How could the UK’s net zero plan involve new oil and gas? It’s mind-bogglingly stupid
Crossing fingers and hoping for the best is hardly a sensible way to tackle the climate emergency, but it is a strategy that the government seems determined to follow. Today, it launched its revised net zero plan, which turns out to be more a damp squib than a rocket that will ignite a desperately needed green transformation of the energy landscape. Widely dismissed as half-baked and utterly lacking in ambition, it pledges no new money and most of the initiatives flagged are based on government commitments that have already been touted. The truth is that the entire exercise is a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to conceal the fact that business as usual remains the order of the day.
At the heart of the strategy is the intention to unleash a new wave of UK oil and gas exploration – an astonishing and, frankly, dangerous path to take at the height of a climate emergency that is set to deepen year on year, in the absence of massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The government is attempting to justify the unjustifiable by talking up a technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), which seeks to apprehend carbon dioxide (CO2) before it gets into the atmosphere and store it underground. Nowhere has CCS been tried and tested at the sort of scale that would be required to cancel out the emissions arising from the proposed dash for more gas and oil.
CCS has been tried at a small scale, but the results have been far from promising. Last year, an analysis of 13 CCS projects, undertaken by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), revealed that one was mothballed, two failed and seven underperformed. To have any chance of reaching net zero carbon in 2050 – which, in any case, is far too late to stop the world crashing through the 1.5C limit – something like 1.6bn tonnes of CO2 would have to be sequestered worldwide every year by 2030. The reality is that the technology is nowhere near being able to do this.
Most CCS projects to date have involved pumping CO2 into oil reservoirs that are reaching the end of their lives, so as to push out the hard-to-get-at dregs – a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) – and this is where the CCS technology comes from in the first place. Of the 39m tonnes of CO2 so far successfully captured, more than 70% has been used to do this, much to the delight of the oil companies. The stage is set, then, for the fossil fuel sector to be the big winner if government plans ever see the light of day. Not only do they have skin in the game through their longstanding expertise in EOR and provision of the reservoirs where CO2 will be stored, but there will be the added bonus of being able to utilise CCS to squeeze out every last drop of oil. For the climate this is a double whammy: emissions will be generated by the fossil fuels used to compress the gas before it is pumped under ground, and also from the last drops of oil that would otherwise have stayed safely out of reach.
Related: ‘Half-baked, half-hearted’: critics ridicule UK’s long-awaited climate strategy
Yesterday, more than 700 scientists – myself included – wrote to the prime minister, asking him to halt the licensing of new oil and gas developments, but I think we all know that this will not happen as long as the Tories are in power. This and previous Conservative governments have routinely derided the advice of experts. Furthermore, Rishi Sunak and his party remain in thrall to the fossil fuel sector and beguiled by what they see as a CCS get-out-of-jail card that putatively offers the tantalising prospect of being able to continue to extract oil and gas without any downside.
The bottom line is that any strategy that involves new oil and gas developments is mind-bogglingly stupid. It detracts from efforts to slash emissions at the rate the science demands – a 50% cut by 2030 to have any chance of staying below 1.5C – and locks in fossil fuel infrastructure for the long term. CCS is untried and untested at the scale required, may well not work as expected, and is not a panacea for tackling the climate emergency. There needs to be a commitment to stop any new fossil fuel developments in the UK sector, something that Labour has already promised it will do.
It is extraordinary, in a week when record spring temperatures are affecting Europe, and in a year when El Niño conditions in the Pacific could result in the planet coming within a whisker of the 1.5C dangerous climate change guardrail, the government is doing all it can to keep the oil and gas flowing.
You really couldn’t make it up.
Bill McGuire is professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards at UCL and author of Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide