This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

COP26 feels like a lifetime ago.

At the summit on the banks of the Clyde, the UK Government’s Alok Sharma looked pretty distraught when the Indian government changed key wording of the ‘Glasgow Agreement’.

A deal for world leaders to agree to “phase out” fossil fuels had been watered down to “phase down” the polluting single-use fuels, such as coal, oil and gas.

Mr Sharma, the president of COP26, looked visibly upset by the setback.

Two years ago, when the climate crisis was centre-stage in Scotland, the UK Government, at least with its optics, cared about the climate crisis.

Boris Johnson, whatever you think about his politics, at least said the right things on whether the climate emergency needed attention.

Politically, it was seen as a good thing to be backing net zero – with the added bonus that there’s a lot of money to be made in some of the solutions to the climate crisis.

But something has changed in the water of late.

It is no surprise that a Tory UK Government is bucking the trend of international governments across the globe by refusing to turn their backs on fossil fuels.

It is no surprise that carbon capture, a tech solution that allows oil and gas to continue being extracted, yet to be tested on a commercial scale, is proudly being shouted about.

But where previously, No10 at least superficially perhaps, said the right things about the climate, it now is flirting with rolling back sustainability in order to win votes.

The optics of Rishi Sunak’s visit to Scotland to announce his funding, 18 years late, for the Acorn carbon capture project, was all about the big fossil fuels producers.

Mr Sunak met journalists, very briefly, during his visit to Shell’s base at St Peter’s Port near Peterhead – on a day he also announced that 100 new oil and gas licences in the North Sea have been approved.

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A general election is coming, and it looks like Mr Sunak is set to lose his job, should the polls be believed.

The party clung onto Mr Johnson’s old seat at a by-election earlier this month, having overwhelmingly lost the other two seats up for grabs.

Both the Conservatives and bizarrely Labour have blamed the loss on London mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra low emission zones, a key part of the English capital’s bid for net zero and to protect public health.

Mr Sunak was shouting about how he was on the side of motorists this week and we can expect more anti-climate policies that will ring with voters ahead of the general election.

But ignoring the United Nations, climate scientists and energy experts warning that no new oil and gas licences should be issued is a political gamble as well as betting on the climate.

It will likely work on a local level in the north east.

Oil and gas workers will be reassured of the investment in the industry, alongside the carbon capture proposals, and Tory politicians in the region will be shouting about the priority up to next year’s general election.

But on a wider basis, it is unlikely to shift much public opinion.

A poll last week showed that public attitudes to the ultra low emission zone support the policy and most people know the dangers posed by the climate crisis and expect action from politicians.

The argument made by Mr Sunak and his government to justify granting oil and gas new licences is that the fuel will still be needed by the UK in 2050. This is true.

The Herald:

But what is also true is that the UK Government is sitting on its hands in trying to bring down our demand and need for oil and gas. Home insulation and sustainable transport are just two areas that are being ignored that would lower our consumption of oil and gas.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack made the case that oil and gas is needed for when the wind isn’t blowing, and there is some truth in that wind power is not constant.

But other renewable solutions, such as tidal and wave power, are reliable and can be predicted.

The problem is that the government is yet to back those technologies, leaving it at the back of the queue for being scaled up.

Most of the Western world, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is looking to renewables as the solution to reliance on Putin’s oil and gas.

Luckily for the UK, very little of our energy is tied to Russia.

But the UK is playing an energy security argument for why we need to drill for more fossil fuels in the North Sea.

However, a large chunk of the remaining reserves in the North Sea is oil that has no purpose in the UK’s domestic market – with the majority of it likely to be exported overseas.

The controversial Rosebank development is a prime example of a resource that will mostly be exported.

What is clear is the economic benefits, albeit short-term, of taking every drop of oil and gas from the North Sea. 

The decision to open up the North Sea and extract fossil fuels, ignoring climate experts who have repeatedly warned this is asking for trouble, appears to be primarily an economic decision.

With the election looming and an apparent pushback against net zero by the Conservatives, maybe by the time we get to polling day, the party of government in Westminster will finally fess up and own it.

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