Rishi Sunak Becomes the Wrong Kind of Climate Radical


It takes some astonishing mental gymnastics to believe that increasing production of fossil fuels is good for the climate. But that’s the message British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is selling with his approval of 100 new North Sea oil and gas licenses.

Speaking to broadcasters while visiting Scotland on Monday, Sunak claimed that drilling for more oil and gas is “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero” and that producing such energy domestically saves “two, three, four times the amount of carbon emissions.” He failed to mention that the vast majority of emissions from oil and gas comes when you actually burn the stuff and that we get about 77% of our imported gas via pipeline from Norway which is, by the North Sea Transition Authority’s own analysis, less than half the carbon intensity of domestically produced gas.

Sunak is touting the expansion of domestic production as a way of boosting the UK’s energy security and reducing the country’s “reliance on hostile states,” but there’s clearly an element of wanting to set his Conservative Party apart from Labour, which has pledged a ban on new North Sea oil and gas exploration. Ironically, analysis by Carbon Brief, a publisher specializing in climate and energy issues, shows that the UK would actually have greater energy security under a Labour government, thanks to its pledge to decarbonize the electricity grid by 2030.

The Tories’ move puts the UK into what Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, calls “dangerous radical” territory — any country increasing the production of fossil fuels. The science is clear: Any new oil and gas fields are incompatible with achieving the Paris temperature target of 1.5C of warming. Nor are they required, no matter what Sunak tells us, because while we will likely still be using some gas in 2050 , its spot in our energy mix will be greatly reduced. The demand will also easily be met by fields that already exist, according to analysis by the independent think tank International Institute for Sustainable Development.

There was some green gloss added to the oil and gas announcement: Two more carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters – Acorn in Scotland and Viking in northeast England – would receive funding.

This is a positive development: CCS is an emissions reduction method which involves capturing carbon dioxide at a source – a power plant or factory, for example – and then injecting it underground for permanent storage. It will help decarbonize certain hard-to-abate sectors such as steel and cement production, as well as play a small role supporting a net zero electricity grid.

However, announcing both new oil and gas and the CCS decision on the same day creates an implicit connection between them, raising fears that the investment in carbon storage could be used as an excuse to continue with business-as-usual. That’s not good for the planet, and it’s also not good for public acceptance of what will be an important piece of the net zero puzzle. First impressions count, as Steve Smith, executive director of the Oxford Net Zero Initiative and CO2RE programs at the University of Oxford’s Smith School, pointed out in an emailed statement: “If people hear of it first as a delaying tactic, that may stick.”

Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, says that it’s “essential” to ensure that the carbon storage projects provide a genuine decrease in emissions. One way to do that would be to implement a “carbon takeback obligation” where producers are required to balance one ton of carbon extracted with one ton of carbon stored back underground where it originated.

As things stand, the initial target is to capture and store up between 20 million and 30 million tons of CO2 by 2030. But Rosebank, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil and gas field, would contribute 200 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere alone. A 2022 report by Global Energy Monitor, an NGO based in San Francisco, estimated that if the reserves in the 20 largest North Sea oil and gas fields expected to reach financial investment decisions or receive development consent in the next three years were extracted and burned, it would release 920 million tons of CO2-equivalent. So it’s clear that CCS can’t get us to net zero without a deep reduction in the amount of oil and gas we burn and should only be used in cases where there’s no clear alternative to fossil fuels. But that’s not the message being sent out by the government.

If we want to fight climate change, improve energy security, tackle the cost-of-living crisis and create jobs – all things the government is supposedly trying to do by ramping up domestic gas production – then the obvious answer is to install renewables with much greater urgency.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Once-Bold UK Is Now a Laggard in Climate Fight: Lara Williams

• The World Needs a Climate Marshall Plan: David Fickling

• The Harsh Truth Is We’re Using More Oil Than Ever: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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