4 cases that threaten the UK's climate reputation

The UK is set to host the UN climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021. But while the UK government claims to be a climate leader, it's currently involved in 4 cases that may worsen climate breakdown. Read about the cases.
  Published:  06 Sep 2021    |      4 minute read

The government’s reputation as a credible global leader on tackling climate change is at risk. Several major fossil fuel developments and investments continue to progress through the approval process, at a time when the UK government should be sending a clearer message than ever that we are leading the transition to renewable energy sources and reaching net zero carbon emissions. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made "powering past coal", funding the transition to renewables, and securing net zero targets from other countries the UK’s priorities for the UN climate talks, but we won't be taken seriously if we're not practicing what we preach. A new coal mine might be approved in Cumbria, 800 million barrels of oil could be extracted off the coast of Shetland, the UK is still providing $1.15 billion in funding for liquid gas drilling in Mozambique, fuelling human rights abuses, and ministers are fighting to allow oil drilling to begin in Surrey. 

The government must intervene in these cases as soon as legally possible to stop them progressing any further, and in the longer term introduce changes to the planning system to ensure similar cases don’t arise in the future. If nothing else, it’s just bad politics – these cases feature regularly in the news, and the protracted legal battles eat up airtime and attention which could be used to focus on the government’s positive climate agenda instead. They also undermine the public’s faith in the government to achieve real progress on tackling the climate crisis.

Recent polling showed that 71% of the UK public back more investment in renewable energy (with 7% opposed), 56% want the UK to reduce emissions at a faster pace to set an example to other countries (with 4% opposed), and 51% back ending UK investment in fossil fuels abroad (with 12% opposed).  

These cases undermine our climate reputation abroad, as well as COP26 President Alok Sharma’s climate diplomacy, and we’ve already seen concerns raised through high profile interventions including US Climate Envoy John Kerry and the "godfather on climate change" James Hansen. It’s not too late to cement the UK’s reputation as a global climate leader, and the world is depending on the UK government to ensure that the UN climate talks are a success. 

Whitehaven coal mine

West Cumbria Mining Ltd (WCM) wants to build a new coal mine just south of Whitehaven. Cumbria County Council provisionally granted planning permission in October 2020, but in March 2021 Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick decided to "call in" the proposal, triggering a public inquiry.  The inquiry will start on 7 September 2021 and last around 4 weeks. Friends of the Earth is a main party in the inquiry, alongside local group South Lakes Action on Climate Change, WCM, and Cumbria County Council – who are now neutral on the mine. After the inquiry has concluded, the inspector will make a recommendation in late 2021, with a final decision expected from Jenrick by Spring 2022. 

If the mine is approved, it would be the UK’s first new deep coal mine for 30 years and will produce 2.78 million tonnes of coal per year until 2049.  This coal will be used exclusively to provide coking coal for the steel industry, however less than 10% is intended to be used by the UK steel industry, with the rest exported abroad.  

Cambo oil field

Siccar Point Energy and oil giant Shell have applied to the UK government for permission to drill the new Cambo oil field, 80 miles west of Shetland. Cambo is the second largest undeveloped field on the UK continental shelf, containing a potential 800 million barrels of oil. If approved, drilling would begin next year.  

Phase 1 of the proposed project would seek to extract 170 million barrels of oil - the climate equivalent of running 18 coal-fired power stations for a year. It would continue until 2050, 5 years after Scotland is due to reach net zero emissions. Phase 2 would continue beyond 2050, and aims for "full-field development", in other words, the extraction of all oil. It's estimated that the emissions from burning all 800 million barrels of oil in the field would be 10 times the annual emissions of Scotland. 

Fuelling conflict in Mozambique

In July 2020, the UK pledged $1.15 billion of UK Export Finance (UKEF) to an offshore Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project in Mozambique. Foreign interest and financing for the LNG project has fuelled local conflict and human rights abuses, with communities trapped between Mozambique government-backed forces and mercenaries, and an armed insurgency. Thousands have been killed, almost 700,000 displaced, and many left without homes or livelihoods. 550 families have been directly displaced for the LNG infrastructure via corporate land grabs, and the blocking of access to fishing grounds. 

This project would speed up climate breakdown and devastate the coast. The liquefaction process involved with LNG is incredibly energy intensive, making it even worse for the environment than natural gas drilling. As a result, the potential climate impacts of the project are huge. In addition, the LNG projects will sit on the uniquely beautiful and pristine Cabo Delgado coastline, as well as neighbouring UNESCO biosphere Quirimbas Archipelago. The projects risk polluting and irreversibly damaging these important nature sites. 

In April 2021, Friends of the Earth was given permission to take the government to court, to challenge the decision to invest in the LNG project, via Judicial Review. The hearing is scheduled for 7 December 2021, however the government could at any time decide to withdraw its funding and support from the LNG project. 

Drilling for oil in Horse Hill, Surrey

In 2019, months after declaring a climate emergency, Surrey County Council granted planning permission for an oil development in Horse Hill that would extract 3 million tonnes of oil over 25 years – the burning of which would produce more than 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. 

Friends of the Earth is supporting local resident Sarah Finch to challenge the council’s decision in court. Our case is opposed by the Council and two interested parties: Horse Hill Developments Limited (the Developer) and Secretary of State Robert Jenrick. 

The case is being heard on 16 November 2021. However, the government and Secretary of State Robert Jenrick could at any time decide to withdraw their support from the legal case and the development. The government cannot claim to be a world leader on climate while spending taxpayers money to back a development that would extract 3 million tonnes of oil up to almost the net zero deadline.

At the UN climate talks the UK will be asking other nations to transition away from fossil fuels, submit their own net zero commitments, and provide climate financing for poorer countries. World leaders will not listen to a government that does not have its own house in order.