Climate change: Cambo oil field plan is iconic decision that will show if Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon are serious about global warming – Dr Richard Dixon

When I wrote about the proposed extraction of up to 800 million barrels of oil from the Cambo field north-west of Shetland a few weeks ago, few people had heard of this proposal or the UK government’s obscure consultation on it.
Scotland, the UK and the world need to rapidly phase out oil and gas production in order to tackle climate change (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)Scotland, the UK and the world need to rapidly phase out oil and gas production in order to tackle climate change (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
Scotland, the UK and the world need to rapidly phase out oil and gas production in order to tackle climate change (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)

Now Cambo, and the future of oil and gas in general, has rocketed up the political agenda with Boris Johnson embarrassed on TV when he had to admit he didn’t know anything about it, 80,000 objections being handed in at Downing Street, Labour saying it should be scrapped, Nicola Sturgeon writing to Johnson to say it should be reviewed in light of climate change, and the Scottish Tory leader accusing the SNP of having an “extremist” position.

After the Prime Minister had to admit he didn’t know any of the details about the Cambo proposal during a visit to Scotland, he was asked again the next day, but waffled about not being able to break contracts and moved on.

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Sir Keir Starmer also came to visit Scotland and said very clearly that the Cambo field should not go ahead. He also said that there should be a “hard-edged timetable” for phasing out oil and gas production.

Nicola Sturgeon was tackled on Cambo by young climate activists at a carnival in Glasgow. She refused to rule it out but then wrote to Boris Johnson to say that it and all similar pending developments should be reviewed to see if they are consistent with climate change commitments.

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This is great, and one of the key things we have been calling for for several years, but in her letter she linked this review to the UK government’s new idea of a ‘climate compatibility checkpoint’. This is weak because the checkpoint is not yet finalised but the current draft would let Cambo through because the licence is only for exploration.

The FM’s letter says we can’t have business as usual and that we need a rapid, just transition but stops short of actually saying that Cambo should not go ahead and official Scottish government policy remains to get out every last drop of oil possible.

The letter is of course trying to tread the fine line between real action that would reduce climate emissions and not scaring the electorate. It implicitly allows for the possibility of new oil and gas licences being issued, a process which may start again next year. If you think we might have to cancel or restrict some existing licences because of climate change, it can’t make any sense to issue new licences.

Even though the FM has only taken tentative steps in the right direction, it was enough to prompt Tory leader Douglas Ross’s “extremist” remark. Meanwhile the Scotland Office Minister David Duguid was so desperate to get off the hook in a radio interview that he said that we could extract the oil but just keep it in barrels rather than using it…

Ahead of the climate conference in November, the Cambo proposal has become the iconic symbol of whether UK and Scottish governments are serious about climate change, and the door into the deeper debate about the need to rapidly phase out oil and gas production.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland

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