Mounting evidence of the accelerated breakdown of our climate and its human and economic consequences surely means that the game is up for fossil carbon. So why is the UK backtracking on its commitment to a green energy transition? Paul Rogers and Richard Reeve explain how elite interests are simply too entwined with militarised post-imperial geopolitics to challenge fossil fuel interests.
We live in strange and dangerous times. This week, as Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia’s escalating war was justified by the occupation of Ukrainian land by Ukrainian troops, the UK government announced the removal of restrictions in England on fracking, a hugely environmentally destructive, dangerous, expensive and unpopular means to extract fossil carbon, as part of its solution to the global energy crisis.
Far from speeding up the UK’s transition to renewable energy, the new government under Liz Truss seems to be hitting reverse gear, even in the face of massive ecological and economic damage caused by the breakdown of our climate. So why is it that Britain finds kicking its carbon habit so hard?
The climate collapses
We do not have to look hard to see how our global climate is breaking down and harming the planet and its people. In just the last month or two, the evidence has been piling up in dozens of countries, including vast economic costs of failing to act on carbon emissions.
This week, Japan has been struck by super typhoon Nanmadol, with nine million people evacuated from coastal homes. Three years agoa cargo ship in Tokyo Bay dragged its anchor in a typhoon and collided with a major road bridge, putting it out of action for eight months. A subsequent accident report warned that climate change would increase the risk of such disasters and that new safety procedures were necessary.
Last month a new study of the Greenland ice cap concluded that a major rise in sea levels of 27cm is now inevitable even if fossil fuel burning worldwide was to end overnight. That’s terrible news for the 150 million or so people globally who live less than 1m above sea level.
In Spain, a devastating drought is severely limiting harvest prospects with historical research suggesting that some parts of the country are at their driest for 1,200 years. Countries like the UK rely significantly on such food production.
In Germany, the same drought had by mid-August lowered the level of the mighty Rhine river such that some major industries that rely on barge-borne supplies had to cut production. In 2018, the river dropped so low it was not navigable for months.
In France, the temperature of the diminished Rhône and Garonne rivers rose so high this summer that EDF had to reduce capacity at its river-cooled nuclear power plants for safety reasons. In the southwest of the country, extreme heat and drought have resulted in forest fires at six-times the scale of recent years.
China has just registered August as its hottest month ever recorded, and its third-driest. For a nation that relies heavily on massive hydroelectric plants and irrigated agriculture, that is very bad news.
Earlier this year Pakistan was one of a line of countries across South Asia experiencing a heatwave that took temperatures as high as 51°C and the country has now experienced massive flooding, killing 1,300 people so far. It has also displaced a third of a million people, directly affected 33 million across an area of at least two million acres, and caused at least $10 billion of damage. The cause is reported to be monsoon rains made worse by the melting of glaciers in the earlier heatwave.
And in Somalia, spring rains this year were the weakest in 60 years, contributing to a drought and famine across East Africa that has put 22 million people at risk not just of higher food prices but of starvation.
These individual examples are part of a sustained acceleration of the impact of global heating across the world, including record temperatures and extensive droughts in the UK. The climate is changing so fast that a political tipping point has now been reached and political and business leaders in oil and gas production are at last being forced to modify their previous entrenched opposition to decarbonisation.
Beyond the tipping point
It is likely that deep within the bowels of fossil fuel industries there is an understanding that the fossil carbon era is coming to an end and a lot sooner than they had hoped. The challenge for the industry and its political backers is how to handle this challenge while maintaining exceptionally high levels of profitability or electoral support for as long as possible. How can they do this when the whole fossil carbon industry must shrink to a shadow of its current self by mid-century?
What makes it even more difficult for them is that climate scientists are insistent that mid-century is now far too late and that there has to be immediate radical decarbonisation of economies across the world. Their consensus view before last year’s COP26 was for global carbon emissions reductions of 7% per annum through to 2030. But it is already clear that the first two years of that change have been abject failures made worse by the Ukraine War. This means that an 8% per annum reduction through to 2030 is now required.
For the fossil carbon interests this is untenable but public opinion is changing rapidly, meaning that their position is becoming indefensible. Even so, they are helped by two factors which can both divert attention from immediate and radical decarbonisation. One is the current emphasis on adaptation and the other is the role of technical fixes.
