The monarch’s speech at the state opening of parliament is perhaps the clearest look at a government’s priorities we get outside of election manifestos. For all the pomp and circumstance of the first King’s speech in 72 years, last week’s pronouncement was no different.
Nestled amongst now-familiar refrains about low-value degrees and fighting inflation was Rishi Sunak’s renewed commitment to opening new oil and gas fields. Advocating for the expansion of fossil fuel production in 2023 might, on the face of it, appear to be a radical approach. And from the moment he took office, Sunak has taken great pains to appear anything but. How then, does he justify such a position?
Coming into power after the ignominious double-whammy of Truss and Johnson, ‘stability’ and ‘security’ have been watchwords for Sunak’s Premiership. Fittingly, it is in these terms he has framed the decision to tender new oil and gas licences. Rather than being in contradiction of environmental aims, these new drilling licences are in aid of them.
According to a government press release on 5th November, these new oil fields, among them the hugely controversial Rosebank development, will form part of Britain’s “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” energy strategy going forward. Here, the government points to data from the Climate Change Committee suggesting that Britain will be partially reliant on fossil fuels well into the 2050s. Be that as it may, that same committee has also stated that it views the Tories’ current emissions policy as “insufficient”.
Sunak claims his government is still committed to meeting climate targets. On this, he touts Britain’s progress on decarbonisation compared to other members of the G7; Britain may rely on fossil fuels for 75% of its energy, he argues, but Germany, Japan, and the United States all rely on it in roughly equivalent percentages. However, while our European neighbours, for example, have remained committed to the Paris Agreement at least in word if not in deed, Sunak’s recent statements have been seen by many as dangerous equivocating, especially so close to the COP28 summit.
Crucially, the move slots neatly into established Tory policy on other topics, such as the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis. Part of the reason Sunak wants Britain to produce more oil and gas is so that we reduce our reliance on “volatile international energy markets” and “hostile foreign regimes” such as Russia.
It is an easy and obvious position for the prime minister to take, particularly when that reliance has had such devastating consequences for the British public in the form of the cost-of-living crisis. The government has positioned new oil rigs as part of a “robust energy mix” that will take us to Net Zero by 2050 without “undue burdens on households”. Net Zero is a priority, it argues, but not at the cost of the taxpayer.
Unfortunately for Sunak, last January, the World Economic Forum estimated that achieving Net Zero by 2050 would cost the global economy upwards of $3 trillion every year. There is no way to totally minimise the cost of going green, even if he wants to.
This contradiction is borne out when we look at public opinion. Over 65% of British adults surveyed by YouGov this summer were in some way worried about climate change and its effects, and 60% were in support of only producing renewable energy in future. And yet, a poll conducted by the Scotsman found that a narrow majority of Scots support the Rosebank project – estimated to be capable of producing around 350 million barrels of hugely valuable oil – going ahead. Sunak is clearly aware of both the need to publicly acknowledge climate concerns, and the primacy of economic matters in the minds of most voters.
Activist responses have been predictably chilly. Just Stop Oil, already on the third week of its ‘slow marches’ campaign, an arrest-heavy strategy of protestors blocking major thoroughfares to call attention to the climate crisis through public disruption, has said that their actions will continue in light of the government’s decision. In fact, things seem likely to escalate. Recent press releases from the organisation referred to Sunak’s government as “criminally insane” and stated they will be demonstrating every day at noon from the 20th of November “until the government comes to its senses”.
For the moment, Sunak can count himself lucky that Just Stop Oil’s tactics tend to be unpopular with the public. However, the high number of arrests stemming from their tactics are putting significant pressure on courts, and statements from members indicate no appetite for de-escalation. The prime minister ought to be wary of the likelihood of worsening disruption.
All of this is likely not at the top of Sunak’s priority list. This is the last parliamentary term before the next general election, and after a bruising succession of scandals, the Conservatives’ reputation is in tatters. Polls are consistently predicting they will lose the next election to Labour, and badly.
If Sunak wants to prevent this, he won’t take the kind of economic and political risks that come with ambitious climate policy. Such policies are often unpopular; exactly what he cannot afford to be if he wants to survive. In a premiership defined by risk-aversion, Sunak’s environmental decisions are influenced not by the threat of climate change, but by the threat of political extinction.
Image: Clark395 via Flickr