UN: Close coal mines on Svalbard

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The United Nations’ Executive Secretary on climate change, Christiana Figueres, said Norway should close down its coal mines on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Figueres visited Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen for its annual climate symposium this week, and said the mines were out of step with the climate research programs Svalbard is renowned for.

Several of the old buildings in the earlier abandoned mining community of Hiorthamn have been restored for recreational use. The vast area across the fjord from Longyearbyen is popular with local residents and remains rich in natural resources. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons/Erlend Bjørtvedt

The abandoned mining community of Hiorthamn, now restored for recreational use, across the fjord from the main town of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres visited Spitsbergen this week for a conference in Ny-Ålesund, and said Norway should close down all coal mines on Svalbard. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons/Erlend Bjørtvedt

Several countries have climate research stations based in and around Ny-Ålesund which lies at 79 degrees north. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Wednesday that Figueres argued closing down the mines would greatly improve Norway’s standing in the international climate community.

“Well, the coal mining in Svalbard is very incongruous with what the island actually stands for – namely climate research,” she said. “These fit very poorly together. The mines on Svalbard, yes, I think Norway should close these mines but should do it in a way that is exemplary. There is a huge opportunity. Norway has had a leadership role for many years, and has really challenged other countries. If the authorities can find out how they can get the coal mines here closed, that will strengthen Norway’s position.”

“Norway has a huge opportunity to show the world how this can be done in a way that is fair to the locals,” Figueres continued. “They can contribute to a sustainable economic restructuring and maintain the sovereignty of the islands. It most be done in a proper strategic way.”

Long mining history
Climate and Environment Minister Tine Sundtoft was also in Ny–Ålesund for the conference. The mines have been operating since the early 1900s, and she said shutting them down would be no simple task. “We face a dilemma here,” Sundtoft said “Coal mining on Svalbard has been and still is an important part of the basis for the Norwegian presence on Svalbard. But we are fully aware that coal is not a part of the low emissions community.”

The former government approved a new coal mining venture at Lunckefjell in 2011, which only has a five-year lifespan. Sundtoft said the current government hadn’t decided on its approach going forward, but that carbon capture and storage could be a possibility. She could not rule out the government allowing more new mines on the archipelago.

“I cannot answer that today,” Sundtoft told NRK. “We have a history where coal mining has been an important prerequisite for the Norwegian presence on Svalbard. At the same time, we know if we do reach the two degree climate change target, then we cannot recover the Norwegian coal going forward.”

Bigger picture
Figueres said she could see the point of using coal mines for carbon capture and storage research, to be able to “clean” greenhouse gases on Svalbard. But it did not go far enough, and she said it was preferable for the mines to be closed. The Norwegian government was urged to look at the bigger picture, as controversial oil and gas exploration in the Arctic ramps up.

“Norway should look at the cost of searching for more oil and gas,” Figueres said. “Most of the oil and gas that is cheap to recover is already used. It is becoming steadily more expensive to search in new and challenging places. The authorities should carefully consider if this is reasonable in a time when energy with low emissions is becoming more and more important.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate