Two years after hosting the UN climate conference in Glasgow and announcing its ambition to achieve net zero emissions, the UK is now dramatically shifting gears. The country's controversial prime minister, Rishi Sunak, unveiled a planned expansion of fossil fuel exploitation in the North Sea. Sunak claims this is 'consistent with the government’s climate plans', but researchers, NGOs, and the general public have had scorching reactions.
The UK has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but Sunak's take on this seems very surprising. Sunak said that by 2050, the country will still get over a quarter of its energy from fossil fuels, although it's not clear how exactly this can make the country's emissions "net zero". The Prime Minister also said that oil and gas will help to improve energy security, using Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine as an excuse for digging for more oil.
Furthermore, Sunak apparently attempted to mask this announcement under an announcement about carbon capture and storage.
More fossil fuels
Until recently, the UK has been a leader in decarbonizing. Renewables are close to producing 50% of the country's energy and show no sign of slowing down. But the UK's policy on climate is definitely slowing down.
Sunak, who has often been criticized for his use of CO2-emitting planes, took a plane from England to Scotland to announce over 100 new oil and gas licenses.
The UK’s North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), the agency in charge of the oil and gas industries, is now running the 33rd oil and gas licensing round. The UK started taking oil and gas from the North Sea in the 1970s but production has been declining since around 2000. Now, that could pivot once more.
It's not Sunak's first anti-environmental move, but it could be the most consequential.
“If the Government wants to prioritise the environment, energy security, and jobs then it should double down on renewables," says Cameron Hepburn, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. Solar and wind are already the cheapest forms of electricity in the UK and the faster we transition, the more money we will save. The evidence so far also suggests that green jobs are likely to benefit from higher wages with less susceptibility to automation. By tying ourselves to fossil fuels for the longer term, we risk being left behind as the world races to a clean energy future.”
Hiding under CCS
The announcement of the new oil and gas licenses came with a more welcome move that was possibly meant to soften the blow. The prime minister confirmed two locations for carbon capture usage and storage (CCS). In carbon capture, polluting fumes are stored underground instead of being released into the air, an important tool in limiting emissions even while we use fossil fuels.
But by far, the best way to reduce emissions is to refrain from using more fossil fuels in the first place. Sunak also seemed to imply that CCS would lead to net zero even as the country uses more greenhouse gases, but made no mention of imposing carbon capture for any of the new oil and gas licenses.
“Whilst it is fantastic to see this much-needed investment in carbon capture and storage, it is extremely disappointing to have it used as a headline-grabbing smokescreen to distract from a further oil and gas licensing round," said Stuart Gilfillan, Reader in Geochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. The researcher added that the announcement clearly shows Sunak's priorities.
“If Rishi Sunak and his government were truly serious about meeting net-zero, then he would mandate the capture and storage of all of the CO2 emissions that will result from these new licenses as a condition of them being awarded.
Paul Fennell, Professor of clean energy at Imperial College London had a similar position.
“I welcome the announcement on carbon capture, which is important for the future and allows some sectors such as steel and cement which produce important things which are not easily substitutable by other materials, and which intrinsically produce CO2, to continue. We need every arrow in the armory.
“I abhor the implicit connection with new oil and gas licences.”
More fuel onto the climate fire
It's not just researchers that have been critical of Sunak's announcement. Civil society, and even some of his own party, strongly criticized it.
The government now argues that reducing the decline in the domestic supply of oil and gas would lower the carbon footprint when compared with importing liquified natural gas. However, he didn't mention the possibility of using less fossil fuels.
NGOs were the first to criticize Sunak:
“Just as wildfires and floods wreck homes and lives around the world, Rishi Sunak’s government has decided to row back on key climate policies, attempted to toxify net zero, and recycled old myths about North Sea drilling,” Philip Evans from Greenpeace UK said in a news release. “Relying on fossil fuels is terrible for our energy security.”
Lyndsay Walsh, a climate policy adviser at Oxfam UK, agreed: “Extracting more fossil fuels from the North Sea will send a wrecking ball through the UK’s climate commitments at a time when we should be investing in a just transition to a low-carbon economy and our own abundant renewables,” Walsh said in a news release.
Two former ministers, members of Sunak's own party also criticized, the move.
“After 13 yrs in power a Party needs a compelling story to win another term. Does the Prime Minister really think dropping our int’l environmental leadership & rolling back our domestic commitments is that winning story?” tweeted Zac Goldsmith, the former climate minister. “If so he must have a dim view of the people he wants to lead.”
Former energy minister Chris Skidmore, called Mr Sunak’s strategy “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time.”
The renewable energy industry also reacted with dismay. Several statements called out the decision as incompatible with the country's climate goals, stating that it sends confusing signals, particularly as the United States and European Union are ramping up clean energy investments.
Last month, an advisory panel that follows the UK’s climate efforts, the Climate Change Committee, questioned government officials for backtracking climate pledges, claiming the country had “lost its global leadership position on climate action.” The panel said new fossil fuel production sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.
The UN will host in late November its annual climate change summit in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The summit’s president, Sultan al Jaber, said the summit will accelerate an energy transition that “phases down the use of fossil fuels.” But many see this as yet another smokescreen considering UAE’s economic reliance on oil and gas.
This July was the hottest month in recorded history, and probably the hottest month in over 100,000 years.