The UK’s Climate Crisis | An In-Depth Analysis Into Our Consumption of Oil

The UK’s Climate Crisis | An In-Depth Analysis Into Our Consumption of Oil

We are in the midst of a dual crisis in the United Kingdom.

Two realities, the Anthropocene and our hundreds-year-old union, risk unfolding before our very eyes. The latest IPCC report from the U.N. issued a ‘red warning’ to humanity. We need to take action to combat climate change.

Yet the question remains why hasn’t the U.K. done more to decarbonise? The U.K.’s historical emissions to climate change are well documented. It was here that the industrial revolution started. It was our sprawling, parasitic empire that under-developed so much of the world. It is this historical responsibility that obliges the U.K. to green its economy.

With the Prime Minister declaring that a green industrial revolution must fuel any recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and the Greens entering government in Scotland, it’s worth examining the importance of oil and where it rests in the political dividing lines of our nation. The implications of the centrality of oil are twofold. Firstly, there is the climate crisis. As Athens burned, as California was doused in fire, the warnings from the U.N. and the IPCC regarding climate change became starker. We need to act by 2030 if we want to avert the worst impacts of climate change. 

There is a second aspect to this problem. The politics of oil are tangled up at the heart of the contested politics of the union. The SNP have just won a plurality of seats in the recent Holyrood elections, continuing their stay in the government of fourteen years. Yet it is oil, black and sticky, which could jam the cogs of the SNP machine just as it approaches the finishing line of its quest for Scottish independence.

With the recent crash in the value of oil during the Coronavirus, and ‘peak oil’ expected to take place within three years, a fatal hole has opened up in the nationalist’s prospectus for an independent nation. Politics of social democracy, particularly in a newly seceded smaller country, combined with low corporation tax rates, would lack the currency reserves to fund many social spending programmes and develop the requisite currency reserves to join the Euro (a pre-requisite of E.U. membership). 

The State of Affairs: 

 As pictured below, the energy mix of the U.K. has not changed over the years. Oil remains a vital part of the provision of energy to each of our homes. More than this, in Scotland, particularly in the North East, oil is a significant employer. Oil is worth £18 billion to the economy of the northeast, providing over 70 thousand jobs in Scotland alone. While providing just over £18 billion to the northeast, according to Energy Voice U.K., it offers over £19 billion across Scotland as a whole- around 12% of GDP. That there will be a decline in the importance of the industry to Scotland is inevitable. Nevertheless, oil will continue to play a role in the economy and politics of Scotland for long into the future. 

Energy Mix - Oil

Oil at present is mined as per licences granted by the U.K. Oil and Gas Authority, a government agency. This agency is broadly generous- the U.K. is the second-largest oil and gas producer in Europe. These licences have several strings attached to them. This duty is contingent on maximum extraction, yet somewhat bizarrely also confers an obligation to comply with the U.K.’s guidance on net zero. According to the think tank Commonwealth, the owners of oil in the north sea range from foreign states (Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, for example) to mass-polluting companies like ExxonMobil. Maximum extraction is the antithesis of the necessary action required to deal with the climate crisis. Why does the oil industry have such a perpetual industry? The answer is simple: they can pay for it. According to an investigation by the Guardian, £419,000 was given to the Conservative party by donors with links to oil and gas between July 2020 and March 2021. 

An issue of intense controversy is the proposed development of the Cambo Oil Field off the coast of the Shetland Islands. This has been criticised as the licence would ensure that the U.K. continues to drill for oil- 800 million barrels worth. If the government doesn’t stop the licence, oil extraction will begin in 2022 and run for around 25 years. 

The Scottish Question: 

The Cambo oil field is politically problematic for the otherwise indomitable Nicola Sturgeon. Nicola Sturgeon often laments the existence of reserved powers residing in Westminster, protesting the lack of control Scotland has over its fate. It is fundamental to the nationalist conviction that no policy area should be reserved for a Westminster government. Yet, Nicola Sturgeon has constantly emphasised that this is a reserved matter when it comes to Cambo. She has consistently emphasised a policy of maximum extraction. She has claimed that Scotland is a world leader in dealing with Climate Change – a claim wholly refuted by Greta Thunberg herself.

The future of oil extraction is a contentious issue amongst the SNP themselves. The party has long wedded its economic prospectus for independence to enduring supplies of bountiful North-East oil. Indeed, the caption the SNP relied on during their resurgence in the seventies was ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’. The distribution of oil profits perhaps best Illustrates the economic justification behind the independence; they argue that the tax revenues of natural resources extracted by Scotland should go directly to the Scottish taxpayer instead of lining the pockets of the English exchequer.

The SNP has since struggled to reconcile this reliance on oil with their eco-friendly social democratic politics. Indeed, M.P.s within the SNP have differing opinions on the rate with which oil should be extracted. It has also provided fodder for pro-independence opponents of Nicola Sturgeon. Alex Salmond has resurrected the SNP’s old slogan to attack Nicola Sturgeon, arguing that she should take the front foot on oil and that decisions surrounding it should originate from the Scottish parliament. In a bone-throw to his old stomping ground in the North-East (formerly an SNP stronghold, turned tory), he argued for Sturgeon’s maxim of maximising the economic value from fuel extraction. During the run-up to recent SNP conferences, Nicola Sturgeon emphasised both that the licence had been granted a long time ago – the issue at stake was whether or not the oil company should act on said licence – and that oil needs to be phased out in a way that ensures a just transition. 

Why is the ‘Just Transition’ Particularly Crucial to Scotland? 

The origins of a just transition lie in an attempt to differentiate current climate policy from Thatcher’s war on the miners. Deindustrialisation is in large part responsible for Scotland’s higher than average levels of deprivation in the U.K. That’s why Scotland is so generously subsidised from the Barnett formula. According to researchers like Ewan Gibbs, the closure of the mines was so pernicious due to the loss of ‘community, ‘custom’, and ‘culture’. It is these that insulated communities from market forces. Gibbs also highlights the importance of ‘voice’, emphasising the need for consultation in any process of weaning the North-East economy off oil. To ignore the plight of workers in oil would be to scar the economy and leave communities more left behind than ever. The North-East of Scotland is now fertile ground for the Scottish Conservative party.  

The SNP have to unfurl this pernicious paradox- how can they balance their ambition for Scottish independence. The union’s future may hang in the balance but what is certain is that oil will be at the heart of any future decision. Moreover, the union is at the heart of a broader planetary question- can our domestic politics, peoples’ aspirations, and politicians reconcile themselves to the necessary decarbonisation to save the planet?

Who will suffer the burdens?

What is clear is that the dividing lines at the heart of Britain are increasingly contingent on oil and its role in the future. 

Written by Ruairidh Maclean | Illustrated by Victoria Hoover


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