Cambo oil field: Nicola Sturgeon must find the courage to tell fossil fuel industry its days are numbered – Joyce McMillan

Thursday lunchtime, and Scottish social media lights up with the news that the First Minister has sent a letter to Boris Johnson about the climate crisis, and in particular about the licensing of new oilfields, in the light of this week’s IPCC report issuing a “code red” for the planet.

Nicola Sturgeon's letter to Boris Johnson about oil industry licences failed to urge the Prime Minister to stop the Cambo field off Shetland from being developed (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/WPA pool /Getty Images)

The subject is, in every sense, a burning topic in Scottish politics, for a whole range of reasons, including the current partnership discussions between the Scottish government and the Scottish Green Party.

More significantly, though, it reflects on Nicola Sturgeon’s ambition, ever since she took office in 2014, to make Scotland a world leader on tackling climate change.

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As early as 2010, the SNP was beginning to position itself as the leading advocate for the “fairer, greener and more prosperous Scotland” promised in the 2014 Yes campaign. And today, an exhausting decade on, it is still talking the talk on carbon reduction with some passion, even while continuing to spend the bulk of its transport budget on road-building, and repeatedly missing its own carbon-reduction targets in recent years.

It is difficult, of course, to overstate the current economic pressures on a devolved administration dependent for the vast bulk of its revenue on Boris Johnson’s Westminster administration, and lacking major borrowing powers; and the Scottish government is not without positive achievements on climate change, not least in trying to plan for a smooth transition for the North Sea oil industry.

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Yet this year – with climate disaster after disaster sweeping the globe – it seems we have abruptly passed the political tipping-point where fine words on climate change will suffice; or where people will any longer buy the myth that protecting the planet is all about individual lifestyle choice.

A majority of the world’s citizens – and particularly of its young people – have seen how governments were able to act in the face of the Covid-19 threat, not only shutting down whole swathes of the economy, but offering millions of people the financial security, during that crisis, that made the huge changes involved tolerable.

Now – in Scotland as elsewhere – a large and significant section of the public are much less inclined to buy governments’ excuses for not treating climate change with the same radical urgency; and this is the constituency that the SNP in government now risks losing, if it fails to keep pace with rapidly changing public attitudes.

All of which brings us to the key question of the Cambo oil field, a massive new development in Scottish and UK waters, 125 kilometres north-west of Shetland. The licence for drilling there was granted by the UK government as long ago as 2002; and to read the relevant page on the website of Siccar Point Energy, which acquired the rights to the field in 2017, and brought in Shell UK as its partner, is to sense all the old-fashioned excitement of Big Oil, as it strikes a new field thought to contain over 800 million barrels of oil.

The question today, though, is whether that old excitement has any place in the profoundly threatened world of 2021; and the answer, from every responsible world leader, has to be a simple “No” – not on any pretext, not any more.

There are respectable debates to be had about existing oilfields, and how to run them down in a responsible and constructive way, using the resources they generate to prepare for the new world ahead; but those in charge of Big Oil, if they care for their children and grandchildren at all, must face the truth that the exploratory and expansionist age of their industry is over.

All of which raises the sharp question of why Scotland’s First Minister – who more than fully understands these issues, and also seems to feel their urgency at a human level – cannot quite bring herself to say that the Cambo development should not go ahead.

Her letter to Boris Johnson is, like most of her letters and speeches, a strikingly and almost movingly sensible document, appealing to the Prime Minister to reassess all the UK government’s existing fossil fuel development licences in the light of the week’s IPCC report, including, as she strongly emphasises, the licence for the Cambo field.

Yet the final sentence of her paragraph on oil development – the one that should say “in our view, there is now no defensible case for licensing further development of the Cambo field, and we would urge you not to do so” – simply is not there.

Like the UK government’s decision to allow a new open-cast mine in Cumbria, the Cambo development is now a litmus test of whether governments are ready to take on the responsibility of saying “no”, clearly and without equivocation, to some of the huge commercial interests and corporations that have dominated the world economy for so long; and so far, both the UK government (unsurprisingly) and the Scottish government (much more disappointingly) are failing that test.

It is true that the SNP has travelled far, over the last 15 years, with its Blair-like policy of triangulation, trying simultaneously to take strong social-democratic and environmental stances, while schmoozing those big establishment players who resist all threats to their traditional way of doing business.

Now, though, under pressure of the climate crisis, there is no more room for equivocation. In an age when our governments must find the courage to compel change, it’s essential – in the interests of the country, never mind of her own party and cause – that Scotland’s First Minister puts herself on the right side of history; and tells Big Oil in plain terms that so far as the Scottish government is concerned, its day is drawing to a close, and will very soon be done.

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