A Legal Duty to Maximise Greenhouse Gases

Buried in the Infrastructure Bill is an astonishing and hitherto-unnoticed contradiction.

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 26th June 2014

Sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit there and laugh. That’s what happened last week while I was reading the Lords debate on the Infrastructure Bill, and stumbled across something so amazing that I had to go back over it three times to ensure I’d read it right.

The bill, as several peers complained, is an odd one: published before half the measures it will contain have been inserted. This is how democracy works these days: our unelected legislators are asked to debate something they have not yet been allowed to see. So the bombshell I came across isn’t in it yet. But Baroness Kramer, who introduced the legislation, casually dropped it into her preamble.

Before revealing what she said, here’s a little background.

The government of the United Kingdom has a legal duty, under the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse gases by at least 80% by 2050 (against the 1990 level).

This target is threatened, among other issues, by a crashing contradiction: the UK is seeking to reduce demand for fossil fuels, while simultaneously trying to increase supply. Or, as the government puts it, seeking to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas.

Almost all states with fossil fuels are trying to do the same thing. Collectively, this makes their promises to prevent climate breakdown impossible to meet. In 2011, Carbon Tracker pointed out that if we are to run a good chance of generating no more than two degrees of global warming, we should consume a maximum of 565 gigatonnes of carbon. But the carbon in the world’s proven reserves of coal, oil and gas amounts to 2,795 gigatonnes.

Preventing climate breakdown means leaving most fossil fuels in the ground.

How do governments resolve this contradiction? By ignoring it. Our ministers go around the country urging people to consume less, while publishing white papers urging oil companies to produce more.

There’s never a word of acknowledgement that the two policies are at odds. When you raise the issue, ministers won’t listen, won’t respond, won’t debate. Were they to do so, their pretence of action would collapse.

It’s the same the world over. The only recent exception I’ve come across is in Norway, where a motion proposed by the Green Party was debated in parliament on June 5. It called on the government to stop the next licensing round for oil extraction, on the grounds that it’s incompatible with Norway’s climate change targets. Three MPs supported the motion and 95 voted against it.

By comparison to what happened in Westminster last week, this outcome was positively enlightened.

In her introductory remarks, Baroness Kramer explained that the government had commissioned a report on the future of the oil industry from Sir Ian Wood.

Who is Sir Ian Wood? He’s a billionaire who made his money from the family company he inherited, the Wood Group. It provides services (engineering, construction, repairs) for the oil and gas industry.

This is how government reviews work. You appoint the former head of the National Farmers’ Union to decide what the future course of farming policy should be, and his report concludes that there should be a bonfire of regulations. You appoint an oil billionaire to decide what the future of the oil industry should be, and his report concludes that the government should develop “a new strategy for maximising economic recovery from the UK Continental Shelf”. You appoint Count Dracula to advise on the privatisation of the bloodbank, and … you get the picture. Then you give due and weighty consideration to their disinterested opinions.

In other words, you appoint the person who will provide the answer you want. Then you can claim that the decision you made before the review was commissioned is the outcome of rational enquiry by independent experts.

After explaining the results of Ian Wood’s review, Baroness Kramer revealed that the government had accepted his recommendations in full. Then she dropped her bombshell. The government now plans

“to introduce measures in the Bill to put the principle of maximising economic recovery of petroleum in the UK into statute.”

Into statute. Maximising the production of crude oil will, if the bill is passed, become a legal requirement.

So the government, which has a statutory duty under the Climate Change Act 2008 to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, will have a statutory duty, under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to maximise them.

The same person, the secretary of state for energy and climate change (currently Ed Davey), will be charged with implementing both policies. Without his head exploding.

Don’t you just love the joined-up thinking?