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Does the decision to explore for more oil and gas take us backwards in our quest for net zero?

The United Kingdom has long been a pioneer in addressing environmental challenges and transitioning towards a greener future and, after hosting COP 26 in Glasgow, the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) ambition was expanded to generally positive reviews.

However, recent developments have left many concerned that we are now going backwards.

The UK government's decision to agree more oil and gas licenses in the North Sea has sparked heated debates and raised questions about the country's commitment to combating climate change.

This comes on the back of the already contentious decision late last year, to allow a new coal mine in Whitehaven in Cumbria – the first in the UK for over 30 years.

This is undoubtedly a contentious move that has polarised opinions.

Martin Fahey Green Martin Fahey Head of Sustainability

Why this and why now?

In the face of mounting pressure from the oil and gas industry and concerns over energy security, as well as shorter-term electoral concerns, the UK government has made the contentious choice to expand oil and gas exploration.

This move comes as a surprise to many, given the UK's ambitious climate targets and commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the primary concerns surrounding this decision is its potential impact on the UK's efforts to combat climate change, and how we as a country will play our full part in this fight.

By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, the country risks exacerbating the global climate crisis and undermining its own emission reduction targets.

Critics argue that the focus should be on accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources rather than doubling down on carbon-intensive industries.

They have also decried the claim that this is about energy security and the cost-of-living crisis as the new fields won’t come online for a decade and over 80% of any fuel will go straight to the global market.

Leading from the rear

Wherever you stand on the issue, it is undoubtedly a contentious move that has polarised opinions.

As a nation we should be at the forefront of the fight against climate change, with the UK prioritising sustainable alternatives in supply and demand, and accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources.

Many other nations have used the fact that the UK was the first to sign legally binding targets as a clear demonstration of the way things were moving globally and this has helped them win environmental arguments in their own country.

But this new decision to search for new oil and gas fields in the North Sea is a retrograde step that will embolden the climate sceptics and bring calls of hypocrisy from other countries, especially the less well developed and often poorer ones.

It is a backward step that harms our global reputation as a leader in the battle against climate change.

Is this the wrong discussion?

The green energy sector has already shown immense potential for job creation and economic growth, despite it sometimes appearing that the government has tied one hand behind industry’s back.

Witness the growth in wind generation and the impact this has had on decarbonising the national grid. All this has come about despite the government refusal to increase onshore wind turbines and much of this growth has had to come from more expensive fields of turbines built out at sea.

Yet if we can redirect investments into renewable technologies, the UK could simultaneously safeguard employment opportunities while contributing to a more sustainable economy and a more secure energy system.

We already know there is a lot of work to be done improving the thermal properties of millions of UK homes and businesses, which would immediately create thousands of jobs.

And even the government has recognised the potential from renewables by setting a target of 600,000 annual heat pump installations by 2030.

Yet there are no co-ordinated incentive schemes for insulating homes or nationally-recognised training programmes for heat pump installers to get the nation on the fast-track to net zero.

The construction industry has a part to play in all of this and at Mitsubishi Electric we are training over four times as many heating engineers as we were before the pandemic.

But public opinion also plays a crucial role in shaping government policies, so we can only hope that opposition to this decision grows and the government once again considers putting the long-term interests of its citizens and the planet first.

By investing in clean technologies and supporting green industries, the UK can lead by example and inspire other nations to follow suit in the collective effort to combat the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for generations to come.

Martin Fahey is Head of Sustainability