UK scientists urge Rishi Sunak to halt new oil and gas developments

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Hundreds of the UK’s leading scientists have urged the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to halt the licensing of new oil and gas developments in the UK, ahead of his anticipated launch of a revised net zero and energy security strategy on Thursday.

The scientists, who include Chris Rapley, former head of the Science Museum and professor at UCL and Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at UCL, warn that there must be no new developments of oil and gas, for the world to limit global heating to 1.5C above preindustrial levels.

The call, backed by more than 700 scientists, comes on the eve of the government’s “energy security day”, when a new net zero strategy will be published.

The launch was originally to be called “green day”, but the Guardian revealed last week that the event had been rebranded “energy security day” because of a planned focus on oil and gas development, alongside renewable energy, and to appease Conservative rightwingers.

Related: Fossil fuel producers must be forced to ‘take back’ carbon, say scientists

Aberdeen, the capital of the UK’s oil and gas industry, has been prepared as the launch venue, though this could change after widespread criticism.

Among the government’s announcements for energy security day are to be a continuation of oil and gas development in the North Sea; carbon capture and storage investments worth about £20bn over two decades; and a boost for renewable energy.

But the scientists warn in their letter of the disastrous consequences of exceeding 1.5C of global heating, noting that “we already have more than enough coal, oil and gas to overshoot what is deemed our best hope of maintaining a livable climate”, and they urge the prime minister to take a stand.

They say, in a letter seen by the Guardian: “We are writing as members of the research community on climate science and other related disciplines to call on you to ensure the UK once again demonstrates international leadership by acting on the latest warnings about the escalating climate crisis. This means including in the forthcoming revised net zero strategy a commitment not to approve any new development of onshore or offshore oil and gas fields.”

They note the stark findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week, which found in a “sober but devastating” report that the world had only a narrow chance of avoiding disastrous levels of global heating.

Emily Shuckburgh, director of Cambridge Zero at the University of Cambridge, who organised the letter, said: “Last Monday the IPCC made it clear that immediate action is required to avert a climate catastrophe. Now is the time to be investing in the technologies of the future, not the past. Continued use of fossil fuels is a threat to us, our children and their children; instead we should be leading the world in creating a sustainable society powered by green innovation. That must be the central aim of the revised net zero strategy.”

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary for net zero, said: “This letter is a further reminder that the mainstream consensus says doubling down on fossil fuels is the wrong choice, on value for money grounds, won’t solve our energy security needs, won’t create good jobs, and would be completely wrong for the climate. The scientists are telling the government in no uncertain terms that they must change course from their path of climate vandalism.”

The letter also casts doubt on the government’s carbon capture and storage (CCS) investments, saying the technology has “yet to be proved at scale”. Ministers are hoping the focus on CCS will provide a basis on which oil and gas development can be continued.

Ministers have already decided that some of the key recommendations for a net zero strategy will be ignored. There will be no comprehensive programme of home insulation; no compulsion for housebuilders to fit solar panels on the roofs of new houses; oil and gas companies will be continue to allow to flare gas; there will be no specific target for onshore wind generation, and there are doubts that proposed changes to the planning regime will fully lift the effective ban on new onshore wind turbines in England.

The letter was open for signatories for only 36 hours and received more than 700 signatures, including Iain Stewart, professor of geoscience communication at Plymouth University; the former government adviser Michael Jacobs of Sheffield University; and Jane Macnaughton, deputy pro vice-chancellor at Durham University.

Shuckburgh told the Guardian this was “a clear indication of the enormous strength of feeling among scientists across the UK on this issue. These people are all experts in their fields.”