The current UK Government has granted hundreds of new licences for further exploration of North Sea oil and gas, and plans to continue granting new ones in the years to come, stating “we will need oil and gas even as we reach net zero in 2050”. It cites increasing the UK’s energy security as a key reason for this move, along with protecting jobs, and says that emissions reduction will be enabled through additional deployment of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS). Seventeen companies were offered a total of 24 licences in the second tranche of the 33rd oil and gas licensing round on 31 January 2024.

Can burning more oil and gas be compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C?

The main driver of the global warming that is causing climate change is the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the combustion of fossil fuels. It is now well established that most of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves will need to remain unburned if there is to be any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement’s objective of keeping average global warming to ‘well below 2oC’ and as close to 1.5oC as possible. To keep warming below 2oC globally, 33% of the oil reserves, 49% of the gas reserves and 82% of the coal reserves identified by 2015 (the year the estimation was made) would need to remain unburned up to 2050, even with extensive use of CCUS technology. To keep warming to a maximum of 1.5oC, the proportions of reserves that must remain unburned are higher still: 58% of oil, 56% of gas and 89% of coal reserves identified by 2021 (the year the estimation was made).

Existing fossil fuel infrastructure alone, if used to its full extent, would cause three times the emissions as the global carbon budget consistent with a 50% chance of staying below 1.5oC. This was the rationale used by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2021 Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, which states “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required”. Production from new oil and gas fields in the UK runs contrary to this conclusion. To be compatible with the 1.5oC target requires the emissions from the burning of new fossil fuels to be offset by even greater removals of CO2 later this century, but being able to remove CO2 on this scale may not be possible to deliver, given the unproven capabilities of new and yet-to-be developed technologies and the significant pressure that they are expected to place on land, biomass and energy systems.      

What are the implications of continued drilling in the North Sea for climate policy?

There is no evidence that new UK production will displace other oil and gas production from elsewhere. Rather, it will just add to what is already a very large over-supply of oil and gas in relation to the Paris Agreement targets. The Climate Change Committee – the independent advisory body to the UK Government on climate change mitigation and adaptation – has concluded that while the UK will continue to need some oil and gas until it reaches net zero, “this does not in itself justify the development of new North Sea fields”. Indeed, if all oil- and gas-producing countries were to follow the UK’s example and ‘max out’ their production, the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement would be missed by a very large margin.

The UK was able to announce in early 2024 that it is the first major economy to have cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% since 1990. However, the new North Sea ‘max out’ policy (and other recent policy changes) has been described as “short-sighted moves that make a mockery of the UK’s claim to climate leadership” by Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an organisation that rates countries on the compatibility of their climate policies with their commitments under the Paris Agreement, and it recently reduced its rating of the UK’s climate change policies and projections from ‘almost sufficient’ to ‘insufficient’. 

Will additional North Sea oil and gas help bring down bills and improve energy security?

Examination of data from the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) shows that development of new North Sea oil and gas fields – including both identified but undeveloped fields and future discoveries – will contribute little to slowing down the overall decline in extraction from this location. Given that oil and gas prices are likely to fall, perhaps dramatically, as the world decarbonises, the monetary gain from these marginal increases in the production of oil and gas in future years will not be large.

On security of supply, it is now widely understood that increasing North Sea oil and gas extraction will make no contribution to UK energy security, with parliamentary research stating: “Additional North Sea oil production would not have a substantial effect on energy security because 83% of UK oil is exported.” The new oil production from the North Sea will be sold into world markets, and the new gas into European markets, and the UK will need to buy back what it needs at prevailing market prices. North Sea production is much too small to influence these prices, so the new production will not cut energy bills. Increasing energy efficiency, thereby reducing energy demand, and increasing the UK’s capacity to generate and store the energy from its abundant renewables have been identified as better ways to increase energy security, while contributing to global and domestic net zero targets.

This Explainer was written by Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy, University College London, and author of ‘Stopping Climate Change: Policies for Real Zero’ (Routledge, 2024). The Explainer was edited by Esin Serin and Georgina Kyriacou.

UK myth-busting series: This Explainer was produced as part of a UK-focused ‘myth-busting’ project between the LSE and Imperial College London Grantham Institutes. The series of 10 Explainers will be published as a single volume later in spring 2024. The project is designed to deepen understanding of climate change action among current and prospective decision-makers, the policy community and the public in the UK in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. See ‘Related pages’ to the right for further Explainers in this series.

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