On the first, it is natural to concentrate on immediate responses to immediate dangers. These may include improved fire prevention and fire-fighting resources, more water storage, more flood protection, better coastal defences, larger food reserves and many other adaptations. But this carries with it the danger that adequate adaptation is seen as the necessary response – problem solved.
That may also suit fossil carbon interests as well as governments desperate to retain popular support but it doesn’t stop global heating; it just delays its impact a little. It may allow a very short breathing space before global heating overwhelms those very adaptations. And in the Global South, where resources for adaptation are far smaller, that breathing space will of course be far shorter than in rich countries.
The second factor is more subtle and stems from the attitudes of the fossil carbon interests, especially in intergovernmental climate change discussions. Broadly speaking they now tend to accept the reality of global heating but concentrate on arguing for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as the way forward. Indeed, CCS is a key component of the government’s Net Zero Strategy, launched last October by Kwasi Kwarteng. It sounds plausible but makes no sense when carbon capture technologies are many years, if not decades, away from being affordable. For the fossil carbon industries, though, it gives an impression of being on board with the need to change while justifying the consumption of ever more fossil carbon.
Beyond this, though, a third factor has come increasingly into play that is working against the fossil carbon interests. This is the huge potential to accelerate decarbonisation combined with the speed with which renewable energy resources can be exploited.
Take Hornsea 2, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, just off the Yorkshire coast. This has just gone on to full power, the second of three components of an even bigger project. The speed of construction is far faster than a nuclear power station, with Hornsea 1 taking two years to build, Hornsea 2 taking two more, and Hornsea 3 expected to be finished within three more years. The total power generation capacity will be 5 gigawatts (GW), compared with the far more expensive 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset which is taking at least a decade to build.
At the global level, the International Energy Agency reports that:
By 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is forecast to rise more than 60% from 2020 levels to over 4,800 GW – equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined. Renewables are set to account for almost 95% of the increase in global power capacity through 2026, with solar PV alone providing more than half.
This rate of expansion may well be exceeded, partly because of the immediacy of the challenge but even more so because of the decreasing cost.
Moreover, recent evidence from major research programmes at Stanford and Oxford Universities shows that the efficiency of renewable energy systems has improved so much that it makes very good economic sense to accelerate the entire process of decarbonisation.
The Oxford study was undertaken at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Martin School. Prof Doyne Farmer from the School argued that, “Even if you’re a climate denier, you should be on board with what we’re advocating. Our central conclusion is that we should go full speed ahead with the green energy transition because it’s going to save us money.” To describe that as an economic tipping point is no exaggeration.
A climate of collusion
Given all this direct experience of the very real, very now impact of climate breakdown, the scientific consensus that it poses a catastrophic, perhaps existential, risk to humanity, and the growing evidence that a rapid transition to green energy would have economic advantages in almost any scenario, it might seem perverse that the UK government is so resistant to such a transition. This is particularly so as the UK has been a net importer of oil and gas for some years and has a ready market for clean energy exports to much of the rest of Europe.
However, this is to misunderstand the importance of global oil and gas supplies in how the UK understands its own role as a geopolitical actor, and therefore to its ‘national security’, which is to say, its importance to British commercial, political and military elites.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is of the lobbying power of fossil fuel firms over UK politicians. The two largest, Shell and BP, are by an order of magnitude the two largest firms by revenue in the country. In 2021, even before the surge in energy prices, their combined global revenue was equal to almost one-seventh of the value of the UK’s entire economic output (13.7% of GDP) or about 30% of UK government expenditure. While most of this revenue is not taxable in the UK, it does buy them colossal influence over the media, politicians and society, helping them to set the agenda and pace of energy transition.
It is possible – with the ‘right’ subsidies, protectionism and tax breaks – that in future firms rooted in renewable energy production will also achieve such disproportionate economic influence in the UK. But for now, this is far from the case and a myriad of smaller, more localised producers prevails alongside bigger players. Certainly Shell, BP and others are planning to shift their business model towards renewables in the longer term as public pressure mounts for cleaner energy. But for now the major oil companies have a huge incentive to maximise extraction of the fossil fuel reserves they sit on, before they become stranded assets. Given the concentration of such firms on London’s financial markets, this is also a major risk for the UK government and people, whose savings and pension funds are invested there.
