Stopping burning fossil fuels is the most important step we can take to get to net zero. And yet at the end of a month during which, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, the world experienced the hottest three week period on record, Rishi Sunak announced he is granting over a hundred licences to explore and develop oil and gas fields in the North Sea. The news has appalled not only environmental groups and the more aware political parties, but even some Tory MPs. Chris Skidmore will seek an emergency debate on the plans after Parliament’s summer recess.
Oil and Gas
The advice of the International Energy Authority is that no new exploration should take place, while the government’s own independent climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee, acknowledged in June that:
“The UK will continue to need some oil and gas until it reaches Net Zero, but this does not in itself justify the development of new North Sea fields”.
According to Tessa Khan, executive director of campaign group Uplift, there isn’t actually a lot of gas left in the North Sea. Data from the North Sea Transition Authority suggest that there would be enough gas to meet the UK’s needs for about three weeks a year until 2050 (if it was possible to start extraction immediately) and enough oil for five years. This assumes that none of the gas or oil is exported, as currently happens to 80% of North Sea oil and 60% of North Sea gas. Fossil fuels are not nationalised so they are sold to the highest bidder internationally, and there is no guarantee that this will not be the case with any new sources. Globally these amounts are chickenfeed and would not affect prices.
Besides, Greenpeace says it takes on average twenty-eight years to start extraction. So even if these reserves were to be earmarked for domestic consumption, they would make absolutely no difference to our energy security or the price the consumer pays for a quarter of a century.
Part of Sunak’s justification for granting these licences is that fossil fuels produced here will have a lower carbon footprint than any imported fuel. This disregards the fact that it is the burning of the fuel, not its production that is by far the biggest source of carbon dioxide (CO2).
As fossil fuels are widely accepted to be a sunset industry, any investment in these fields will become stranded assets. And they won’t help us to achieve net zero. Licences approved in the last two years will result in CO2 emissions matching the annual emissions of Denmark, or nearly 14 million cars, according to Greenpeace.
So what could we do instead to provide energy security and cut our greenhouse gas emissions?
The logical first step is to reduce the amount of energy required. We need urgently to invest in a serious insulation scheme, to bring our buildings – among the leakiest in Europe terms of heat loss – up to standard, using insulation, draught stripping and double and triple glazing. This will also cut energy bills for householders.
In terms of producing energy, the cheapest form is onshore wind. It is also by its very nature, not going to run out. Yet Sunak is blocking it. We need both onshore and offshore windfarms, and to diversify supply and increase our resilience we should increase our use of hydro, geothermal and tidal energy, ensure all new buildings have solar panels and heat pumps as standard We should also increase support for wave energy research, which has huge potential but there are challenges in scaling up.
A real commitment to developing battery storage would eventually help to even out the peaks and troughs of solar and wind energy. Wave, tidal and geothermal do not have this unpredictability and will be a reliable source of energy in the future.
Rather than allowing licences for North Sea exploration, wouldn’t it make far more sense to invest in these various sources of renewable energy, developing UK expertise in something with a global future?
There are opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy, but it is worth mentioning one here. At 28% transport is the sector producing the biggest share of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, even excluding our share of international aviation. By far the biggest amount comes from road transport, and private car journeys are a big part of this. So we need to prioritise improving public transport and developing as far as possible neighbourhoods in which everything needed on a daily basis is at hand and accessible by walking, cycling or taking the bus.
Globally the climate has already become dangerously unstable, but there are still grounds for believing we may be able to keep the negative effects to a minimum. We need our politicians to take meaningful, effective, urgent action, uninfluenced by Big Oil or the handful of motorists unwilling to accept any curbs at all on driving. The UK has been a world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Can we regain the moral authority in pointing a way forwards that we lost with Sunak’s announcement at the end of July?
Tragically, with our current crop of politicians it seems unlikely.
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