracy.”
She insisted the planning department was playing its part in tackling climate change.
Henry Adams, a consultant ecologist, expressed dismay at the view that the controversial mine was a “local” issue, saying the carbon dioxide from the mine would be “of national importance in scale”.
And the emissions would be of international importance for the UK's credibility as host of the COP26 climate talks, he said.
Other critics on social media pointed out nuclear power stations and onshore wind farms are not considered local issues.
West Cumbria Mining says the new development – the first of its kind in 30 years - would create 500 jobs. It hopes to extract 2.5 million tonnes from the undersea mine every year, not for electricity but for use in the UK and European steel industry.
The UK made history in 2019 when it became the first major economy to set a legal target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
But iron and steel manufacturing account for around 7.2 per cent of global emissions from energy use.
John Sauven, from Greenpeace, told BBC News: “It’s extraordinary that anyone still believes burning coal is only a local issue and has no global impacts.
“Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view or the world will be toast. It certainly isn’t setting the global leadership on climate that the prime minister says he's aspiring to.”
Paul Miner, from CPRE, said: "All coal mines should be refused planning permission, according to current government policy. So it beggars belief why ministers have not stepped in and refused the planning application for this coal mine in Cumbria.
"Not only does coal mining scar the landscape and cause pollution for countryside communities, it further fuels climate and ecological breakdown. If the UK is to host COP26 while simultaneously approving the extraction of coal, we risk becoming an international laughing stock."
Climate activist Greta Thunberg has previously said the government decision to give the mine the green light showed “the true meaning of so called 'net-zero 2050'".
And Friends of the Earth said: “If we want to avoid dangerous climate change, giving the go-ahead to a new coal mine takes us in completely the wrong direction."