“Emergency”: what does it really mean? Ask a group of schoolkids and they’d say blue lights, sirens and serious faces. An emergency is news reporters speaking in urgent voices and police inspectors lit up by flash bulbs. An emergency is a sudden crisis that reaches a climax and then it’s over.

The climate emergency is different. It’s building year on year. Our taps have not suddenly run dry; wildfires are not licking at our front doors; Anstruther and Troon are not underwater, but we are experiencing heat waves and local flooding. Our forests, ecosystems and biodiversity are under stress.

The tangible crisis caused by climate change is still more drastic elsewhere. Western France, California and Australia burning; Bangladeshi families perched on rickety roofs, engulfed in a limitless brown sea; crops failing yet again in Ethiopia and Somalia; the dessicated remains of animals dead from thirst and starvation; millions of refugees on the move. These more dramatic impacts of climate change are happening right now, but at a distance.

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Perhaps this explains why it seems so reasonable just to keep pumping North Sea oil and gas.

Speaking on the radio this week, David Whitehouse the chief executive of Offshore Energies UK (formerly known as Oil & Gas UK) said that “every single credible scenario for reducing emissions has a period of time in the next number of years where we will continue to use oil and gas”.

That’s true. What he didn’t volunteer is that every single credible scenario for reducing emissions also stresses that we have to stop developing new oil and gas projects right now – something OEUK opposes.

This is not the demand of tent-dwelling climate prophets, by the way: it’s coming from the International Energy Agency – an energy industry body. It’s coming from the statutory independent Committee on Climate Change, which calls for a “presumption” against new exploration. It’s coming from a growing list of other countries that have already announced an end to further new projects, including Spain, Ireland and oil-rich Greenland.

And it’s coming from Labour.

Keir Starmer trailed his opposition to new investment in North Sea oil and gas at Davos in January and is due to set out his position formally in a speech in Scotland later this month.

If it happens as billed, then the Labour leader will in effect be taking on one of the most powerful industry lobbies in the world, over the most daunting issue facing humanity. It would be much easier, politically, to fudge it, capitulating to industry-led opposition, but encroaching climate emergency won’t allow it. We simply can’t keep pumping more oil and gas without end.

Naturally the industry opposes this, but don’t expect any slanging matches. It knows that the British public wants government action to limit climate emissions. It knows it has to tread carefully.

The Herald: The future may be electric rather than oil-poweredThe future may be electric rather than oil-powered (Image: free)

The bottom line is clear, though. When Mr Whitehouse was given the opportunity to say he accepted oil and gas extraction in the North Sea must end at some point, he was hesitant, saying only that his sector was committed to ensuring the UK and Scotland met their climate goals.

Strip away the careful presentation and what the oil and gas lobby really seem to want is this: no limits on oil and gas investment and more new developments. This in effect would mean the extraction of North Sea oil well beyond Britain’s rapidly diminishing ongoing needs many decades into the future, leading to untold further greenhouse gas emissions.

No politician who genuinely cared about climate change could ever agree to that.

One argument the industry employs is about energy security. The North Sea oil sector talks about how it provides for about 50 per cent of the UK’s oil and gas needs, but neglects to mention that most oil is exported. Gas exports reached a high last year.

But its main argument is jobs. Mr Whitehouse frames Labour’s policy as “no way to treat” people as if the oil and gas sector were not a massive profit-driven behemoth, but a benign champion of communities speaking out in the face of a treacherous would-be government headed by a dastardly human rights lawyer.

The so-called “cliff edge” characterisation, which implies politicians like Keir Starmer want a sudden end to oil and gas, bears little resemblance to reality.

In truth, under Labour’s plans, existing fields would continue to operate for years to come, though OEUK claims they’d quickly decline.

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That is not to say that there is no threat here to future jobs in the north-east. What we are all waiting to hear is how Labour will ensure the ongoing prosperity of former oil workers when the industry they’ve known does finally end. Unite the union does not pull its punches on this, saying that neither Labour nor any other party has yet committed to the serious amounts of investment needed to ensure a successful transition from oil and gas to renewables. It wants a worker-led transition. But Unite has no trust in the private oil and gas companies either, which it accuses of wanting only to squeeze “every last drop of profit” out of the UK’s remaining oil and gas reserves.

It accepts a transition is coming – it now wants the detail of how Labour will make it work.

This, then, is Labour’s moment. After years of a lukewarm Tory commitment to meeting climate goals, Labour is promising epoch-defining investment in transitioning the UK to being a green energy superpower. The workers must be at the heart of that change.

No industry wants to be wound down before it feels it has extracted maximum economic value from its activities, but oil companies, fat on the profits of the energy crisis, will survive and prosper. It’s been obvious for years that limitations on their activities in the North Sea were coming, but in spite of the conciliatory PR speak, when the moment has come, their approach has been to oppose and resist.

What we can’t do is allow these powerful vested interests the last word on climate change. In finally taking a stand, Keir Starmer is doing us all a favour.