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New oil and gas is compatible with net zero

From Norway to the US, advanced economies are pursuing a two-pronged approach to climate goals. We will do the same.

By Claire Coutinho

Look around at what other countries are doing to tackle climate change. Are you a fan of the US’s Inflation Reduction Act? It is, in part, funded by an explosion in the US’s production of shale gas. Do you like Norwegian subsidy schemes for electric vehicles? Those are partly funded by Norway’s oil and gas exports. Can you name one of our biggest competitors in developing carbon capture technology? One of the largest is Saudi Arabia.

All around the world, there are oil-and-gas-producing countries that are leading on the energy transition too. We can, and will, do the same. I strongly believe we have a duty to protect nature and the environment for future generations. That was the subject of my maiden speech in parliament.

But our record speaks for itself – it’s under the Conservatives that Britain has become the first major economy to halve its emissions since 1990. They are now at their lowest level since Victorian times. This hasn’t happened by chance, and it’s entirely compatible with the UK as a site of oil and gas production in the North Sea. Of the world’s 20 largest economies, seven haven’t reduced emissions at all since 2010, and none have cut as fast as Britain.

We’ve built more offshore wind – the most efficient form of renewable energy – than anyone else bar China, and almost half of our electricity now comes from renewables, up from just 7 per cent in 2010. Later this year we’ll be one of a handful of countries to eliminate coal from our power systems entirely. Almost half of our homes are now well insulated, including 70 per cent of social homes, up from just 14 per cent in 2010.

I’m proud of our record on clean energy, and we are going further with the jobs and green industries of the future – including carbon capture, hydrogen, fusion energy and offshore wind. But what I won’t do is offshore our industries to countries with higher carbon emissions. I won’t risk blackouts at a time of heightened national security. And I won’t force families to make choices that they can’t afford.

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When it affects the cost of living – for example families replacing their boilers or their cars – I stand by our decision to give people more time to transition, with more generous support. Keeping people’s bills down remains my priority in this post. The UK represents less than 1 per cent of global emissions. Making people here poorer while China approves two new coal power stations a week cannot be the right approach. If we hike up energy bills, see our industries move abroad or have protests on our streets, then we will have done the climate change cause a disservice. There is no point in being world-leading in cutting carbon if your people’s suffering means no one else wants to follow your lead.

That’s why we are backing British oil and gas and new extraction licences. The independent Climate Change Committee acknowledges we’ll still need oil and gas for decades to come. My choice is between British energy made here, or less secure imports from abroad. It’s between getting billions of investment into clean energy, or leaving 200,000 British workers and families in the sector stranded between technologies. The choice, to me, is pretty clear.

Ed Miliband’s approach is to decarbonise the electricity grid in just six years’ time and ban North Sea oil and gas licences. The industry trade body, Offshore Energies UK, has warned his plans would leave the country “uninvestable”, deterring hundreds of billions in investment – including money we need for the green transition. Dieter Helm, one of the country’s leading energy experts, has called Labour’s 2030 net zero target “simply implausible”. The head of the GMB Union, Gary Smith, has said Labour’s plan is “naive” and the party had “got it wrong”. And the general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, has said it is “reckless in the extreme” to approach net zero without a concrete plan to replace jobs. Labour was once adamant its proposals would cost £28bn a year, but now says it can keep the policies but ditch the price tag.

I’m not just the Secretary of State for Net Zero. I have to consider our energy security and energy affordability too. I will get the balance right for the UK’s families and businesses. If we don’t, we not only risk damaging the public’s support for tackling climate change, but also risk damaging the foundations of our economic success.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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