Climate change: Cambo oil field decision will reveal if Boris Johnson is serious about tackling global warming or not – Ariane Burgess MSP

The fact that the UK government is even contemplating giving approval for a vast new oil field months before hosting the United Nations’ Cop26 summit is an infuriating example of the Conservatives’ climate hypocrisy.

Attempting to make the case for Cambo in yesterday’s Scotsman, Oil and Gas UK chief executive Deirdre Michie claimed that opening a new oil field is “part of the low carbon journey”.

That’s an audacious claim when North Sea production already has more oil than we can afford to burn if we are to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate commitments, and we are already well above the safe level of global atmospheric carbon dioxide, as evidenced by increasing extreme weather events.

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If approved, Cambo will produce 150-170 million barrels on top of what we already have. It will operate until 2050, years after Scotland aims to hit net-zero emissions and well past the point at which it will be too late to rescue our environment.

The first phase alone will extract oil which will produce over 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burnt. Any government which can even contemplate approving such a self-destructive project simply can’t be trusted on climate.

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The International Energy Agency has warned that if we’re to have any hope of keeping temperature increases to 1.5C, which is manageable but not consequence free, then we absolutely must not allow new oil and gas fields to start operating.

Instead, the UK government is actively investing in expansion while the Scottish government remains silent.

Flaring at the ExxonMobil chemical plant at Mossmorran in Fife, where fossil fuel gas is turned into ethylene (Picture: Emma O'Neill/PA)Flaring at the ExxonMobil chemical plant at Mossmorran in Fife, where fossil fuel gas is turned into ethylene (Picture: Emma O'Neill/PA)
Flaring at the ExxonMobil chemical plant at Mossmorran in Fife, where fossil fuel gas is turned into ethylene (Picture: Emma O'Neill/PA)

The experts oppose Cambo, and it’s becoming clear the people do too. It was no surprise that tens of thousands of people signed a Friends of the Earth petition calling on the UK government to reject these proposals, or that yesterday people rallied outside the UK government’s hub in Edinburgh to make their opposition to these plans known.

Since the 1960s and the rapid growth of North Sea oil extraction, Scotland has had an intimate relationship with the fossil fuel industry, but people now realise that must change. The SNP’s electoral success in the 1970s was in part built on the back of its clarion call “It’s Scotland’s Oil”. We see time and time again how that argument still informs Scottish politics.

While the Cambo decision will be made by the UK government, it’s disappointing that Scottish ministers haven’t stated unequivocal opposition to the plans.

There are so many reasons why we should leave oil-centric attitudes in the past. It’s far too late to replicate the Sovereign Wealth Fund model adopted to great effect by countries like Norway and over the years we’ve seen the effects of too closely hitching our economic security to the vagaries of the international oil market.

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Previous dips have devastated communities in the North East with the effects being felt far beyond those directly employed in oil and gas. Meanwhile, Norway is in the process of divesting its Sovereign Wealth Fund entirely from fossil fuels and pivoting towards massive investment in renewables.

Other nations like Denmark and New Zealand have committed to halt exploration. They recognise the importance of shifting away from fossil fuels and that’s one of the many reasons the UK government’s climate myopia is so dangerous.

As an MSP representing the Highlands and Islands, I want to help communities in places like Shetland thrive, become sustainable and secure for future generations.

Those who argue for oil expansion often use employment as a defence of their argument. But in the face of a growing climate emergency that’s a flimsy pretext.

I want jobs for Shetland. Good quality employment is absolutely vital for tackling depopulation, but they have to be sustainable jobs. Shetland doesn’t need to hitch its future to an industry which threatens our survival.

It doesn’t need to rely on jobs in an industry which must decline, and which could be snuffed out almost overnight if an increasingly volatile market takes a wrong turn. In the long term that path will only exacerbate the problems communities like Shetland face.

Instead, Shetland, and other parts of the Highlands and Islands, could be at the forefront of a Green industrial revolution. Investment in renewable energy can leave a legacy, one which creates jobs for generations to come and helps tackle the climate emergency rather than actively make it worse.

This is why the Scottish Green Party has been leading the calls for a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. Rather than expand fossil fuel production, we absolutely must begin winding it down, but that involves making sure no worker is left behind as these changes take place.

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To argue that things must remain as they are is a massive disservice to workers. A head-in-the-sand approach will leave the country completely unprepared for the necessary changes to come. The oil giants’ executives will continue to make profit until they can’t anymore, at which point their front-line staff will be tossed on the scrapheap.

That’s not just, and it’s completely avoidable. Instead of ramping up production, we should be ensuring that the skills and experience which exist in Scotland can be successfully redeployed in renewables. Transition to a green economy doesn’t mean giving up economic prosperity, it means creating new opportunities which will last well into the future.

The Cop26 climate summit is the last best chance to pull the world back from the brink of an irreversible climate catastrophe. If the UK government does give the go-ahead for the exploitation of Cambo then it will be signalling to the world, and its own citizens, that it’s not interested in playing its part.

Any commitments it makes in Glasgow this autumn will be devoid of value, its participation little more than a sham. Shetland, Scotland and the world needs far more than this.

Ariane Burgess is a Scottish Green Party MSP for Highlands and Islands

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