Stopping domestic fossil fuel production won't solve climate change
The energy crisis continues to hit Europe hard. In particular, the German economy is still reeling after losing its access to cheap Russian gas.
However, it’s not just Vladimir Putin’s war that’s to blame. A chart posted on X by Daniel Kral shows that a big part of Europe’s problem is self-inflicted. Just 10 years ago the EU (excluding the UK) was producing more than 30% of its demand for natural gas, but since then the figure has slumped to less than 15%. The timing could hardly be worse.
Foolishly, the environmental movement has decided that this is a good thing. Indeed, the focus of their campaigning effort is on stopping new fossil fuel production in the UK and EU. Most visibly, there’s Just Stop Oil — whose name says it all (or almost all, because it wants to stop gas, too). Then there’s Greenpeace, which staged a protest at Rishi Sunak’s family home because he gave the go-ahead to new exploration in the North Sea.
Official advisory bodies, like the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) also believe that new production is incompatible with climate objectives. On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, the CCC wrote to ministers to insist that “the extra gas and oil extracted will support a larger global market overall”, thus undermining global efforts to combat climate change.
But isn’t this obviously correct? Well, no — and you don’t have to deny the reality of climate change or the need for Net Zero to see why.
Firstly, to succeed politically climate objectives must be fully aligned with energy security. Europe has led the way on climate policy, so it would a disaster for the cause if the prosperity and safety of Europeans was lost while the world looked on laughing.
Secondly, the green analysis is simplistic. The assumption is that more production (in Europe) means more emissions overall. But what if we look beyond the first-order effects? Greater self-sufficiency would make it easier for Europe to permanently make do without Russian gas. Moscow, which is already having to cut production, would be forced to find alternative markets. That would require building new export infrastructure, an enormous challenge. Even if the Russians did eventually succeed in redirecting their gas, this would displace coal use in countries like China and India, thus reducing emissions.
Finally, the green advocates are forgetting that Net Zero targets consumption, rather than production. There’s a very good reason for this: the faster we make the switch to low carbon power, electric vehicles and heat pumps, the faster that the demand for fossil fuels disappears. Back in the 19th century, whale oil didn’t fall out of use because of a shortage of whales or because our ancestors outlawed whaling; rather, it was because we switched to alternative sources of illumination — like kerosene and the electric bulb.
In the 21st century, we need to do the same with the technologies that run on fossil fuels — namely, replace them with greener, cleaner, cheaper alternatives. If we’re really serious about stopping oil and gas, then making them obsolete is by far the best strategy.