The contradictions of the UK's renewables sector

28th November 2023


The UK’s renewables industry is being used to extend the life of the sector that is driving us towards climate breakdown. Tom Pashby reports

Illustrations of green energy often show wind farms with turbines turning, accompanied by upbeat music and optimistic images of greenery and low- or zero-carbon technologies. The aesthetics are supposed to inspire hope for a climate-friendly future that has left fossil fuels to the history books.

We have accepted that wind and other forms of low- or zero-carbon power generation will fuel the transition to a net-zero carbon economy. So it might come as a surprise that Norwegian energy giant Equinor’s new Rosebank oil field in the North Sea, which has the potential to delay or stall that transition, was at one stage to be powered by a wind farm on the Shetland Islands.

The fossil fuel sector has recently got into the habit of publishing its attempts to decarbonise – particularly its scope 1 (operational) and scope 2 (supply chain) emissions. Scope 3 covers end-user emissions, such as burning coal, lignite, oil and gas.

In summer 2023, Equinor issued a statement to the UK government in which it said it was considering powering operations at Rosebank with electricity generated by on- and offshore wind turbines on the Shetland Islands.

The situation presents a series of contradictions and muddled priorities. It raises questions about the credibility of trying to decarbonise the fossil fuel sector, given that its massive scope 3 emissions are effectively unavoidable and so avoided in carbon accounting.

It is possible to significantly decrease the fossil fuel industry’s scope 3 emissions by nationalising the sector and imposing conditions on purchase contracts stipulating that fossil fuels are used exclusively to manufacture non-combustion-related products. That would mean eliminating petroleum and diesel, and instead focusing on synthetic materials, plastics, cosmetics, clothing and other polymers.

But that’s not going to happen any time soon because of the money that can still be made in petrol station forecourts, despite the forthcoming ban on new combustion engine cars.

Rosebank potentially being powered by a wind farm doesn’t represent a huge departure from other fossil fuel projects in the UK.

Renewables are increasingly connected to the grid and are subsequently being used to power fossil fuel extraction activities.

Most of us still rely heavily on oil and gas in our daily lives. The electricity grid has substantially decarbonised (away from coal) over the past two decades, in part because of increased use of gas and the expansion of offshore wind.

In the UK and beyond, there is plenty of demand for oil and gas. The brutal economics have convinced the UK government to approve Rosebank, despite protests from its climate advisers about exceeding the carbon budgets set according to the Climate Change Act 2008.

Choosing to abide by the vagaries of economics is just that – a choice. Governments and companies could choose instead to transition quickly to a net-zero and carbon-negative economy. It would require financial investment and taking on some risks. However, the risks associated with not transitioning quickly are far greater, but markets have not priced in those longer-term risks, in part because they expect governments to keep making transitioning a problem for the next government.

We have a values contradiction at the core of these conundrums. Renewables represent an optimistic, progressive, sometimes even liberal image of the type of society we want to live in. Whereas fossil fuels represent regressive, elitist, centralised and traditional values.

Boards of directors, shareholders, employees, law-makers and communities should be considering whether the economics ‘making sense’ is enough of an argument to warrant using renewables capacity to delay the transition to a net-zero economy.

Is it okay that our post-imperial collection of islands, which claims to be a global leader in climate action, can go on as though the climate emergency was a flash in the pan during the 2019 uprising inspired by Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough?

There are skilled professionals working towards a sustainable future across industries and it does them a disservice to use the UK’s renewables industry to extend the life of the sector that is driving us towards climate breakdown.

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