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Analysis: The UK governments love-letter to the fossil fuel industry

Analysis: The UK governments love-letter to the fossil fuel industry

The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured at a gas plant in Aberdeen. Photo credit: 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via FLICKR.

By Anders Lorenzen

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government are intensifying their support for the fossil fuel industry, and they have thus distanced themselves further from climate action previously pursued by successive UK governments.

The government this week announced its support for further expansion of North Sea oil and gas reserves. It committed to granting hundreds of licenses for North Sea oil and gas extraction. They argued it was part of a drive to become less energy dependent, though green groups and analysts are far from in agreement with that statement.  

Sunak argued that new domestic fossil fuels would help to improve energy security and reduce reliance on states such as Russia, “We have all witnessed how (Russia’s President) Putin has manipulated and weaponised energy… Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security,” the prime minister said. Sunak has even left the door open for more licenses to be granted. 

Climate advocates would have been underwhelmed, that this involved just two carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters in Scotland and northern England, with no timeline for when they will be up and running and in which fields they will be installed.


This comes as the UK’s now former Minister of State for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate, and Environment, Zack Goldsmith, recently resigned in a serious attack on Sunak, arguing he was simply uninterested in reaching net-zero.  Analysts now speculate that the mission to reach net zero by 2050 is in jeopardy. This latest policy change should be seen in conjunction with Sunak’s recent statements that, while he still wants to get to net zero, it should be done in an orderly manner that does not inconvenience people.  

And it should be seen in conjunction with the government’s attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan`s clean air flagship scheme, the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), a scheme that was actually started by Khan’s Conservative predecessor and former prime minister, Boris Johnson. Last weekend, Rishi Sunak, in an interview with the Telegraph, argued that he is on the side of motorists and that they in no way should be inconvenienced.  He intended to review any schemes that discouraged driving and instead encourage walking and other forms of active transport such as cycling.

Questions about net zero

Questions will also be asked about how Sunak aims to get to net zero by 2050 ,as he has admitted that by this date the country is expected to get more than a quarter of its energy from oil and gas.

The Conservatives are significantly trailing the opposition Labour Party in the polls. And only a collapse in the opposition or a huge scandal seems to be able to change that, the Conservatives have chosen to weaken climate policies to be the areas where they can make a change with a more business-as-usual scenario. Labour has said if they were to win the 2024 election they would ban the licensing of any new North Sea oil and gas licenses. So the Conservatives labelled the Labour party extreme and made unfounded conspiracy-style claims that the controversial climate protest group, Just Stop Oil, is a political wing of Labour.  But in fact, the reality is that Labour’s climate policies are modest at best, and have committed far less than its own activists and a large population of the public would like them to do. 

The government unfazed by the climate crisis

As the impacts of the climate crisis play out in front of everyone’s eyes whether at home in the UK, or seeing British tourists being evacuated from their holiday destinations due to heatwaves and wildfires, the public’s attitude toward increased climate action continues to grow. 

The UK government’s argument for opening new oil and gas fields is a made-up argument, that we will be reliant on fossil fuels for some time and it is better to get them from homegrown resources than importing from unfriendly countries. But this notion does not reflect reality, and it was until recently not a sentiment shared by UK’s Energy, Security & Net-Zero Secretary, Grant Shapps, who is now driving this renewed appetite for fossil fuels  

In a speech in 2022, Shaps said: “We cannot carry on relying, as the world has done so many times, on hydrocarbons. We would be the first nation to get to incredible green industrial revolution”, adding that that net zero 2050 was in “conservative DNA”.

The former Conservative energy minister and current chair of the Net Zero Review Chris Skidmore distanced himself strongly against the change in policy: “This is the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heat waves”, he said.

And the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, reacted strongly to the policy change from the UK government: “By announcing hundreds of new oil and gas licences, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has become a “dangerous radical” pursuing “moral and economic madness”.

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