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The Parliament Brief: are new oil and gas licences really a “good idea”?

The energy minister Graham Stuart was questioned on the government’s approach to fossil fuels and whether flying 3,500 miles to vote on the Rwanda bill was worth it.

By Megan Kenyon

Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.

Who? MPs from the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) heard from Graham Stuart, minister for energy security and net zero, and Alison Campbell, the UK’s lead negotiator at Cop28 and deputy director of international climate negotiations at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ).

When? 31 January 2024 at 2.15pm.

What was discussed? The success of the UK’s presence at Cop28 in Dubai last year. As the net zero minister, Stuart led the UK’s delegation to the conference. MPs covered a series of topics with the minister, including the UK’s status as a climate leader, giving the green light to new oil and gas licences, the loss-and-damage fund, and his decision to leave the conference early to return to the UK to vote on the controversial Rwanda bill.

Why did this come up? Prior to Cop28 in November 2023, MPs on the EAC held another evidence session with Stuart to question him on his preparations for the conference. Now, following the conference, this latest session took place to enable the committee’s MPs to judge how well the UK’s negotiations actually went. While Stuart’s absence from the final night of the climate negotiations was heavily covered in the press at the time, this is the first time he has been questioned about it by parliament. And things got heated.

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[See also: What to expect from Claire Coutinho]

So, what did they say? Following some introductory remarks from the committee’s chair, Philip Dunne, the Labour MP Anna McMorrin got things off to a fiery start. On the day of the session, 31 January, McMorrin pointed out that the UK had awarded 24 new oil and gas licences in the North Sea following the passing of the highly controversial Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which was first announced in the King’s Speech last year. Chris Skidmore resigned from his role as a Conservative MP over this very issue, having also previously been the chair of the government’s net zero review and a former member of the EAC.

McMorrin asked Stuart how, in light of this decision, the UK could continue to view itself as a leader on climate action. In response, the minister said he thought new oil and gas licences are the “right thing to do”.

Describing them as “good news”, Stuart reminded MPs of the government line that new oil and gas licences are essential to UK energy security, as otherwise “we will end up importing more oil and gas from abroad” with “four times the emissions of domestically produced gas”. Groans from one of the committee members, Caroline Lucas, followed. It should be noted that the government has also admitted new oil and gas will be sold on international markets, rather than directly to UK consumers.

McMorrin also questioned the minister on his decision to travel back from Cop28 to vote on the Rwanda bill. She criticised Stuart for “leaving [his] position vacant at a critical time for climate negotiations”. Stuart asked McMorrin to spell out the meetings he missed, “because I came back and went straight out again”.

Towards the end of the session, Stuart was questioned by Lucas on the loss-and-damage fund, to which the UK has committed £60m. The fund, which was first announced at Cop27 in 2022, is voluntary and sees the wealthiest countries and those most responsible for climate damage pledge $700m for countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. According to the non-governmental organisation the Loss and Damage Collaboration $400bn a year is needed for the fund to cover the total cost of damage caused by climate change. The money pledged will be used by climate-vulnerable nations to fund mitigation and adaptation programmes so they are better prepared for the oncoming and existing effects of climate change on their country.

Lucas asked Stuart his opinion on the size the “fund needs to be to meet its aims” and added, “Do you think that can happen while participation remains voluntary?”. The minister responded: “I can’t give you an immediate figure as to exactly how much the loss-and-damage numbers would ideally be”. He later added that the government’s aim is to get the fund “moving as quickly as possible” so it starts to become apparent “if it will make a significant difference for those who are on the front line”.

Any conclusions? At Cop26, the UK appeared to be at a leader on climate action. But two years later, that no longer seems to be the case. With new oil and gas licences, and a slow-down on our net zero commitments, it remains to be seen to whether we can pick the momentum back up on climate policy.

What next? The EAC won’t hold another Cop evidence session until later this year, when the government will be scrutinised on its preparation for Cop29, which will be held in Azerbaijan in November. But with an election around the corner, it remains unclear whether it will still be a Conservative minister who leads the UK delegation and appears before the EAC’s MPs.

[See also: Will the UK pay up for climate loss and damage?]

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