Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The British Government is Fuelling Climate Disaster

As the climate crisis worsens, Britain's government continues spend billions propping up the fossil fuel industry by funding oil and gas extraction that harms poorer nations in the Global South.

Who should lead on climate change? Governments from around the world are meeting in Madrid to “take the crucial next steps” to halting the climate crisis at COP 25 (Conference of the Parties – the major international meetings on climate change). But fossil fuel giants are just as responsible for climate breakdown as inactive governments. Recent Guardian research shows that 20% of firms are behind a third of global emissions.

Next year’s COP will be held in Glasgow in December, when all eyes will be on the UK’s climate politics. Having pledged a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 (a date that needs to be brought forward), the country shows at best mixed progress towards meeting domestic emissions reductions outlined in the Paris agreement.

There is one sector which is largely seen as a success; the UK’s energy sector has seen rapid transformation in the last 10 years. The UK is phasing out coal by 2025 and this year was the first time that for a full quarter, more electricity was generated from renewables than from fossil fuels.

But climate change is a global problem, and the UK’s responsibility for fixing it extends far beyond its own borders. The UK has been disproportionately responsible for historic emissions. Moreover, the climate crisis and its impacts are intrinsically linked with all kinds of intersecting structural injustices, including racism, sexism and class. Addressing the root causes of the climate crisis therefore requires confronting our own role in economic exploitation and global capitalism, and the oppressive structures it creates.

With the climate emergency finally taking up more space at the political table, a government-led approach to transition like a Green New Deal is essential. It can deliver both decarbonisation and social justice at home and abroad. To do so, it must address the conflict between cleaning up our own energy emissions, while helping UK companies extract fossil fuels overseas. These things should not happen at the same time. However, UK policymakers have been allowing exactly that in the last 60 years, as research from the Architectural Association Landscape Urbanism programme, in collaboration with the New Economics Foundation, shows.

The student-led research project studied how UK landscapes have been changing during the past and present energy transitions. Moreover, it looked at how changes made inside the country – by its government and companies – have been impacting landscapes abroad.

One key contemporary question that arose was “how the “greening” veil of a just transition hides the [continued support for] business as usual in resource extractions in the Global South”. To answer this, the researchers created a GIF to visualise the extent of UK-financed fossil fuel extraction abroad.

Image credit: Elena Luciano Suastegui, Yasmina Yehia and Rafael Caldera.

Each gold arrow radiating from the globe represents active or planned concessions for overseas oil and gas exploration financed by companies headquartered in London, covering the time from 1960 to 2020. The data used for the map comes from the official sites of BP, Shell, and AngloAmerican, as well as from the FracTracker Alliance, Asbury, and Izquierdo Izquierdo.

The visual shows clearly how UK overseas oil and gas exploration has grown over time, with more and more points expanding in circles surrounding the globe. It also presents the dynamics of the future concessions as an expanding process up to 2020.

The map uses the Polar Azimuthal Equidistant Projection, which puts North America and Europe—the global North—at the front and centre. This focus is intentional, highlighting that the UK and its geopolitical neighbours have been responsible for changes in production in the global South. They are at the geographical centre of large-scale energy exploitation overseas, which fuels the highly consumerist global North, and with financial gains going to the global North. The emissions however, affect everyone.

Each white point popping up at the time “2020+” is a future site of mineral extraction needed for renewable energy production (not necessarily financed by London, as they are hypothetical). Data for this is from the IISD green conflict minerals online map – including sites where Bauxite, Alumina, Lithium and Molybdenum can be found. The size of the circles represents the reserves according to million tons. They pop up all over the globe, particularly in resource-rich countries of the South – again to support green transitions in the North.

This shows how easily the focus on greening our economy at home can distract from the global picture. If the trajectory of 1960-2020 remains unchanged, there is a real risk of a continued resource colonialist empire centred in the North, fuelling resource scramble and “green conflict” in the South.

The UK government can’t have it both ways – aiming for net zero at home while using our taxes to finance dirty energy abroad. Last year alone, UK Export Finance committed a shocking £2bn of tax money towards overseas fossil fuel investments. No wonder a 2019 report by the Environmental Audit Committee called UK Export Finance “the elephant in the room undermining the UK’s international climate and development targets.”

The government has to stop supporting overseas oil and gas exploration with taxpayer money, and should pass legislation to stop this from happening in the future. UK policymakers need to take a global approach with global responsibilities if they want this transition to be just – and if they want to be taken serious as climate leaders when hosting COP 26 next year.

About the Author

Christiane Heisse is an Assistant Researcher at the New Economics Foundation.

Elena Luciano Suastegui is a Mexican geoscientist and landscape urbanist working in academic environmental research and its translation through territorial design.

Yasmina Yehia is a landscape architect with an MSc in landscape urbanism from Architectural Association school of architecture. Currently working on investigative research related to human and environmental injustice caused by cement factories in Lebanon.