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Climate crisis: UK carbon emissions fell by just 10% over 2020 despite pandemic

Harry Cockburn
·4-min read
A jack-up rig performs work-over operations on a gas well (Getty)
A jack-up rig performs work-over operations on a gas well (Getty)

Despite the enormous impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left swathes of the economy closed or barely able to function for much of the year, UK carbon emissions only fell by 10.3 per cent over 2020, new figures indicate.

The fall in emissions, reported by industry body Oil and Gas UK, came as UK energy demand decreased by 12 per cent over the first three quarters of 2020, largely as a result of lockdowns and other impacts due to the virus.

Meanwhile the economy is estimated to have contracted by more than 11 per cent.

In its report, OGUK said: “These relatively small emission reductions, which resulted from significant economic and personal hardship, underline the challenge and opportunities faced by governments in delivering a sustainable recovery through lower carbon energy and industrial processes.”

OGUK has urged the government to act quickly to secure a green recovery.

OGUK chief executive Deirdre Michie said: “Today's report highlights that we have a unique opportunity for the transition towards a lower-carbon future to be homegrown in this country and potentially exported across the world.

“2020 has been an incredibly challenging year for the oil and gas supply chain as it faced both the well-documented impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent decline in demand for energy.”

The report also indicates 85 per cent of OGUK members expect to increase diversification into non-oil and gas activities during the next 12-24 months due to the current market conditions, which are unfavourable for fossil fuel investments.

The UK government has a net zero carbon emissions target of 2050, while the Scottish government plans to cut all greenhouse gases to this rate by 2045.

In November, Boris Johnson said his government’s plans for a “green industrial revolution” offered the world a “template for tackling global climate change” and announced the UK will spend £4bn of new money pursuing a 10-point plan of environmental policies.

The sum was excoriated as “beyond inadequate”, by the Green Party, and pales in comparison to the government’s £27bn road building programme.

The government’s plan includes banning the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030, planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year, supporting wind power, encouraging cycling and better insulation for buildings, and optimism that the nascent carbon capture, utilisation and storage industry will allow existing fossil fuel-burning companies to continue their activities, albeit with less environmental impact.

The independent Climate Change Committee has told the government £30bn a year is needed every year for 30 years to meet the legally-binding net zero emissions commitment by 2050.

Despite the worsening climate crisis, and after decades of profits and pollution, the oil and gas industry body said the sector needed further “support”, in order to “come of age”.

Ms Michie said: “Our Economic Report 2020 shows that oil and gas produced in the UK will continue to support energy security in the decades to come, but as part of a changing and cleaner energy mix.

"With the right support, this industry can truly come of age and continue to make a positive contribution in this new energy landscape.

"However, our report makes clear that reaching this positive future will require working in the here and now to protect the jobs and companies needed to bring our climate ambitions to life.”

But Green Party energy spokesperson Andrew Cooper said it was essential to “accelerate our transition away from fossil fuels”.

He told The Independent: “The fossil industry seems to have shifted from denying the existence of climate change to portraying themselves as part of the solution. If they had spent less time and money distorting the public debate we may not have ended up in this climate emergency.

“This year has been unlike any other because of Covid-19 but we also need to make it a turning-point in the climate emergency. That means accelerating our transition away from fossil fuels to reach net zero carbon as rapidly as possible.

“This must be a just transition for all, based on government investment to create good-quality jobs in all our communities insulating homes, building low-carbon transport infrastructure, and maximising the carbon capture potential of our land.”

He added: “Oil and gas is not part of a true green recovery, but a just transition would ensure that workers are able to utilise their skills in all areas to decarbonise every sector of our economy.”

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