In three weeks’ time world leaders will gather in my hometown of Glasgow to talk about the biggest threat to our future: the climate crisis. We’ve seen an unrecognisable summer of flooding and extreme heat, and as a result people have lost their lives in Europe and around the world. The crisis is very much upon us.
And yet, incredibly, our prime minister, Boris Johnson, is preparing to sign off on a new drilling permit at Cambo oilfield, west of Shetland. If approved, Cambo would produce 170m barrels of oil and would deepen the climate crisis for decades to come. It would be a staggeringly backward move, going against the science and denying us all the green recovery we’ve been promised.
Let’s bear in mind that in the run-up to these talks kicking off, we have had some stark warnings about the sort of action that’s needed. Experts at the International Energy Agency have said there can be no new fossil fuel projects beyond those already under way this year, and the head of the UN has said its latest climate report must sound a “death knell for fossil fuels”.
Nearly 150 miles up the road from Glasgow is Aberdeen, a city where one in 10 jobs is dependent on oil and gas. This is a community that has felt every boom and bust of the oil industry, and where the big crash in 2016 led to many turning to food banks. During the pandemic 35,000 industry workers lost their jobs.
And across the UK, our reliance on oil and gas isn’t doing us any favours. Gas prices are soaring, energy companies are going bust, and many are facing a winter of fuel poverty. In recent weeks, we’ve seen long queues at the petrol pumps as the government grapples with the fuel distribution chaos. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, has admitted that our dependence on volatile global gas prices has left us exposed.
It’s clear that we need to urgently transition away from oil and gas towards using cleaner energy, such as wind power. But in making this shift, we can’t be leaving fossil fuel workers behind.
North Sea communities are resilient. They’ve seen shipbuilding come and go, and are now facing down the next big shift in industry. Four in five offshore workers have said they’re willing to move jobs to work in other industries. But those who want to work in renewables face sky-high training costs, and routinely get asked to repeat qualifications they have already done. Too often the government awards industry contracts overseas, meaning that new jobs go elsewhere. We’ve all heard politicians using slogans such as “build back better” and “green recovery”. But so far the government has failed to deliver.
To create green jobs, you’d think the government would be throwing all its efforts into creating a thriving renewable energy sector, and upgrading our homes and transport so we can wean ourselves off our oil addiction. But astonishingly, it is backing this new Cambo oilfield. And ministers seem to be the only ones who think this is a good idea – all the other major political parties think we should either reconsider the project or just scrap it entirely.
Now, I’m no expert in creating green jobs, but I’d guess that clinging on to doomed fossil fuels, which need to be phased out, isn’t the way to do it. Meanwhile, the UK is selling and installing fewer heat pumps than almost any other country in Europe.
If Johnson truly wants to be a climate leader and to boost the UK economy, he needs to be blocking climate-disaster projects such as Cambo, and making sure oil and gas workers are able to retrain to work in things such as offshore wind, decommissioning, or retrofitting our homes and buildings to make them warmer. This could be a chance to see the UK prosper and be a world-leading example in energy transition.
We know the climate crisis is happening, and we know our reliance on volatile fossil fuels is causing chaos. But we also know how to tackle it. If only Johnson would move forwards instead of backwards.