The economic weight of fossil fuel firms in the UK is probably unprecedented in any carbon-importing country and betrays the imperial origins of these firms in Borneo, Nigeria, Libya, Iraq, Persia, Oman and other Gulf States. When the UK government talks about UK interests overseas, and its right to project influence and protect them, it is often talking about the assets of these companies. In the aftermath of empire, this all tends to feed the perennial notion of a ‘Global Britain’ that ‘punches above its weight’.
This is also the case in terms of the seaborne supply of oil and, increasingly, liquefied natural gas (LNG) from even those countries where British companies are not principally involved in energy extraction. British military strategy is first and foremost about protection of maritime supply routes, not just to the British mainland but globally. Hence, we retain a disproportionately large Royal Navy explicitly focused on global power projection and a string of military bases close to key maritime choke points: Gibraltar (Strait of Gibraltar), Cyprus (Suez Canal), Bahrain and Oman (Strait of Hormuz), and Singapore (Strait of Malacca).
While the hegemonic role in ‘protecting’ these ‘sea lines of communication’ was passed to the US Navy in the mid-20th century, the Royal Navy’s disproportionate presence still affords the UK geopolitical influence with both producer countries like the Gulf States and major energy-importing countries like Japan, South Korea and parts of Europe. The green energy sector also depends on seaborne flows of commodities, not least rare metals and minerals for batteries and electronic components, but these are far, far smaller in volume and probably less vulnerable to interdiction than bulk energy exports from southwestern Asia. A new geopolitics of clean energy will emerge, but it seems likely that the UK will be a far less significant player in it. Currently, firms from Denmark (whose Ørsted A/S is behind the Hornsea megaproject), Spain and China are way ahead in renewable technologies and production. That’s a discomfiting proposition for politicians used to peddling narratives of the UK’s global role.
The quid pro quo for this ‘protection’ is, well, money. As David Wearing shows in his book AngloArabia, this takes the form of investment back into London’s financial and property markets as well as through massively lucrative contracts for UK military industries, consultancies and contractors. The UK’s near-monopoly military aerospace company BAE Systems depends heavily on such exports to authoritarian fossil fuel states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman and is itself a major lobbyist in Westminster, including through its employment of scores of retired ministers, diplomats, civil servants and military officers.
All this means that there is a dense web of elite commercial, political, bureaucratic, diplomatic and military interests committed to cultivating the wealth of petro-autocracies, as well as an interdependence between those countries’ political stability (i.e. the entrenched power of their ruling families) and the stability of the UK’s economy, based as it now is on the financial sector and property wealth. A rapid shift out of fossil fuels risks not just popping the bubble of British energy companies but also destabilising some of the UK’s wealthiest (and most oppressive) allies, rendering them stranded assets in both economic and geopolitical terms.
We are now in a situation where awareness of the global heating crisis and the urgency of action are intensifying while the powerful fossil carbon interests are fighting rear guard actions to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, they will lose but how soon that happens will be determined by the intensity of lobbying, nonviolent direct action and all the other forms of rapid social change available to civil society.
Given its role in creating and feeding the carbon-dependent, deeply unequal and unjust economic system that is fuelling the climate and ecological crisis, the UK’s transition from addiction not just to burning fossil fuels but to controlling their global extraction and supply will not be a smooth one. Yet the alternative is clearly untenable, even for the UK. And the longer it resists the transition, the worse the ecological and economic consequences are likely to be. The end result needs to be a transformation, not just of the UK energy system, but of some very fundamental tenets of its militarised relations with the rest of the world.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: John Hopwood via Shutterstock: Redundant oil drilling rigs in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland, at sunset.
Richard Reeve is the Coordinator of the Rethinking Security network. He has worked in peace and conflict research in the UK, Africa and Western Asia for over 20 years, including as Chief Executive of Oxford Research Group, Head of Research at International Alert, research fellow at King’s College London and Chatham House, and editor/analyst at Jane’s Information Group.