Mon, 15 April 2024

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By Earl Russell
Press releases

It’s time for the UK to lead again on climate action


4 min read

As the recent climate talks in Egypt came to a close, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak concluded that “keeping the 1.5 degrees commitment alive is vital to the future of our planet” and that there is “no time for complacency.”

During negotiations the United Kingdom was among the 80 countries demanding a fossil fuel phase out, yet at home the UK’s approach to oil and gas is directly at odds with its international position. The UK continues to open new fields and is set to give out over 100 licences to explore for more fossil fuels in the North Sea. 

While this year’s talks will go down in history for the landmark agreement on loss and damage, an admission by richer nations that they have a moral responsibility to help countries hit by extreme weather and rising sea levels, COP27 made almost no progress on tackling the root of the climate crisis. To keep the target of 1.5 alive, the prospects of which are now on “life support” according to the UK’s former COP26 president Alok Sharma, there must be a phase out of not only coal but also oil and gas.

The UK’s approach to oil and gas is directly at odds with its international position

The UK must become a first mover by ruling out new oil and gas and is in a unique position to lead on that transition. Unlike many major oil producing nations, the UK economy is not tied to its domestic industry, and the North Sea has a brighter future as a centre for green energy. 

The UK government has a responsibility to the workers and communities currently reliant on jobs in the oil and gas sector to make it easier to transition to renewables, including through making skills and qualifications transferable between the two. By pursuing an agenda of reducing and not expanding oil and gas in the long term, the UK will be able to become a hub for new technologies, skills and drive ambition globally. Every new field delays a fast and fair transition away from oil and gas and to a more affordable renewable energy system.

More than that, the economic case for continuing to expand oil and gas is weak, as the case of the Rosebank oil field (the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field), clearly demonstrates. The UK government supported the final agreement at CO27 to phase-out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. But if it develops Rosebank, it will effectively hand the operators over £500m in taxpayer subsidies to develop the field, including the Norwegian state-owned giant Equinor. This is enough to pay the annual salary of over 14,000 nurses. 

This is due to the generous investment allowance tax break introduced with the windfall tax by Rishi Sunak when he was chancellor, meant to ensure that “the more investment a firm makes, the less tax they will pay”. Notably, the same allowance has not been given to renewables in the Energy Generator Levy. Overall, the Treasury faces making a loss of more than £100m from the deal on Rosebank. We cannot claim to be leading the transition while continuing to subsidise the causes of the climate crisis.

Rosebank will also do very little to boost energy security, as 90 percent of the field is oil, which will most likely be exported, as is the case with 80 per cent of all North Sea oil. The oil and gas reserves in the North Sea also cannot be relied upon as the solution to the current global energy crisis–the issue is one of international gas prices, spurred by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which no amount of extra drilling in the North Sea will solve. 

If we are to see lower energy bills in the UK, the UK government must significantly drive forward investments in energy efficiency, which will lower bills permanently, and renewables, which are now many times cheaper than gas. The rewards for the public and planet alike from the UK from standing up to the industry’s lobbying and saying no to new oil and gas will be immeasurable.


Tessa Khan, executive director of climate action organisation Uplift.

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