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UK’s own climate adviser brands government ‘hypocrites’ over North Sea oil and gas

UK’s own climate adviser brands government ‘hypocrites’ over North Sea oil and gas

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LONDON — The U.K. would undermine its international reputation as a climate leader if it goes ahead with a major new oil and gas field, the outgoing chair of the country’s official climate advisory committee said.

John Gummer, the Conservative peer who chairs the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), told POLITICO that the British government’s current stance in favor of expanding production of fossil fuels in the North Sea meant the U.K. had “perfectly properly been called hypocrites.”

The committee advises parliament on progress on emissions targets and was designed as an independent check on the U.K.’s progress.

A government decision is expected within weeks giving the go-ahead to start drilling in the biggest undeveloped oil and gas field in the North Sea, Rosebank.

A green light for Rosebank is likely to prove highly controversial at a time when the future of U.K. oil and gas production in the North Sea has become a major dividing line between the government and the opposition Labour party, which is leading in the polls ahead of a general election expected next year. Labour Leader Keir Starmer has said that his party will block new oil and gas developments in the North Sea if it forms the next government, although he has stressed that no existing licenses will be revoked.

The Rosebank project has already cleared several regulatory stages. Its developers estimate that the field could produce 300 million barrels of oil in its lifetime.

But Gummer said that his committee had concluded that new exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels in the U.K. was “not only unnecessary, but sets a bad example to the world.”  

Energy Secretary Grant Shapps is expected to receive a report on Rosebank from the U.K.’s offshore oil and gas environmental regulator later this month.

Asked what he would advise Shapps to do when the report lands on his desk, Gummer said: “I’d say to him that if you go around the world, we have had a real reputation of leading in this area … [but] since there was any question of extending new exploitation of oil, we have perfectly properly been called hypocrites.”

“We can’t ask other people to restrain their production if we don’t do it ourselves,” Gummer added. “There are no two ways about it.”

Gummer, a former Conservative environment secretary, has served as chair of the CCC since 2012 but will stand down at the end of this month. The independent advisory body was established by the U.K.’s Climate Change Act of 2008 and advises the U.K. and devolved governments on carbon emissions targets.

It regularly updates parliament on progress against climate targets. Its latest annual progress report will be published at the end of June and will include an assessment of the U.K. government’s recent so-called “Green Day” announcements on its strategy for reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Gummer said that the U.K. had made significant progress in the decade since he joined the CCC and had set “extremely good targets” for cutting emissions. However, he said it was “failing fundamentally” in the delivery of those targets, singling out the U.K.’s home insulation strategy for criticism.

“What I’m looking for is a proper policy for people to move from where they are to heating their homes in [a] sustainable way. There is no such policy,” Gummer said. “I’m looking for really tough new legislation about housing, so that we build houses that are fit for the future and which don’t have to be retrofitted at the cost of the people living in it.”

However he also criticized Labour for failing to be explicit about its plans for delivering its own climate targets. The party has said it wants to decarbonize the power sector by 2030, five years earlier than the government’s own target. But Gummer said that the existing target was already “very tough indeed” and warned he was yet to see “the evidence of how you do it more quickly.”

“I’m an ex-politician and I’m always suspicious of promises which do not have proper back-up,” he said. Labour’s pledge on oil and gas production, if followed through, would however be a “step in the right direction,” he added.

Gummer, who served as a minister under Margaret Thatcher, said that his party had proven “much, much more radical” on climate in the past decade than he could have expected, but warned against any “resiling” from net zero goals, adding that there was now a risk that the U.S. and the EU would “seize the opportunities” of green tech investment away from the U.K.

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said that “no decision has been made on Rosebank” and defended what they called the U.K.’s “world-leading position on net zero.”

“We are committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and are cutting emissions faster than any other G7 country whilst keeping the economy growing, with low-carbon sources like renewables and nuclear providing half of the U.K.’s electricity,” the spokesperson said.

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