Climate change: Vilifying oil firms and countries like UK won't help build greener future – John McLellan

Joy to the world… There are 40 days left till Christmas but just as Lent is supposed to the period of solemn religious abstinence leading to Easter celebrations, now every year it seems we must endure two weeks of misery as declarations from the United Nations Climate Change Conference browbeat us towards the end of the year, if not civilisation as we know it.

It will all be over by Friday, with the now customary guilt-tripping of developed countries while the worst offenders in the struggle to reduce emissions ─ like China and Russia ─ carry on regardless. Judging by the licence fee-funded hectoring every night on the BBC, readers would be forgiven for thinking the UK is up there with Presidents Xi and Putin in cocking a snook at the aims of COP27.

It was an avoidable own-goal for Number 10 to signal that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would not be heading to Sharm el-Sheikh, but the uncomfortable truth for those using climate change as a vehicle for other political aims is that Great Britain is not a laggard but a leader in tackling global warming. The Berlin-based independent Climate Change Performance Index puts the UK fourth in the world for its approach to climate issues, scoring “particularly well for the amount of its energy share that now comes from renewables, as well as its forward-looking policies”.

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So as hysterical young people scream out unaffordable and unrealistic demands while gluing themselves to motorways or defacing artworks, in fact the UK is in the vanguard of climate action, and has been for some time. Figures from the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy reveal that average household energy consumption is 31 per cent below its 1979 peak, and although changes in the economy are undoubtedly a factor, the energy consumed by industrial production has fallen by around 40 million tonnes of oil equivalent a year since 1970.

Climate change protesters demonstrate outside the UK offices of Royal Dutch Shell (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
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According to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the air we breathe is dramatically cleaner, with nitrogen oxides down 67 per cent and particulate matter down 80 per cent in the past 50 years. The closure of coal-fired power stations has virtually eradicated sulphur dioxide emissions, down 98 per cent. In fact, UK carbon emissions are now at their lowest level since the mid-1850s, and research by The Spectator magazine shows the UK’s emissions have fallen faster than any G20 nation since 2010, by 36 per cent.

In 2019, the UK was the first major economy to pass a commitment to ending its contribution to global warming by 2050 into law, changing the target to net zero from 80 per cent. The SNP had to go one better by making 2045 the deadline and, not to be outdone, the posturing SNP-Labour administration on Edinburgh Council then set an unfeasible goal of 2030.

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Neither has any idea how these will be achieved, certainly not though misrepresenting offshore wind capacity or a hopeless bottle return scheme, but the mammoth challenge facing the UK Government was laid bare in a report from the House of Commons’ Committee of Public Accounts in March, which estimated that achieving net-zero by 2050 would need additional average capital investment of £50-60 billion every year into the 2030s, most of it from the private sector.

This might go some way to explaining the Treasury’s reluctance to increase windfall taxes on energy companies because that’s where most of this cash is likely to be found. In March, Shell UK announced a plan to invest up to £25bn in UK energy in the next decade, over three-quarters of it in the low and zero-carbon products and services, including hydrogen, carbon-capture-and-storage, and offshore wind. In May, BP revealed an £18bn investment programme over the next eight years to include hydrogen and offshore wind, but also to boost Aberdeen as an energy hub. While these figures are substantial, they also illustrate a yawning gap the UK Government can’t afford to cover, with a risk of disincentivising the energy firms if windfall tax increases become punitive.

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As Chancellor Jeremy Hunt presents the autumn statement on Thursday, it’s hard to see what he can do to prime such a vast investment programme in response to an ambition set before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and there are hints windfall taxes on energy companies will indeed rise in response to political pressure from the same people calling for action on climate change.

Ironically, the one measure which could reduce energy consumption is the much-trailed reduction in government support for higher energy bills, from £60bn to about £20bn from April, which could cost the average household around £600 a year. Alongside tax rises, the political fall-out is likely to be huge, and while the opposition parties will pile in about the Tory cost-of-living crisis it will be without a viable alternative which doesn’t also involve hitting the majority in the pocket.

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If the events of the last two months have taught us anything, it’s that unfunded government spending doesn’t just unravel in days but hours, and no-one escapes the effect of high inflation. Watch what happens to rail fares in the new year once the current rail workers’ pay disputes are settled without significant commitment to modernisation. And as calls intensify by the end of the week for ‘something to be done’ about climate change, including developed countries like the UK paying what has been pejoratively called ‘reparations’ to poorer nations, sustainable solutions which don’t involve either more borrowing or even higher taxes, or both, will be thin on the ground.

Those who attend the COP conferences attest to the level of business interest in innovation, companies seeing renewable energy sources as a goal in itself, not a means to an end, but the challenge is to identify practical measures to improve everyone’s situation, not vilify advanced countries and private enterprise who hold the keys to a genuinely greener future.

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