The UK’s ‘green day’ has turned into a fossil fuel bonanza – dirty money powers the Sunak government | George Monbiot
Money for the criminals, prison for the heroes: this, in brief, is the government’s climate policy. If something is damaging to the public interest, it’s likely to be rewarded and subsidised. If it’s beneficial, it will find itself in a hostile environment.
This government represents the denouement of the Pollution Paradox: as dirty money has the greatest incentive to invest in politics, it comes to run the whole system. Across these 13 years of misrule, we have seen the perversities of Conservative government multiply and intensify.
Thursday was supposed to be “green day”, when the government, forced to act by a court ruling, would unveil a new, more detailed plan for achieving net zero emissions. Instead, the occasion has been rebranded “energy security day”.
Rather than announce the comprehensive change required to defend Earth systems, Rishi Sunak’s government will defend the fossil fuel industry from its competitors. It is likely to set no meaningful new green targets: instead, it will pump money into false solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, which has not materialised at scale for 20 years and never will. This fabled technology’s purpose is to justify fossil fuel extraction, on the grounds that “one day” the carbon emissions could be buried. Sunak will also promote “sustainable aviation fuel”, though there is, and can be, no such thing.
Worse still, he is likely to announce the licensing of a huge new oilfield: Rosebank. Its development, by the Norwegian state company Equinor, will be almost entirely subsidised by the UK’s tax relief for new oil and gas development. While Sunak will doubtless justify this generosity by claiming that it helps secure our future energy supplies, 80% of the oil the field produces is likely to be exported.
This tax relief is a massive but little-known scandal. The government hands back 91p out of every pound it harvests from the energy profits levy, to fund oil and gas investments. It thus creates a major incentive for fossil fuel companies to open new wells. Yet the science is clear: if we are not to push global heating past 1.5°C, there can be no new fossil fuel development. Almost 60% of oil and fossil gas reserves must be left in the ground to permit just a 50% chance of preventing this degree of heating. For a higher chance of averting planetary disaster, more or less all of them should remain unexploited. The countries that should move first are the richest ones, which have the greatest capacity to invest in alternatives.
Amazingly, no such generosity is extended to the development of new renewables. They must survive the market forces the Tories claim to celebrate, but mysteriously suspend when it comes to their favoured (ie filthy) industries. There is no equivalent investment relief from the electricity generator levy that renewable power must pay when prices are high, which incidentally stands at 45%, in contrast to the 35% levy on oil and gas.
There is neither a moral nor a business case for this outrageous policy, which protects a dying industry against clean technologies. The new oil and gas fields for which it pays will start producing only when all such fossil fuels should have been retired. This incentive, and others like it, has nothing to do with energy security. Like the PPE procurement scandal, it’s just a gift to favoured interests.
While the government splashes money around like an arsonist with a petrol can, it has done almost nothing to reduce energy demand. Its general funds for improving the energy efficiency of our homes – the green deal loan scheme and the green homes grant scheme – were destroyed by the breathtaking incompetence and nihilistic vandalism that have become Conservative hallmarks.
The continued absence of a coherent insulation policy is almost impossible to believe. The government is, however, uncharacteristically happy to keep supporting household energy bills. Why? Because these discounts encourage us to consume more gas. Never mind that the heat they pay for, in the leakiest homes in western Europe, pours straight through our roofs and walls.
Scandalously, homes being built today will need to be expensively retrofitted to meet the government’s net zero obligations. If they were built right, properly insulated, with heat pumps instead of gas boilers, the extra cost would amount to an average of £4,800. But because the government has allowed the construction industry to save money, they will need to be upgraded at an average cost of £26,300. In the meantime, those who buy them must also spend more on energy.
Elsewhere in Europe, heat pumps are becoming standard. In Norway, two-thirds of households use them, and gas fitting is almost extinct. Even in Poland, scarcely renowned for climate policies, sales more than doubled last year, to over 200,000. In Italy, 500,000 were sold in 2022. Yet in the UK, we bought only 60,000, one tenth of the government’s “ambition”. Why? Because there are no incentives. The money that might have been spent on them has gone instead to the oil and gas companies.
There are similar failures, powerfully documented in the report by environmental organisation Zero Hour, in every field: surface and air transport, business emissions, land use, marine carbon. The government has failed to upgrade its greenhouse gas policies in the light of new science, failed to include emissions from imported goods, failed to account for aviation, shipping and trawling. It has awarded the UK more than twice its global share of greenhouse gases, even under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s global carbon budget calculations, which are far too generous to the rich nations.
Such perversities are baked in. They are not an accidental outcome of Conservative politics, but the reason for this government’s existence. The Tories were always close to dirty money. Now they represent nothing and no one but the most destructive and inhumane commercial interests, which reward them handsomely for the favour. They are, to a remarkable extent, bankrolled by petro-capital. Dirt is the fuel on which their election machine runs.
The government’s destructive policies will break its own laws, leading to more legal trouble. Like Donald Trump, it will revel in every adverse ruling, using them both to demonstrate its loyalty to filthy capital and to provoke the outraged reactions on which it thrives. For Sunak and his chums, this is a game, played for political advantage. For those who understand the implications, it’s a matter of life and death.
George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist