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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Time to really begin the retreat from fossil fuels?

3/7/2024

6 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Steve Hodgson, set against bright blue background Photo: S Hodgson
Steve Hodgson FEI, Editor-at-large, New Energy World

Photo: S Hodgson

UK judges have decided that we must not ignore the carbon emissions generated by users (Scope 3) from proposed fossil fuel projects when assessing their acceptability. Hardly a radical step and, argues New Energy World Editor-at-large Steve Hodgson FEI, maybe it’s actually time to get radical.

It’s two weeks now since the ruling by the UK Supreme Court that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in granting planning permission for the proposed Horse Hill oil extraction project in Surrey – see our news story– and the Earth doesn’t seem to have shifted on its axis yet. Campaigners have nevertheless suggested that it will be much harder now for any new fossil fuel projects to go ahead in the UK – as their full climate impact will have to be factored into permissions-granting from the start.

 

The Court ruled that Surrey County Council acted unlawfully in granting planning permission for the project by not considering the impact of carbon emissions from the inevitable burning of the oil to be extracted.

 

Environmental campaigners have argued for years that limiting the climate impact of fossil fuel projects to those generated solely at the extraction site, thus failing to include the usually much larger emissions generated from burning the fuel over several years, wherever that takes place, is a fundamentally unfair way to assess the acceptability of such a project.

 

However, the judgement doesn’t necessarily stop even the Surrey project, and developer UK Oil & Gas says it intends to ‘promptly rectify the situation’ somehow. But the company also notes that the ruling underscores why it is currently shifting away from oil and gas projects and towards delivering underground hydrogen storage.

 

Campaigners have suggested that the ruling could also affect development of the proposed Rosebank and Jackdaw offshore oil and gas fields, given that environmental group Greenpeace has existing legal challenges against these projects. The new coal mine proposed for Cumbria could also be affected.

 

Time, and, no doubt, lengthy legal procedures, will tell.

 

Environmental campaigners have argued for years that limiting the climate impact of fossil fuel projects to those generated solely at the extraction site, thus failing to include the usually much larger emissions generated from burning the fuel over several years, wherever that takes place, is a fundamentally unfair way to assess the acceptability of such a project.
 

However, could it be that this case is somehow just part of a hardening of public opinion against the development of new oil, gas and coal extraction projects? Maybe – there does seem to be a new and negative mood out there, perhaps led from the top by UN Secretary General António Guterres in a recent speech that ended with criticism of the behaviour of ‘those in the fossil fuel industry who have shown a relentless zeal for obstructing [climate] progress – over decades’.

 

And can I mention one more time that it’s now more than three years since the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for ‘no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects’ if the world is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, in its landmark Net Zero by 2050 report. Hardly dyed-green environmental campaigners, the UN and the IEA have both said that new fossil fuel extraction projects have no place in international efforts to limit climate change.

 

Here’s where geography comes in. As our news story on the Energy Institute’s own Statistical Review of World Energy says, most of the world’s new fossil fuel projects tend to be located in Asia, rather than Europe or North America, where their use is in long-term decline. But, says the Review, the urgency of the climate emergency requires action to reduce fossil fuel burning across the globe, regardless of location.

 

Preventing the development of new projects is surely the key to this – existing mines and wells probably contain enough fossilised carbon to take care of even a lengthy transition to renewables if the world is serious about limiting climate change. On the other hand, doing so would raise difficult questions about the fair treatment of populations in the Global South that need energy, but have few alternatives to fossil fuels. A massive fossil demand reduction programme within developed economies could help.

 

These are radical views perhaps, but isn’t it time, eventually, to realise that the radical nature of the climate emergency that we no longer anticipate but now experience (not least in the Global South), demands urgent action?

 

There are positive notes in the Review, but it also says at one point: ‘Arguably, at a global level we haven’t even crossed the start line of the energy transition.’

 

Week-by-week, New Energy World is full of stories of a world, mostly led by Europe and North America, gradually transitioning towards clean energy sources and systems. New Energy World and its predecessor Energy World have covered the astounding growth of the renewables industry from tiny beginnings to its position of relative strength today.

 

But, given overall energy demand growth and the urgency of climate change, this has proved insufficient – carbon emissions are still rising. Surely there must also be an acceleration of the retreat from fossil fuels, even though this will still take decades.

 

How could this be achieved? A recent report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development suggests a simple plan, starting with: first – stop issuing oil and gas licences, as there is no room for new fields under a 1.5°C limit. Second – end public finance and subsidies to oil and gas production, using public resources to scale-up clean energy, supporting people rather than fossil. And, third – make national phase-out plans as part of the next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement due to be submitted next year.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.

 

  • Further reading: ‘Transition credits will enable emerging markets to retire coal-fired power plants’. All told, there are over 6,500 coal-fired units in operation across the world, which collectively will emit an estimated 190bn tonnes of CO2 over their remaining operational lifetimes. If the world has any hope of limiting warming to 2°C, it must come together behind efforts to accelerate the retirement of coal plants in emerging markets, argues Joseph Curtin, Managing Director Power, The Rockefeller Foundation.
  • The concept of a ‘just transition’ has increasingly become a compulsory issue for discussion amongst climate policymakers. But what does this mean, and will it really make any difference? How can any organisation or individual align with this process, asks Dean Cooper, Global Energy Lead at WWF.