Climate change: New Cambo oil field is incompatible with 'code red' emergency and Scotland must oppose it – Dr Katherine Trebeck

When bushfires hit my hometown of Canberra in Australia in 2003 (as they nearly did again last year), businesses, diverse parts of the community, and political leaders re-orientated their plans, made new ones, and took on board the reality of a looming catastrophe to help respond and prevent the worse-case scenario playing out.

My task was to get to my grandma’s house which was in danger as a nearby hill went up in flames. Like so many others across Canberra who faced the reality that the place we called home was facing serious risk, I took the action the situation demanded. It was frightening of course, but the alternative was too horrible to contemplate acting otherwise.

The UN Secretary General has declared that the recent findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are a “code red” for humanity. These warnings are borne out by the heightened number of extreme weather events in recent months – deadly floods in Germany and extreme heat across North America just two examples.

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Those words should be ringing in the ears of every politician. How our governments respond will be their legacy for decades to come.

Will they hesitate or will they focus on the emergency and do all they can to respond?

The Scottish government is facing calls to declare its opposition to the vast new Cambo oil field. The First Minister was questioned about this by young activists at a fair in Govanhill earlier this month. They told her of their fear of the extent of climate breakdown. The First Minister said there were tough choices to be taken.

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“Tough”, in the sense that some sectors and communities will need support to adjust as a result of a decision? Yes, of course – there is no doubt about that and fortunately there is widespread support for a Just Transition, an agenda which featured heavily in the SNP-Greens cooperation agreement.

The world needs to rapidly stop burning fossil fuels if climate change is to be tackled (Picture: Eunice Adorno/AFP via Getty Images)

But “tough” as in both scenarios – stopping Cambo or nodding it through – have equal merit? Not so much.

The First Minister has written to the UK government and asked that they host a summit of all UK governments and that they reassess potential projects, including Cambo, in light of “climate conditionality”. The SNP-Greens cooperation agreement goes a little further – speaking of a review of how much oil and gas can be extracted to meet Paris Agreement pledges.

Are such measures up to the urgency of a “code red”? Do they stand up to Scotland’s commitment to being a climate leader and building a well-being economy?

Expanding onshore wind, moving to renewables, increasing walking and cycling – all part of the cooperation agreement – are important, but if extraction continues, they won’t be enough to avoid what over 230 scientists behind the IPCC warn of.

Some might say it is not the Scottish government’s gift to approve or prevent Cambo, and that suggesting a summit and calling for a reassessment of licences is the best they can do.

But a stronger statement of opposition to Cambo would signal this is a government which understands the reality of finite carbon budgets and the need to shift – today and faster than current form – away from fossil fuels. Going further, it isn’t hard to imagine that the Scottish government could withhold onshore planning consent if it is serious about its declaration of a climate emergency.

Some might say that the existing oil workforce needs Cambo to go ahead. But that ignores the possibility of a co-created just transition and the onus on public institutions to help workers move into non-extractive industries.

There is evidence from surveys of employees in the sector that a huge majority would, if properly supported, welcome such a transition, not least as so many of them are on insecure contracts.

No one is saying workers and communities should be abandoned, and the work of the Scottish government’s Just Transition Commission lays out some of the steps that need to be taken. The SNP-Green cooperation agreement commits to a just transition: this should underpin a commitment to Cambo not proceeding.

Some might even say that Scotland needs Cambo to provide the energy as renewables are not yet up to meeting current demand – or risk importing ‘dirtier’ oil from other countries.

But this misses the bigger picture: our economies, and particularly our patterns of production and consumption, need to be restructured around the goal of collective well-being, rather than constant economic growth premised on demand for material products.

Ignoring that agenda (exhibit one: the exclusion in the SNP-Greens cooperation agreement of matters relating to “the role of GDP measurements and economic principles relating to sustainable growth and inclusive growth”) flies in the face of evidence that a growing economy is incompatible with the health of our planetary home.

No one doubts the challenge of transforming the economy into one that serves social justice on a healthy planet. There are a plethora of changes to be made, adjustments to be managed, and sequencing of changes to get right.

Yet the prospect of building an economy that better distributes work and wealth, that cherishes resources, reusing and sharing them rather than extracting and dumping them, is the prize in sight. The recommendations of the recent Climate Assembly show that people of all walks of life are already calling for the necessary action.

Scotland has declared a climate emergency. It leads the partnership of ‘Well-being Economy Governments’. And it is hosting the UN climate conference in just a few months.

If Cambo is allowed to be nodded through, it will undermine Scotland’s positive early steps to build a well-being economy that people here and around the world so urgently need.

Dr Katherine Trebeck is a strategic advocacy advisor at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Scotland

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