Government climate hypocrisy laid bare as new fossil fuel project given the go-ahead

Less than three months have passed since the COP26 summit, and already the British government has proven the emptiness of their commitments on global climate change.

In January, the Department for Education was criticised by trade unions for it’s flawed s trategy on climate education, while at the same time 20% of local councils were found to have no climate plan at all. Also that month, the government allowed for the construction of a new oil and gas field in the North Sea, outright ignoring the IPCC call to end the use of fossil fuels.

The Abigail oil and gas field was approved for development on January 19th by the Oil and Gas Authority, despite climate experts having previously warned that no new fossil fuel projects could be built if climate targets were to be achieved. This follows a January 17th decision by the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning (OPRED) that the project would be of little environmental impact. There would be a “short-term increase in emissions” says OPRED, but “taken into the wider context of UK atmospheric emissions, I conclude that there will be no significant effect on the environment.”

The project, owned by Ithaca Energy, contains 5.5 million barrels worth of oil. One of the key issues with this development is that it would produce only enough gas to power the UK for a day and a half, leaving the environmentally damaging project rather pointless – save for its boost to Ithaca’s profits, that is.

Tessa Khan, director of Uplift, who campaign for a UK without fossil fuels, asks: “Why is the Government sanctioning an oil and gas development that will see little to no benefit for UK energy customers or taxpayers, which only worsens the climate crisis, and where the only winners are the oil firm behind the project? If we carry on down this path, we’ll be dependent on a very expensive, highly polluting energy source for decades longer than is necessary.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland are critical also, with campaigner Caroline Rance arguing, “Every new field harms the ability of workers to transition by continuing to channel public money and support into fossil fuels instead of into increasing renewables, creating new jobs and supporting workers to retrain.”

Westminster’s decision to let this project go ahead is nothing more than hypocrisy. They go on for days with endless rhetoric about how Britain is a world leader on climate change, then won’t even stand in the way of one small oil field. It seems that for the government, Ithaca’s profit margins are far more important than the environment.

While the Abigail field is a more blatant demonstration of the government’s climate failure, there are other areas where policy has been falling short. For example, a recent report by Climate Emergency UK found that 84 councils (20%) in the UK have no climate change plan. And of the 80% that do, “only 86 councils have an area-wide net-zero target of 2030 or earlier, and 33% of councils had not set a net-zero target of 2050 or earlier”.

Even for local authorities that are concerned about net-zero there are serious challenges. In 2015, Westminster removed the zero carbon homes policy, established in 2006, which would have ensured that houses built from 2016 onwards were carbon nuetral. With this removed, attempts by local authorities to see development of only carbon neutral homes can be disrupted by developers’ profit goals.

If a developer were to make a viability assessment of a council’s housing plans, and conclude this was unprofitable, then said plans would be scrapped. This would make way for a more profitable, but also more environmentally damaging development.

Westminster has the ability to prevent this, of course. They were able to 16 years ago so they could certainly do so now. Yet, they willingly scrapped these regulations, happy to enrich these developers – or more to the point, their shareholders – at all of our expense.

Another of the government’s shortcomings can be found in the Department for Education’s (DfE) draft strategy on teaching climate change, which has been criticised by a range of education organisations over the past days.

Unions NEU, UCU, Unison, NASUWT, and NAHT co-wrote a letter to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, along with Thoughtbox, The Edge, Students Organising for Sustainability UK, and the University of Bath. Their letter criticised the proposed sustainability and climate change strategy, announced by Zahawi in a COP26 speech, arguing it could leave staff uncomfortable to speak frankly on climate change, at risk of being seen as politically biased.

The letter does highlight certain “positive initiatives” in DfE’s strategy, such as the creation of a Climate Leaders Award and a virtual national education nature park. However, they argue the current policy is insufficient to bring about “deep change in every aspect of our lives.”

The letter explains: “We welcome the fact that teachers will not be expected to present climate change denial as a valid viewpoint but have concerns that if the current emphasis in the draft strategy is maintained, staff will feel constrained in engaging with pupils about values and attitudes out of fear of being deemed to be ‘partisan’.”

Of particular concern is the DfE’s argument that: “there may be relevant political issues and partisan political views, for example on social and economic reform, that should be handled in line with schools’ legal duties on political impartiality.”

The relationship between the economy and climate change is of great importance, with the domination of the energy sector by a few large, profit-driven corporations a key factor in the destruction of our environment. Therefore discussions of economic reform, and the link between a capitalist economy and this destruction, must not be buried by the risk of the “partisan” label.

If recent weeks have shown anything, it is that Westminster has not changed. As green as they tried to look in Glasgow last year, their policy is rife with half-measures and false promises. This is no great surprise of course, the Conservative party’s interests lie not with the workers of this country, nor the rest of the world, but in the bank accounts of the big energy companies.

Just as they have waged wars for the sake of fossil fuel, Westminster is certainly willing to destroy our environment too. After all, these politicians and their rich friends will not be the ones to bear the brunt of global climate change, but the working class, particularly in the global south.

Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham branch

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