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05 June 2013
Talking point: A minefield

Talking point: A minefield

Scottish Coal’s collapse has raised one of those tricky questions about the murky grey area where the environment and economics meet.

The company, responsible for operating six open cast mines in East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and Fife, has closed, affecting more than 600 jobs.

Action from Energy Minister Fergus Ewing was swift – he set up the Scottish Open Cast Mining Taskforce with the aim of ensuring that as many jobs as possible could be retained and the SNP minister told the Parliament it was hoped the preferred bidder, Hargreaves, would be able to preserve about 300 jobs in the first six months, with a rise of up to 500 in the first year – if it takes over.

He also took the opportunity to warn that the biggest threat to the coal industry was the increased freight charges to be introduced by the Office of Rail Regulation, and told MSPs that the taskforce had opposed the initial package of freight access charges between 2014 and 2019, which would have seen a charge of £4.04 per thousand gross tonne miles, which he claimed “would have drastically undermined the competiveness of Scottish coal”.

This action is not surprising – and perhaps is expected of a government which has a responsibility to keep unemployment low and both protect and grow the economy. But it raises the question of burning fossil fuels and carbon emissions yet again.

The UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change urged Westminster again this month to introduce a decarbonisation target for the electricity sector and that investing in low carbon technologies between 2020 and 2030, rather than gas-fired generation, would offer significant economic benefits.

In 2010, emissions from electricity grid activity in Scotland were estimated at 347 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour – the target is to reduce this to 50g CO2/Kwh by 2030. Scotland can rightly claim that it has already gone one step further, with Alex Salmond announcing in January that he wanted to cut carbon emissions from electricity by four fifths by 2030 – due in large part to an expansion in offshore wind.

A government spokeswoman told Holyrood the coal industry makes an “important contribution” in terms of jobs, economic value and electricity generation – and stressed that “clean fossil-fuel baseload generation, progressively fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage” would play a role in the future energy mix.

The Scottish Coal episode is a reminder that while the Scottish Government has committed itself wholeheartedly to the aims of a low carbon economy – it is not quite there yet.

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