On Tuesday, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA) pleaded with governments to up the pace in reducing the world’s dependence on oil and gas. A “strong signal to energy markets” was needed, said Fatih Birol – one which indicated that governments are taking the climate seriously. Wealthy countries, he added, having disproportionately contributed to historical carbon emissions, bear a special responsibility as the climate begins to change at “frightening speed”.
On Wednesday Britain certainly sent out a signal. But it was hardly the one the IEA would have hoped for. Instead, the green light was given for the exploitation of the United Kingdom’s largest untapped oilfield. The Rosebank project in the North Sea has the potential to deliver 500m barrels of oil, which, when burned, would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as the running of 56 coal-fired power stations for a year. Tax incentives offered to the Norwegian energy company Equinor will effectively subsidise a development certain to undermine the country’s credibility in future climate negotiations.
About 80% of North Sea oil is sold abroad, giving the lie to ministerial arguments that this is about energy security for hard-pressed Britons. So why? The truth is that, as with the U-turns last week on net zero-related targets, Rishi Sunak is playing politics with the climate emergency. The prime minister calculates that, in the context of the cost of living crisis, the challenges of the green transition can become a wedge issue with Labour. For presumed short-term electoral gain, he is methodically disrupting a formerly broad consensus on climate commitments.
Domestically, this cynical disregard for the UK’s environmental responsibilities will leave future governments to pick up the pieces. That is deeply irresponsible. It is also to squander the possibilities of economic growth that come with the net zero timetable, which is defining the industrial parameters of the future. While fiscal inducements are deployed in the North Sea, undermining climate targets that command popular assent, insufficient government support this month caused off-shore wind sector growth to grind disastrously to a halt. A dismal combination of political opportunism and economic myopia is sabotaging Britain’s green prospects.
But it is on the global stage that the Rosebank decision will resonate most damagingly. Net zero sceptics on the British right like to point to the gulf in overall emissions between countries such as the UK and vast economies such as China and India. Yet the rest of the world is well aware of the historic role played by the industrialised west in creating the climate emergency. If countries such as the UK fail to lead the way in mitigating the damage done, the global cooperation required to limit temperature rises will be far harder to achieve. The journey to net zero is not just about statistics; it involves negotiating these political and ethical dynamics for the common good of the planet.
In this context, the willingness of a backs-against-the-wall Conservative administration to max out on North Sea oil and gas sends a disastrous message. Two years ago, in an interview with the Guardian, Mr Birol said he feared that in relation to climate targets there was “a huge and growing gap between the rhetoric [from governments] and the reality”. Shamefully, it grew even wider on Wednesday in Britain.