The UK should end new fossil fuel projects for good and show the world what leadership looks like

This post is by Adam Barnett, political affairs manager at Friends of the Earth.

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is just 50 days away and negotiations between the major powers are already reaching an impasse. The UK needs any boost it can get to help ensure that this conference has the best possible chance of ending in success. 

This is why it looks especially absurd that the government continues to support several major fossil fuel developments at home and abroad. These are in direct conflict with the government’s own negotiating strategy, and could help to derail the conference. 

The developments include the Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria, the country’s first new coal mine in 30 years. The decision about whether to approve it, after years of government unwillingness to tackle the issue head on, is now set to hang over the entirety of COP26. The public inquiry will continue into October and a decision from the secretary of state at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Robert Jenrick, is not due until spring 2022.

The Cambo oil field, off the coast of Shetland,could produce up to 800 million barrels of oil up until 2049, but the government continues to dither over whether to block the proposal. 

The Mozambique Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) projectstill contains $1.15 billion of UK Investment Finance (UKEF) funding, despite it fuelling horrifying human rights abuses in some of the poorest communities in the world

And the Horse Hill oil development in Surrey has the legal support of both Robert Jenrick and Surrey County Council for a proposal that seeks to extract three million tonnes of oil over 25 years in the heart of Surrey. 

Continuing with fossil fuel developments is bad politics
Putting aside the fact that these developments will, collectively, add a terrifying amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and increase the global supply of fossil fuels at a time when the world is seeking to transition away, the government’s support for these developments is just bad politics. 

It is not controversial to say that several other countries and major emitters will be looking for opportunities to point at blemishes in the UK’s domestic climate record as an excuse not to approach the negotiations in good faith. Shortcomings at home could be used by others as a pretext to walk away at a difficult crunch point. 

The success of this conference is crucial to securing global climate action and the eyes of the world will be on what the UK does over the next few important weeks. This is why the country must embody its often declared status as a global leader on tackling climate change. 

Yet, allowing these developments to progress increases the chance of being accused of climate hypocrisy and giving other countries their get out clause, especially as several of the developments are increasingly gaining international attention. The start of the Cumbria coal mine public inquiry was picked up by the Washington Post and the New York Times, and Cambo has been covered by CNN. In March, USA Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry stated that “coal has no future” in response to a question about the mine, and several ambassadors have already anonymously briefed that the issue around the mine is damaging their ability to successfully conduct climate diplomacy. 

The developments are thrown into even starker contrast when compared to the UK’s COP26 asks: for other countries to ‘power past coal’ whilst we open a new coal mine; for the global north to finance the transition away from fossil fuels as we invest in fossil fuel developments abroad; and for all countries to publish net zero targets and strategies. Both the Cumbrian coal mine and the Cambo oilfield will, if they go ahead, keep producing fossil fuels right up until the UK’s own 2050 net zero deadline.  

There are good reasons to reject all the proposals
Luckily, there is still time for the government to act. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) should reject the application for the Cambo oil project. MHCLG should withdraw its legal support for the Horse Hill development and the Treasury should withdraw its funding from the Mozambique LNG project. In spring 2022, Robert Jenrick should decide against allowing the Cumbrian mine to go ahead. Unfortunately, it’s now unavoidable that this will loom over COP26 but, in the meantime, BEIS could signal its intention to change the planning system to prevent future coal extraction projects. Friends of the Earth has produced several briefings which set out the arguments in detail for why all these developments should be rejected. 

Not only would these announcements generate positive headlines for the government and reassure the public that it is doing all it can to ensure COP26 is a success (regardless of the eventual outcome), but it would also allow the UK to enter into negotiations with a stronger hand, having publicly chosen to decisively make the break and not pursue fossil fuel developments. It would demonstrate to other countries what real leadership looks like. This is how a confident ‘Global Britain’ should be acting when it takes centre stage in Glasgow this autumn. 

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