The scientific community have been warning us for decades about the impact of the oil machine on the planet — they are now calling for a radical shift away from reliance on fossil fuels.
A year on from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, the UK’s leading climate scientists have warned that this year’s summer of droughts could become normal by 2035. But is science adequate for making politicians and publics wake up to the need to transform the oil machine?
Long before he became a Professor of Energy and Climate Change, Kevin worked on North Sea oil platforms as an engineer. Nowadays, he advises governments and leaders of the climate movement such as Greta Thunberg.
Such first-hand knowledge of the oil machine makes him dubious of claims by the oil and gas sector that solutions such as carbon capture and storage offer credible routes to radically reduce emissions:
“I’m an engineer, I like technology, I think it can do a lot but we have to think how long it takes to actually put in place and how long it takes to push the incumbents out.”
For Kevin, part of the problem is the gap between government rhetoric and the reality of what it is prepared to deliver, particularly when it comes to radical changes in how the oil machine functions.
He is particularly critical of pervasive ‘greenwashing’ from both industry and policy makers that has encouraged the UK to deceive itself into believing it is a leader in tackling the climate crisis while it continues to defer many of the hard choices:
“We have not done well on climate change, we have not driven the sorts of agendas that we require in public transport or in improving housing quality, we have failed. The one area we’ve been successful is in electricity generation, and that’s because we closed down coal for mostly for reasons that were not to do with climate change, and that was the easy hit. So we should not sit back and rest on our laurels because we don’t have any laurels to rest on.”
Part of the reason for this complacency, he continues, is to do with a common misconception about how far-reaching existing decarbonisation efforts have been.
There has been a deliberate effort, he argues, to conflate the roll-out of renewable electricity generation with “final energy consumption”. Only about twenty percent of the total energy we consume relates to electricity generation, with the remaining eighty percent made up of energy consumed through heating and transport, for example.
“If we are serious again about making this shift to a zero carbon energy system we need to electrify much of our society, that means we’ll probably have to electrify much of our transport network and a lot of our housing. So that’s a huge increase in demand for electricity which does mean we have to have lots more zero carbon power generation in the UK, that will take quite a lot of time to do that.”
Sir David King, the UK’s former Chief Scientific Advisor and Special Representative for Climate Change, believes that radical action is required now:
“I am an optimist. I couldn’t possibly still be working as hard as I’ve ever worked if I wasn’t working optimistically for the future. My nervousness is, I believe that what we do over the next five years will determine the future of humanity for the next millennium.”
The recent summer of extreme heat led Sir David to warn that such conditions will become an average summer by 2035, even if countries stick to their current emission reduction targets.
Coupled with the rise in refugees from countries submerged by rising sea levels, the likelihood for extreme heat events by mid-century is even more bleak:
“We are going to see millions of people dying from heat stress. Areas of the planet will also become unliveable due to heat stress. The series of crises that will begin unfolding mid-century is going to mean the end of the global economy as it is now. And as that comes to an end, emissions will follow very very rapidly. Too late, too late.”
But if the oil machine has become complicit in confusing the terms of the debate about decarbonisation, with policy makers happy to facilitate this greenwashing, what can scientists propose in response?
Drawing on obvious precedents, Sir David thinks that the key to unlocking the end of the oil machine is regulation:
“We all recognise the importance of regulatory procedure. I think the regulatory process is a process which delivers safe lives for us and I’m saying exactly the same here.”
He goes on to call for a wider shift in how human societies and economies operate:
“We need to recognise that the way forward is something that might be called eco-civilisation in which we manage human well-being alongside ecosystem well-being.”
In the face of growing global insecurity and rising energy prices, such radical changes might seem fraught with still greater risks in the short term.
Surely, the oil machine has offered a model for the UK to enjoy a measure of security in terms of its energy supplies? This argument underpins continuing moves by the UK government to expand operations in the North Sea in the face of extreme energy market volatility.
Kevin disagrees. Instead, he argues that the oil machine’s claim to offer stability doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:
“Let’s not pretend that what we’ve had is energy security, what we mean is we’ve had energy security for those of us that can afford the energy, and for the others we haven’t cared about, and that’s in a rich country like the UK. You know, for many other parts of the world, if they can avoid getting locked in to a commodity such as oil and gas which they’ll have to then mostly import with its very large fluctuations in prices, if they can avoid that and go with indigenous renewables then that’ll be much more secure for them.”