We’re Still Too Fixated On Oil

April 11, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Is this Government really serious about climate change? We’ve just learnt that it is now lining up behind BP to get a decent-sized chunk of the oil-drilling licences soon to be issued in Iraq. That’s in line with the discovery that Britain is also planning to lay claim to over 1/3 rd of a million square miles of the seabed off Antarctica because of its oil potential.

And the UK is also already developing sub-sea claims on Atlantic oilfields around the Falklands, off Ascension Island, and in the Rockall basin, as well as large tracts in the Bay of Biscay.

Tony Blair’s visit to Gadaffi in 2004 was prompted less by concern about Libyan WMD than by the goal of prising open the huge Libyan oil market. Blair’s red-carpet welcome in Downing Street in 1998 for Haydar Aliyev, the ex-KGB President of Azerbaijan, was designed to secure a £5 billion oil deal for BP, which it duly did. The Government also strongly backed the construction of BP’s $4bn Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan 1,000 mile oil pipeline which is now transporting a million barrels of oil a day of Caspian oil to the UK and the West. Again, Government support lay behind Shell’s massive $20bn Sakhalin Energy gas and oil project in Eastern Siberia (till Russia muscled its way into taking it over in 2006) and Shell’s equally costly Athabascan tar sands project in Alberta, Canada, to extract synthetic oil from oil shales even though extracting it generates twice as much C0² as conventional oil. And of course UK participation in the American invasion of Iraq was at least partly motivated by the goal of securing for BP some significant share in Iraq’s huge still-unexplored oilfields.

This policy of relentless – and extraordinarily expensive – pursuit of the remaining hydrocarbon supplies wherever they may be found across the world is both shortsighted and wholly contrary to any pretensions to be tackling climate change as being the greatest threat facing the planet. It is shortsighted because peak oil – the point at which oil production reaches its global peak before it then steadily declines – is widely expected to be reached some time between 2010-2015. At the same time the global demand for oil, driven mainly by the frenetic growth rate of the Chinese and Indian economies over the last decade and into the future, will continue to rise inexorably and the 1-1.5 trillion barrels of conventional oil that remain will be consumed in some 40 years and perhaps less. Even if the UK could secure a significant slice of the remaining hydrocarbon deposits across the world which, given that the intense competition between the US and China for the same supplies is the biggest struggle driving geopolitics today, must at best be highly optimistic, it is a policy which is absurdly short-term. Oil has no long-term future, and it is madness that so close to its demise we are not at this stage planning much more systematically for a post-oil world.

The policy also ruthlessly exposes the proud boasts that the UK is leading the world in the fight against climate change. While Government is telling people (rightly) to turn off their electronic stand-by buttons and to recycle more, which will have a useful but small effect, it is still cranking up the last enormous reserves of the fossil fuel mania which will have a vastly greater and negative effect. While 10-25% of electricity generation in Europe is derived from renewable sources of energy, and 35-50% in Scandinavia, in Britain – which as an offshore island has more windpower capacity than most of the rest of Europe put together – it is a pitiful 4%.

Still today almost every aspect of energy policy in Britain is driven by the dominating influence of the old fossil fuel industries. The Government is proposing to triple airport capacity by 2030 even though on current trends air travel emissions may well by 2050 equal emissions from all other sectors combined so that even if all the latter were reduced to zero (which is fanciful), there would still be no reduction at all in the hugely excess level of total emissions that already exists today. And since the abolition of the fuel duty escalator in 2000, there has been no policy to discourage use of gas-guzzling and emissions-inflating SUVs except the mild differential in annual car tax between small and large cars which a recent budget increased for SUVs by 80p a week – which is a joke.

Nor has industry, or at least the largest firms, been required to report annually on their greenhouse gas emissions so that the public can see whether they, and particularly the most polluting industries, are making their due and proper contribution to cutting emissions by at least 60% by 2050, as the scientists say is necessary. There was indeed a Government legislative measure to do just that in 2002, but it was dropped at the last moment in order to burnish the Chancellor’s deregulatory credentials with the CBI. Nor, to cut food air miles when produce can be grown locally, are food products required to be labelled with the country of origin and the distance they have travelled to be sold.

There are however two areas where the Government is certainly headed in the right direction. One is the proposal that all new house-building by 2016 should be emissions zero-rated. This is a bold initiative, though it needs to be supplemented with measures to reduce the carbon-rating of existing buildings progressively towards zero. The second is the proposal to introduce a carbon allowance for each family, depending on its size, which will then gradually be reduced year by year, though its date of introduction should be brought forward from 2012.

The ongoing love affair with oil has got to be broken. In 1990, taken as the baseline date for climate change purposes, Britain generated about 160 million net tons of carbon a year. If we are to cut emissions by at least 60% by 2050 (though the scientists are now saying 80% will be necessary), we will have to reduce that to no more than 60 million tons – a reduction of around 2 million tons of carbon every year right through to 2050.

On that basis the total should by now have reduced by some 35 million tonnes compared with 1990. In fact it has reduced by only about 5 million tons. There could be no starker reminder that if we are really serious about stopping catastrophic climate change – in reality, not just in words – then we need as a top priority a blueprint for a zero-carbon post-oil Britain, and we then need to enforce it.

Michael Meacher is the MP for Oldham West and Royton. This article appeared on Compass.

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