Simon Pirani says at COP26 politicians gave the thumbs-up to more oil and gas
No sooner had politicians signed the Glasgow Climate Pact last month than the US government paved the way for new oil and gas output, by selling $191 million of new drilling licences. ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and 29 other companies bid at an auction for blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area twice the size of Florida.
The sale came after the Joe Biden administration’s moratorium on new drilling was overturned in the courts. Earthjustice said the sale was a “climate bombshell”: if all that production goes ahead, an extra 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.
On the plus side, the UK’s biggest new oil project, Cambo, suffered a blow as Shell pulled out, after forceful mobilisation by climate campaigners. Siccar Point Energy, which owns 70% of the project, said it is pausing work.
Cambo could still go ahead, though, and if it does, that will be thanks in part to the UK’s lavish tax breaks for North Sea producers. Siccar Point says the project is “not forecasted to pay taxes for many years”. The company-friendly tax regime [pdf] means that in 2020 the Treasury collected a paltry £255 million from oil and gas producers, while handing rebates of £39 million to BP and £110 million to Shell.
These tax breaks are just one part of a multi-billion-dollar mountain of subsidies for fossil fuel producers from rich countries’ governments. And those subsidies form the background to COP26’s failure to tackle global heating, and to the decisions made there, which Climate Action Tracker estimates will lead to 2.1-2.7 degrees of warming, far above the 1.5 degree target.
Some politicians claimed the talks were successful, because the Glasgow Climate Pact mentioned the transition away from fossil fuels, which no international agreement has done before. But what a mention. The actual words are that the conference “calls upon [all countries] to “accelerat[e] efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. That passage had started the week as “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”, but was watered down.
The media focused on India, whose environment minister urged the adoption of coal “phasedown” instead of “phase-out”. But far more significant were (i) the phrase “unabated coal power”, which opens the door to the false solution of carbon capture and storage (that will supposedly “abate” carbon dioxide emissions), and (ii) the reference to “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. The idea of “inefficient” is a get-out for the world’s richest nations, the G20 group – who promised in 2009, in a blaze of publicity, to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies and, at the last count (2017-19), were paying $584 billion per year [pdf] of them. And they will themselves decide which billions, if any, are “inefficient”.
The G7 nations, the richest of all, poured $189 billion into coal, oil and gas between January 2020 and March 2021 in their pandemic response packages – outstripping clean energy investments of $147 billion.
These subsidies are a better measure of politicians’ intentions than their words. Other factors to keep in mind are:
- The insistence by rich country governments, the UK included, on supporting domestic oil production that will ensure that the 1.5 degree target is breached
- The support governments give to oil companies greenwashing their investment strategies, by welcoming their representatives to Glasgow – while clean energy’s share of oil and gas companies’ capital investment is 1%, with analysts hoping it will rise to 4%
- The promotion of gas as a solution to climate change, rather than a problem. Increases in gas consumption are incompatible with the 1.5 degree target – but coal-dependent countries in Asia are considering switching to gas. And that makes the big western-owned oil and gas companies happy. The Global Methane Pledge, launched with a fanfare in Glasgow, will underperform, Climate Action Tracker says
- The whole idea of “net zero” – that economies can keep pumping greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use into the atmosphere, since they can be removed later – is music to oil companies’ ears.
Scientists, under political pressure, started including greenhouse gas removal guesstimates in their climate models in the 1990s, to make the politicians’ numbers add up. It meant governments could claim targets were being met. This falsehood has taken on a life of its own, producing a huge illusion factory about carbon removal techniques that will probably never work at scale.
False carbon capture “solutions” were promoted in Glasgow, along with carbon trading schemes under which nations can buy credits, allowing others to pollute, in order to “meet” (ha ha) their own targets. Glasgow audiences also heard inflated claims for hydrogen, another technofix beloved of oil companies.
The UK government stands out as a promoter of these false solutions. Carbon capture and hydrogen, along with electric vehicle manufacture – the decarbonisation effect of which is constantly exaggerated – play major parts in its Net Zero Strategy.
In response, the labour movement should embrace genuinely low-carbon technologies that can achieve zero carbon – not “net zero”, but real zero – in a way that serves people, not fossil fuel companies.