New fossil fuel projects show UK climate ‘leadership’ dripping in hypocrisy at G7 climate talks
The UK’s recently released net zero strategy and plans for new fossil fuel projects show how the G7 group’s climate crisis pledges will be meaningless unless they’re backed by concrete action.
On Saturday 15 April, the G7 nations are meeting in Sapporo, Japan. Environment ministers from the seven most industrialised nations are convening for climate talks. The group will discuss targets and plans for meeting their international climate commitments under the United Nations (UN) Paris Agreement.
Of the seven nations, the UK’s short-term emissions targets are the most far-reaching. It has pledged to cut 78% of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2035.
Moreover, in a draft statement seen by Agence France-Presse (AFP) the UK has proposed new targets on the phase-out of domestic coal power. France is backing the proposal. Additionally, the government ended UK taxpayer-funded finance for new overseas fossil fuel projects in March 2021. The UK is now pushing for a firm climate commitment on this from the other G7 nations.
However, despite these ambitious targets and proposals the UK government’s recent actions show that its climate ‘leadership’ is dripping in hypocrisy.
G7 climate leaders to phase out coal?
During the minister-level talks between the seven nations, AFP reported that the UK plans to propose new coal phase-out targets. The targets would likely see the G7 commit to ending coal use for domestic energy generation.
In June 2021, the UK government set a target to end coal-fired electricity generation by October 2024. Specifically, this refers to ‘unabated’ coal power. This is where companies have taken no steps to offset or capture emissions.
The UK government appear to be walking the talk on ending coal-fired power at home. However, in December it greenlit an application for a new coal mine in Cumbria. The government has said that the coal extracted from the new mine in the Lake District will not be used for power generation. Instead, it will produce coking coal to supply the UK’s steel industry. Conversely however, planning documents show that more than 80% of the coal will be exported, mostly to Europe.
The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) has estimated that the mine would increase UK greenhouse gas emissions by 400,000 tonnes per year.
Coal locked in?
Environment think tank Green Alliance has also said that these greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent to “the output of 201,000 cars or 170,000 homes”.
As a result, Green Alliance has stated that the coal mine would undermine the UK’s climate leadership. In a report it released in December 2022 it said that:
Increasing coal dependency would seriously undermine the UK’s international efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
The CCC has also suggested that there may be “no domestic use after 2035” for the coal from the Woodhouse mine. Yet the UK government has licensed operations at the site until 2049 – just one year before its net zero target.
Moreover, exporting the coal also means locking other nations in to its use for their steel-making industries. Green Alliance argued that an oversupply of coal could:
force down prices, encouraging other uses to appear and ‘locking in’ continued coal use, when investment in alternatives is needed.
For the UK to advocate for ending coal-fired power generation, while permitting a new coal mine, shows staggering levels of climate cognitive dissonance. Moreover, in the context now of the G7 discussions on climate the coal mine decision could undermine the UK’s credibility. However, it may need this credibility in negotiations to persuade other coal-dependent nations to agree to a target.
For instance, there is significant pushback from Japan to embrace ambitious fossil fuel phase-out goals. At a previous G7 climate meeting in June 2021, Climate Change News reported that Japan had been responsible for watering down language around phasing out coal. Yet the shift away from coal-fired power looks less impressive when looking at the figures. In 2021, coal made up just 3.4% of the UK’s energy supply. Meanwhile, coal accounted for 26.5% of Japan’s energy mix in 2021. Japan therefore has a much steeper transition away from the fossil fuel.
The UK is no role model on climate
In fact, the UK’s low coal energy mix today also does not make it a climate role model. In 1990, coal made up 67% of the UK’s energy mix. The UK initially shifted away from coal to gas, and then increasingly renewables.
Notably however, the UK didn’t make this initial shift for the environment. Instead, companies operating the newly privatised energy sector drove the change to gas, to save on the capital costs of energy generation. The Financial Times suggested that North Sea oil and gas partly facilitated this.
Gas made up 42.8% of the UK’s energy share in 2021. In addition, oil accounted for 32.1%. Therefore, if the UK government wanted to demonstrate climate leadership and strengthen its negotiating power at the G7 climate talks, it could have committed to ending its domestic oil and gas industry. Instead, its recent net zero strategy maps out plans for new fossil fuel projects. It soon plans to issue new permits for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.
It is doing so despite the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report’s message. It spelled out in no uncertain terms that governments should not permit new fossil fuel projects. The report also stated that existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure will cause the world to overshoot its target to stay below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.
Fossil fuels and climate failures
The UK government’s actions belie its ambitions. The new Carbon Budget Delivery Plan details how the government intends to deliver its net zero targets. But the document shows that the UK is set to fall short of meeting its legally-binding emissions reductions between 2033 and 2037.
It estimates that the government will need to account for a further 32m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This is despite its net zero bluster. For example, campaign group Uplift has calculated that the Rosebank oil field in the North Sea alone would create 5.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide. Critically, this is before emissions from burning the extracted oil and gas are even taken into account. Yet, the oil field is currently awaiting a government decision – alongside a potential 258 further oil and gas blocks.
What this all suggests is that when it comes to rich industrialised nations, there are no true climate leaders. Crucially, the UK and indeed other G7 nations at these climate talks show that actions really do speak louder than words. Unfortunately, that action is yet more of the same that caused this crisis in the first place: fossil fuel capitalism.
Feature image via Department for Transport and The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 770 by 403, licensed under Open Government Licence v3.0
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
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