Just over three weeks from now, King Charles will make the keynote address at the crucial Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, urging heads of government from around the world to act decisively on the climate emergency before it is too late.
But on Tuesday morning, the king opened the UK’s new parliamentary term by reading out his government’s plans for new oil and gas drilling licences in the North Sea despite warnings from the world’s energy watchdog that new exploration will push the world beyond the 1.5C climate limit.
The first king’s speech in 72 years was crafted not by the palace but by the government. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has made clear for months his determination to “max out” the fossil fuel reserves of the North Sea. The new legislation announced by the king will allow for new rounds of North Sea licensing to be held each year.
But this is clearly contrary to expert advice. The International Energy Agency, at the request of the UK before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, warned in 2021 that no such expansion could take place anywhere, to stay within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
What is equally significant – and this will not be lost on the king – is that Sunak’s much-trumpeted new legislation will achieve almost nothing because there was already nothing standing in the way of new licences for the North Sea. Ministers have been at liberty to hold licensing rounds at any time, and have done so.
So what is the point? “Pure politics,” said Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the Green Alliance thinktank. “It puts Labour on the spot.” Labour has pledged to award no new licences in the North Sea if elected, but will honour those already granted. Some trade unions are unhappy with this stance, putting pressure on the party’s leader, Keir Starmer.
Sunak also contends that the UK needs new home-produced fossil fuels. The government says key “climate tests” will have to be met, including that the UK is importing fossil fuels and that North Sea oil and gas is extracted with lower emissions than those from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG).
These claims don’t hold much water. LNG is a poor comparison, as it has higher emissions than more likely import sources, such as gas from Norway. The government admits that new drilling will not reduce energy bills. Most of all, the North Sea has long been in steep decline: production will drop by about 95% by 2050 even if “maxed out”.
Tessa Khan, the executive director of campaigning group Uplift, said: “This government’s obsession with oil and gas is making people in this country poorer and colder, all just to please a handful of multinational fossil fuel firms. Big oilfields like Rosebank, which will see most of its oil head abroad, won’t even bring in tax revenue, thanks to the vast subsidies this government is giving the industry to develop fields.”
The UK’s insistence on producing new oil and gas while claiming to be a “world-beating” climate champion – based on emissions reductions made decades ago – boosts countries that want to continue their own much bigger fossil fuel operations.
If the prime minister is trying to win votes, green Tories are doubtful. Sam Hall, the director of the Conservative Environment Network, told the Guardian: “Oil and gas is one of the least popular parts of the government’s energy policy. A major political focus on new exploration could undermine voters’ perception of the Conservatives’ commitment to climate action before the general election. It could also overshadow efforts to promote the party’s positive record on renewables, which is not widely known and significantly more popular.”
There are plenty of other ways to improve energy security, from boosting renewable generation to insulating draughty homes. If ministers were serious about reducing the carbon content of oil and gas, they could ban flaring and venting from North Sea operations, which they have refused to do.
We will never know what the king really thinks of Sunak’s climate policies, or what is said in their weekly meetings. Charles has been a champion of environmental stewardship for more than 50 years and his global reputation is what led the United Arab Emirates, host of Cop28, to honour him as one of the foremost voices at the summit’s opening.
When the king speaks at Cop28, his listeners – scores of heads of state and government, hundreds of ministers and high-ranking officials from 198 countries and hundreds of millions of people around the world – will know that the prime minister of the UK, and his governing party, are sending an entirely different message.