A political decision on whether or not to approve the development of Rosebank, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field, which could produce 500m barrels of oil over its lifetime, is expected imminently. And if reports are true that the government is going to allow the venture there is no doubt that the Prime Minister’s already-stained green credentials – not helped by reports that he is planning to drop a 2019 commitment to double international climate finance to £11.6bn – will be left in tatters.
Allowing the field to be drilled is nonsensical on multiple levels. The reserves at Rosebank, owned by Norwegian energy giant Equinor, are 90 per cent oil, most of which is likely to be exported, meaning it won’t save UK households a penny on their energy bills or improve energy security. Still, the UK is being asked to pay over 90 per cent of the field’s development costs in the form of £3.75bn in tax breaks, the campaign group Uplift estimates. With the North Sea experiencing an unheard of ocean heatwave and Britain bracing itself for a second year of 40°C temperatures, it is truly frightening that this government seems hellbent on pouring even more fuel on the climate fire.
Britain is a nation where the environment is consistently a top priority for voters (even during the invasion of Ukraine and amid cost-of-living worries). Given the government’s own data shows over 80 per cent of the public are concerned about climate change, you’d have thought it would pay more attention.
Even if public concerns are ignored, however, criticism of the government’s approach to climate change is growing from within its own ranks. Just last week Chris Skidmore, the former energy minister, who signed the net-zero target into law, tabled amendments to the Energy Bill to ensure the UK works seriously to phase out fossil fuels. Theresa May, the former prime minister, claimed the UK is now falling behind in the global race to net zero. And perhaps most significantly, the latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee, chaired by Lord Deben, a Tory peer, not only said the UK is no longer a world leader on green issues, but that the government will at this rate miss its climate targets on nearly every front. The resignation of Lord Goldsmith as an environment minister in the Foreign Office, driven, he claims, by Rishi Sunak’s disinterest in climate and nature, was just the final blow.
It is clear that, so far, the government is not taking this criticism seriously. When cross-party MPs came together to oppose Rosebank’s development in a debate this week, the energy security minister Graham Stuart told them that only in a “parallel universe” should Rosebank not go ahead. One wonders if he misunderstood (or indeed has actually read) the report from the government’s own climate advisers, which put it as simply as possible: “Expansion of fossil fuel production is not in line with net zero.” Reaching net zero by 2050 or sooner was a leading promise to voters in 2019 from all major parties. The Conservatives included it as a guarantee on the first page of their manifesto.
The Conservatives should take note that the public want politicians who are serious about tackling the climate crisis. Voters in Australia elected Anthony Albanese prime minister on a promise to make the nation a renewable superpower. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential election showed that climate sceptics lose elections in favour of their greener rivals. Lula’s vows to protect the Amazon helped him once again secure the Brazilian presidency. In the US the contrast between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on environmental issues couldn’t have been clearer.
With energy bills predicted to stay high for years thanks to the UK’s high dependency on expensive gas, and signs of the climate crisis in the news daily, all political parties should be showing that they take it seriously. Approving Rosebank will be a clear test, not only of the UK’s climate leadership abroad, but of the government’s willingness to do right by the public at home as well.