Why we must set a date to phase out North Sea oil and gas – Dr Richard Dixon

It's time to stop exploring for more oil and gas, says Richard Dixon  (Picture: SWNS)
It's time to stop exploring for more oil and gas, says Richard Dixon (Picture: SWNS)
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We don’t need to stop using oil and gas tomorrow, but we do need to set a date by which its use will be phased out in order to tackle climate change, writes Dr Richard Dixon.

Today the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will publish a new report on the gap between the climate change goals in the 2015 Paris Agreement and the reality of what countries plan to do. For the last several years, they have produced these ‘Emissions Gap’ reports ahead of the annual United Nations climate conference. They are pretty grim reading.

This month they also produced a new report looking at the conflict between plans to extract coal, gas and oil and trying to meet those climate targets. This concludes that, by 2030, the world’s fossil fuel nations are planning to extract more than double the amount that can be burnt if we are to keep below the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5C of planetary warming.

The report is also pretty damning of the technical and economic feasibility of proposed technological fixes that might decarbonise fossil fuels or take carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere after it has been emitted. Despite these techniques being widely expected to work in the modelling that says we will ‘only’ end up at a catastrophic 4C of warming.

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Most countries with fossil fuels are planning to expand production, not reduce it, but there are some interesting commitments: Germany and Spain are phasing out coal production and Belize, Costa Rica, Denmark, France and New Zealand have all committed to partial or total bans on oil and gas extraction and exploration.

Closer to home, Wales has effectively banned any fossil fuel extraction and Ireland has banned any further exploration for fossil fuels and is phasing out its peat-fired power stations.

British double-think

Here the official policy of both the UK and Scottish governments is ‘maximising economy recovery’, that is, to get out every last drop possible.

A recent report from the European Commission found the UK has the largest fossil fuel subsidies in the EU, although, in a fine example of double-think, the UK denies it has any subsidies at all.

Claiming to be serious about tackling climate change and yet still pumping oil may well turn out to be the biggest political contradiction of the 21st century.

Earlier this year we published a similar analysis to UNEP’s, looking at how far beyond our own fair carbon budget the UK is heading. The ‘Sea Change’ report concluded that the 5.7 billion barrels of oil and gas to be extracted from existing fields was already too much, yet both industry and government aspire to at least another 20 billion barrels.

Last week’s Labour manifesto promised a windfall tax on the oil industry to fund a transition for workers and communities out of fossil fuel jobs. The Greens said we should go further while the Lib Dems and Tories immediately branded the idea an attack on the North East and a disaster for the industry.

Interestingly Nicola Sturgeon, while saying she would need to see more detail, said she was interested in any policy which helped the transition to a net-zero emissions economy.

No one is suggesting we turn the taps off tomorrow, but stopping looking for more oil and gas, and setting a date for a phase-out of the industry is not only essential for the climate but that clarity is also essential for the industry and those that currently depend on it.

With the UN climate conference coming to Glasgow at the end of next year, the UK and Scottish governments will want to look like world leaders on climate change. This is going to be increasingly difficult when we are still planning to get out every last drop oil and gas.

Dr Richard Dixon is the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland