Liz Truss’s energy plans show the UK has effectively abandoned net-zero targets just three years after its world-leading commitment to cutting emissions, the government’s former chief scientific adviser has said.
A major new fossil fuels campaign, including lifting the ban on fracking and expanding drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea, has already been announced by the new prime minister’s administration.
But the drive for more oil and gas production was “completely at odds” with the UK’s legally binding net-zero target, said Sir David King, head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, who was chief scientific adviser to the government between 2000 and 2007.
Furthermore, it would bring large quantities of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels to the market directly ahead of the 2050 deadline for reaching zero, he told The Independent.
He said the plans, announced last week by the prime minister’s new energy secretary, Jacob-Rees Mogg, were “extremely alarming”.
“We’re looking at a situation where the crisis is with us here today,” he said. “But we don’t recognise that when we say ‘let’s go ahead and start new fracking operations in this country’.
“It beggars belief. What it seems to show is that the leadership in the government does not understand the nature of the climate crisis.”
Mr Rees-Mogg, who has previously dismissed climate science as “alarmism”, said in a video on his second day in office that “we are lifting the moratorium on fracking. We will extract every ounce of oil and gas from the North Sea.”
During Ms Truss’s leadership campaign, she derided the role that renewable energy increasingly plays in the energy system, in particular solar power, which has become the “cheapest electricity in history”, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
But Sir David, who is the founder and chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, warned that the government’s revival of fossil fuels could backfire rapidly.
He said: “I fully agree with what the IEA is saying, which is ‘do not invest in new oil and gas recovery’.
“If we do invest in new oil and gas recovery, it will take a minimum of five years to get to the marketplace and more like 10-15 years, which is the average.
“In which case, they’re not dealing with the current crisis at all, and instead are investing in an operation that is likely to become a stranded asset.
“Quite frankly, it’s a policy that hasn’t been thought through in terms of climate change or in terms of the current climate crisis. It doesn’t attack either [issue].”
His assessment of the government’s position has been echoed by leading campaigning groups.
Doug Parr, Greenpeace UK’s policy director, told The Independent: “Sir David King speaks the truth. Most sensible countries realise that the economically rational course is to drive rapidly for zero emissions, because it boosts the whole economy and tackles the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis in one fell swoop.
“Truss’s current energy plans will do nothing for the economy any time soon, and will in fact create substantial stranded asset risks.
“Further, they accelerate climate breakdown, contributing to the deadly heatwaves and floods we see around the world, and do nothing to impact the soaring costs of energy that will leave households and the national overdraft in trouble for years to come.
“If Truss and Rees-Mogg continue on this course, it begs the question – whose interests are they serving?”
Sir David suggested the leadership of the country was using Russia’s war in Ukraine as an opportunity to expand the use of fossil fuels – even though doing so failed to address either the climate crisis or the energy crisis.
He said: “The immediate consequence of the Russia-Ukraine war is that energy prices have gone shooting up. The response to that [should be] to build more renewable energy – we can use an extension of an already successful operation.
“The opposite is to say ‘let’s use this as an opportunity to develop our oil and gas reserves’ – using the war as an opportunity to do this, knowing it has nothing to do with managing the short-term problems of the war.
“All of that indicates massive cynicism at the top of government. What they’re saying is ‘we’re not going to be in government in 2050, but we don’t believe in the net-zero target’.”
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, told The Independent that Sir David was “right to raise the alarm about the government’s enthusiasm for fracking and drilling more gas and oil”.
He said: “At best, it’s difficult to see how this enthusiasm for new fossil fuels is compatible with the prime minister’s commitment to deliver on the UK’s climate targets.
“At worst, it’s a sign that the new government is more interested in placating wealthy fossil fuel lobbyists than it is in tackling the mounting climate emergency and addressing the energy crisis for good.”
Energy experts have repeatedly called on the government to expand support for renewable energy technology and storage, implement a national insulation programme, invest in rolling out more heat pumps and halt investment in fossil fuel programmes.
A government spokesperson told The Independent: “The UK is leading the world on climate change, driving down emissions by 4 per cent since 1990 whilst growing our economy, which is more than any other G7 country.
“As we continue to transition to clean, affordable, home-grown energy, supplies of oil and gas will be necessary to protect British energy security, jobs and industries, while reducing dependence on foreign imports and remaining compatible with our net zero commitments.”