The U.K. appears to be doing a 180 on its climate promises, as the government shows significant support for ongoing oil and gas operations and several new fossil fuel projects. Despite pumping millions into renewable energy developments, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has continued to back North Sea oil and has even shown interest in extending coal plant operations, having previously vowed to end coal production earlier than anticipated by 2024.
Coming out of the COP26 climate conference last November, president of the summit Alok Sharma said the U.K. would press governments on their decarbonization promises, aimed at limiting global heating to 1.5C. The U.K. took a leading role in the summit, which was held in Glasgow, and will maintain its presidency until COP27 in Egypt later this year.
As well as striving for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the U.K. government introduced a target to cut emissions by 78 percent by 2035 and for all of the UK's electricity to come from clean sources by 2035. The U.K. has already established itself as a world leader in offshore wind production, with renewables already producing around 20 percent of the country’s electricity. The government has also introduced wide-spreading decarbonization aims for housing, transport, flights and shipping, food, and industry. But only time will tell whether the U.K. is capable of meeting these targets as it faces increasing energy shortages and rising prices.
But the government has already been accused multiple times this year of going against its net-zero targets by continuing to back oil and gas projects. In April, the U.K. launched its energy security strategy, which aims for long-term independence from foreign energy sources and the decarbonization of the U.K.’s power supply. The strategy also identifies oil and gas as key to the energy transition, with plans to boost production in the North Sea, stating “net-zero is a smooth transition, not an immediate extinction, for oil and gas”.
Johnson argues that North Sea oil and gas is a lower carbon option than imported energy and is necessary to meet domestic needs until the renewable energy sector is more developed. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a “now or never” warning in April, suggesting that new fossil fuel exploration would jeopardize the Paris agreement target of limiting global heating to 1.5C.
In the face of rising consumer energy prices, which have sent many into fuel poverty, Johnson says that North Sea oil will be vital in tackling the cost of living, encouraging companies to increase their investments in the energy source. The government is patently breaking its COP26 climate pledges by introducing a $6 billion tax raid on oil and gas, offering subsidies for fuel consumption as well as incentivizing drilling activities.
In May, Johnson stated, “To tackle inflation in the medium-term, you’ve got to deal with supply-side issues.” Adding, “So we need the energy companies to be putting some more into hydrocarbons, but we also need the whole country to be investing in more low-carbon energy.” Related: IEA Sees Oil Demand At Record High In 2023
This month, it emerged that the U.K. government was talking to Big Oil companies, such as Shell, about increasing oil and gas production in response to shortages due to sanctions introduced on Russian energy. This follows news that regulators approved the Shell Jackdaw natural gas field in the North Sea, having rejected it previously due to environmental concerns.
Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden said that the company will commence the Jackdaw project “as well as other similar ones... in fact, we have an interest in six of the UK’s 12 planned exploration wells,”. This is part of the company’s aim to increase its oil and gas market share from 10 percent to 15 percent over the next eight years. Shell is expected to invest $31 billion in U.K. energy before 2030, 75 percent of which will go to cleaner energy sources.
In addition, the government is likely to make a deal with a coal-fired facility in Nottinghamshire to maintain operations for longer than scheduled to ensure the U.K.’s energy security. Negotiations are taking place with French energy company EDF to delay the plant’s closure from October this year to next March.
But the opposition and the public are taking notice of these recent changes in the government’s approach to energy. Environmentalists and the political party the Liberal Democrats criticized the government this month for approving gas drilling in Surrey Hills, in the South of England, despite environmental risks. Campaigners suggested that the government has an “obsession” with finding new fossil fuel developments. Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr said “with this decision the government is completely undermining local democracy, the planning laws that are supposed to protect our designated landscapes and the climate crisis in one fell swoop.”
Despite the U.K.’s leading role in COP26, its ongoing presidency, and its ambitious climate pledges, in the face of energy shortages and rising prices, the government seems to be quickly turning back to oil, gas and even coal, in a bid to ensure the country’s energy security.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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