‘Bad politics, bad leadership’: Expert hits out at Rishi Sunak's flagship energy policy ahead of COP28

Climate economic expert describes PM's oil and gas expansion in the North Sea as "bad politics, bad leadership and bad for the environment".

FILE - North sea oil exploration platforms lie in the Cromerty Firth in northern Scotland on March 2, 2003. British regulators on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, approved new oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, a move environmentalists say will hurt the country’s attempt to meet its climate goals. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver)
Rishi Sunak has claimed new North sea oil licences will boost jobs, but others argue upskilling the trade sector will be better for green job transition. (AP)

The government's plan to approve hundreds of North Sea oil and gas licences sends the wrong signal ahead of the COP28 summit due to start in Dubai this week, according to a climate expert.

Professor Sam Fankhauser, of Oxford University, says the government should instead turn the climate threat into an opportunity for prosperity through investment in upskilling the trade sector into green jobs that would show the UK as a global leader.

Earlier this month the government announced plans for hundreds of new oil and gas drilling licences in the North Sea. The proposals have been criticised by a range of climate experts including Friends of the Earth and Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, who led a government-commissioned review into net zero.

The plans also run in opposition to advice from International Energy Agency, which warned back in 2021 that the proposed expansion contradicts the goal to stay within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – a key climate target.

Speaking at the time of the announcement regarding the licences, Sunak, however, insisted in the announcement that future licences would help secure "200,000 jobs and billions in tax receipts”.

However, alongside the environmental concerns, experts have also criticised the proposals and their likely impact on job creation and the economy's transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more: Why Rishi Sunak's North Sea oil drilling plans won’t cut household energy bills

“We need to go beyond merely counting jobs. While the plan may generate immediate employment, it risks delaying the inevitable transition to a net-zero economy,” Prof Fankhauser, a climate change economic and police expert at the University of Oxford, told Yahoo News.

“In the context of the green job transition, the focus should be on rewarding problem-solving skills, highlighting the evolving demand for professions related to electrifying the economy, such as electricians and heat pump specialists.

"This is bad politics, bad leadership, bad for the environment and sows doubts at COP28 of the UK’s standing on the climate global leadership," said Prof Fankhauser.

Watch: Labour: Bad policy at wrong time for PMs North Sea licences

Research by metals4U of job listings on popular platforms like Indeed, Totaljobs, and LinkedIn found that builders, electricians, and plumbers rank as the top three most sought-after tradespeople in the UK.

With 65,000 open vacancies, builders lead the demand, closely followed by electricians and plumbers.

"Crucial to the green jobs transition are skilled professionals in electricity-related fields, with a pressing demand for plumbers, electricians, and heating specialists.

"While the government acknowledges this need, the extent of their green skills plan falls short. There is an urgent opportunity for trade workers to thrive in the growing green economy," argues Prof Fankhauser.

He also stresses the importance of upskilling other UK workforce sectors and points to the creation of new roles in architecture and finance in the green transition.

The UK’s original oil rush

Gas was first discovered in the North Sea in 1965. Exploratory work began the following year and in 1970 commercial oil was discovered.

Production started in 1975 and the Southern North Sea – the site that lies along the east coast of England – saw rapid growth, including from the gigantic Forties field which would go on to become the second largest oil field in the North Sea.

By the mid-1980s, more than 100 installations dotted the North Sea, turning the region into an oil and gas bonanza. The 'Thatcher decade' saw unprecedented growth, making Britain a net exporter with Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft and later Aberdeen emerging as industry hubs.

Safety concerns came to the forefront after the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, prompting a major safety overhaul.

Read more: Just Stop Oil: 15 arrests after 'two minutes of marching' through central London

Piper Alpha Memorial, Aberdeen
The Piper Alpha Memorial in Aberdeen commemorates the disaster at an oil platform in the North Sea that exploded on 6th July 1988, killing 65 of the men on board. (PA)

By the 1990s, the North Sea faced global oil price fluctuations but continued to thrive.

Projected North Sea oil and gas receipts are set to rise, averaging £8.6bn between 2022-23 and 2027-28, a significant increase from the meagre £0.8bn average in the six years leading to 2021-22, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility.

Expected to approach to an all-time high in cash terms by 2023-24, these figures, while substantial compared to recent years, remain relatively modest in proportion to the economy when viewed compared to historical trends, according to the OBR.

Between 2022-23 and 2027-28, North Sea oil and gas receipts set to average £8.6 billion, up from an average of just £0.8 billion over the six years to 2021-22 but  remain modest by historical standards, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility.
North Sea oil and gas receipts set to average £8.6 billion but remain modest by historical standards, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility.

The data shows that, between 2021-22 and 2027-28, the UK expects to receive £10.6bn in tax receipts in 2023-24. While this is 14.6% below the highest amount recorded in 2008-09, it's only one-eighth of the GDP share compared to the peak in 1984-85.

Oil job uncertainty

Evidence shows that regions which rely the most on oil and gas jobs - for example Aberdeen, the UK's oil and gas capital - are among the most vulnerable to economic crises, according to climate campaigning and research organisation Uplift.

Tessa Khan, executive director at Uplift, told Yahoo News: "Currently workers are being left behind by an industry that’s desperately clinging to oil and gas while other countries move forward to cheaper, cleaner renewables. In a declining basin, the only way to create long-term, secure jobs for skilled workers is to invest in a just transition."

Meanwhile, Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Philip Evans told Yahoo News that UK voters want a "government that’s not afraid to take on the climate crisis". Greenpeace plans to fight the licences in court.

Friends of the Earth told Yahoo: “The well-paid, long-term jobs of the future will be in the green economy, not fossil fuels, so we need to be skilling up our workforce to enable them to seize the huge opportunities to come.

"The transition to a clean economy isn’t just good news for jobs and our climate. It will also boost energy security by reducing our reliance on expensive fossil fuels, and, by insulating the nation’s heat-leaking homes, cut energy bills too."

Watch: Scotland's deficit falls as North Sea oil and gas revenues reach record £9.4bn