Lois Toole is Programmes Manager at the Conservative Environment Network.
Coal mining forms a major part of the North East’s heritage, but this coal-fuelled past should not define our future.
Yesterday, an article on this site argued that the best way for Conservatives to ‘level up’ the region and repay ‘red wall’ voters is to attempt to breathe life back into the dying coal mining industry. This is selling the North East short.
Like Darren, I come from an ex-mining village in County Durham and am a young Conservative. My Grandad was also a miner, starting out in the world of work by going down the pit aged 14. Coal has shaped our cultural identity, and even our language (my southern friends often can’t understand my family’s ‘pitmatic’ accent).
But I believe in a different, more optimistic way forward for our region, one that seeks to create better, more secure jobs across the North East, using the low carbon technologies of the future.
The low carbon and renewable energy sector is a significant opportunity for us. According to a recent report by Vivid Economics, delivering the government’s net zero target could yield over £90bn of annual benefits to the UK. The North East deserves a piece of the action. As a clean growth powerhouse, we can drive economic growth and job creation throughout the region, while supporting the modernisation of the UK economy that is needed to get us on track to our net zero target.
Far from being “asphyxiated” by our net zero target as Darren claims,‘red wall’ voters stand to benefit the most from the uptake of renewable energy, electric cars, and greener products. Net zero could breathe new life into the North East, which is already manufacturing, installing, and exporting around the world a great number of clean, forward-looking technologies.
Vivid Economics estimates that, by 2030, the low carbon and renewable energy sector could support almost 45,000 North Eastern jobs. By 2050, this rises to almost 85,000. The future of jobs is not in polluting industries. Conservative politicians in the North East know this, which is why they are already focused on increasing investment in new industries, creating high-quality jobs, and improving transport connections.
Just look at the opportunities from initiatives like Net Zero Teesside, a world-leading Carbon Capture and Storage project which Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor, is championing. This is forecast to bring 5,500 jobs to the area – significantly more than the 100 jobs in the proposed Northumberland open cast mine. This clean energy project also could drive almost half a billion pounds into the regional economy and boost the wider UK by £3.2billion.
Just off the North East coast, 200 offshore wind turbines are under construction at Dogger Bank, with permission for 480 more granted and awaiting construction. This will power around 4.5 million homes with renewable energy from 2023 and according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit could create as many as 200 jobs just in the operations and maintenance base, located in the Port of Tyne – not to mention supply chain jobs during the development, construction and operational phases.
This is all in an area where unemployment is nine per cent. So there is huge potential for bolstering former ‘red wall’ seats with high-tech jobs and delivering on the promises we made to those who lent us their votes in 2019.
Decarbonising transport will also be key to delivering the UK’s world-leading net zero emissions target. The North East is showing that increasing low-carbon connectivity – a key part of the levelling up agenda – also provides significant opportunities for the local economy. For example, in County Durham, Hitachi Rail’s manufacturing plant has started work on the manufacture of five 100 per cent electric trains, which will connect passengers between the North East, Edinburgh and London from autumn 2021, while Nissan’s car plant in Sunderland manufactures their flagship electric car, the Leaf, one of the most popular EV models in Europe.
It’s wrong to argue that coal is the only way to manufacture steel. Recycled steel can be made in an electric arc furnace. Primary steel can already be produced by substituting some coal with biomass. In time, coal could be replaced entirely in primary steel production by green hydrogen – indeed a green steel trial is already underway in Sweden.
These new technologies should be supported through big increases in public R&D funding, the introduction of more environmentally-friendly public procurement rules for steel in major infrastructure projects, and changes to building standards to require greener construction materials. The way to reduce our reliance on Russian coal imports is to back these cleaner, more efficient technologies, leveraging our world-leading science base to position the UK as a global leader in green steel manufacturing.
We should not be encouraging new investment in high-carbon industries in Britain. Locking in a coal-based future for steel would hinder investment in cleaner alternatives, create a stranded asset risk for investors, and make it more difficult for those sectors to decarbonise in the long run.
Levelling up doesn’t mean harking back to an outdated industry. Rather, it is about unleashing public and private investment in low-carbon infrastructure and industries, encouraging technological innovation, and giving people the skills of the future.
Most importantly of all, we should be optimistic about the potential of the people who put their trust in the Conservatives at the ballot box. While coal may be our heritage, low carbon is our future.