Oil and gas are “not the problem” for the climate, but the carbon emissions arising from them are, the UK’s net zero minister has told MPs.
In words that suggested the UK could place yet more emphasis on technologies to capture and store carbon, Graham Stuart said fossil fuel production was not driving climate change, but demand for fossil fuels, in a bullish defence of the government’s much-criticised stance.
“I don’t think supply is the key driver – it is demand we need to focus on,” said Stuart, who will attend the Cop28 UN climate summit that begins later this month, where the future of oil and gas production will be under scrutiny.
Earlier this week, in the king’s speech, the government set out plans for new oil and gas licensing in the North Sea, which opposition parties and green campaigners said ran contrary to the UK’s climate goals.
Stuart said the UK had “no problems” on climate policy and was leading the world, in response to questioning from parliament’s environmental audit committee on Wednesday.
“If you really care about climate change, the last country you need to worry about is the UK,” he told MPs. “We are not the problem, it’s encouraging others to follow us on the net zero pathway, that is the biggest challenge.”
The UK’s statutory advisers, the committee on climate change (CCC), have warned that the UK is not on a pathway to meet its net zero goals. However, Stuart said the CCC had found aspects of climate policy that were improving.
A group of more than 80 countries, including the UK, called for the phaseout of fossil fuels at the Cop27 UN climate summit in Egypt last year, and are expected to make the same demand at Cop28 in Dubai.
However, Stuart’s comments to the committee raised questions over whether the UK would take such a strong position this year.
He told MPs: “There is nothing fundamentally wrong with oil and gas, it’s emissions from oil and gas that are the problem and that we must focus on.”
Focusing on emissions rather than fossil fuels is regarded as a distraction by many campaigners, or as cover for relying on technology for carbon capture and storage, which is not yet used at scale and may never be.
Jamie Peters, climate coordinator at Friends of the Earth, said: “Thank goodness Graham Stuart has enlightened us that there are no fundamental problems with continuing to back oil and gas, because it’s only the government’s own climate advisers, the International Energy Agency and the world’s top scientists who’ve strongly stated otherwise.”
Ami McCarthy, political campaigner at Greenpeace UK, called Stuart’s remarks “laughable”.
She said: “This government is completely failing on both supply and demand. It scrapped its own energy efficiency taskforce that was established to reduce demand through schemes like insulating our heat-leaking homes and upgrading boilers.
“To put the blame on demand from consumers, who have been left unsupported by this government, is a new low for a Conservative party who are hell bent on attempting to Graham Stuart to sow division.”
Robbie MacPherson, political lead at the campaigning group Uplift, said the government was not a world leader on the climate while it was pursuing the expansion of fossil fuels.
“Greenlighting fields like Rosebank tells the world that the UK cannot be trusted in phasing out fossil fuels at exactly the time we need the world to come together at Cop28 to make progress on this issue,” he said.
“The UK has been and can again be a world leader in reducing emissions but for that to happen the government must rapidly end its political game playing on oil and gas.”
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