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Climate Change Committee’s business champion calls out ‘weak’ arguments for North Sea expansion

Nigel Topping at Cop26 | Alamy

Climate Change Committee’s business champion calls out ‘weak’ arguments for North Sea expansion

Two years on since Glasgow hosted world leaders at Cop26, Nigel Topping, then the UN high-level climate action champion, told Holyrood that evidence showed “how badly we’re screwing up”.  

The evidence of continued screw-up, he said, as many others did then and do now, was “pretty overwhelming” in the fight to slow global warming.   

Speaking then, Topping said “whether you hope or despair, it’s a choice”, adding that “the activist's mindset is always one of hope”.  

He was responding to a sobering report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned of increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding. Two years on, he is responding to another similarly sobering report from the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), of which he was appointed in May this year. Published in December 2022, the report delivered a hammer blow to the Scottish Government, Scotland has lost its lead over the rest of the UK in tackling climate change.  

Its independent assessment found the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has “largely stalled” in recent years and said Scotland’s net zero targets, which are considered to be some of the toughest in the world, were “increasingly at risk”.  

Now part of the CCC, Topping’s focus is on the role of business in the transition to net zero. Born in Glasgow, Topping, who will speak at Holyrood’s Climate Action Summit 2023 this week, is proud of his British identity, and he is determined “to do whatever I can to maintain that leadership”.   

“I am really keen to see the Scottish Government’s new climate plan, which is going to be published in November. The committee made their report on Scotland in December last year and Lord Deben and the committee were very clear that Scotland has lost its leadership position, and that’s worrying because Scotland has led within the UK with its 2045 target and the UK has led within the world.  

“So, Scotland losing its leadership mojo and the UK losing its mojo is not just bad for us but is bad for momentum internationally.” 

In June this year, the Scottish Government responded to the CCC’s report, accepting 98 of the 99 recommendations made – noting that the one they do not accept falls out with devolved powers. Committing to publishing its next full iteration of its Climate Change Plan this month, the government’s new plan will take on board “the recommendations provided within this CCC Report” and “will form a vital element in its development”.  

At the time of the CCC’s report publication, Lord Deben said: “In 2019, the Scottish Parliament committed the country to some of the most stretching climate goals in the world, but they are increasingly at risk without real progress towards the milestones that Scottish Ministers have previously laid out. One year ago, I called for more clarity and transparency on Scottish climate policy and delivery. That plea remains unanswered.” 

Adding to Deben’s comments from December last year, Topping said: “The report was really constructive, and Lord Deben was quite blunt, and that is because we are really keen to keep supporting the Scottish Government in being a leader and this slip is of concern.” 

He continued: “Since then we have already seen the vision for agriculture and their policies on peatland, which were a couple of priority areas for action in our recommendations. I am hopeful that we will see the details in the key areas, which we laid out in December last year, in the Scottish Government’s new plan. I am really looking forward to seeing that. 

“And then of course the Climate Change Committee will be able to see how well the plan addresses the recommendations that we made a year ago.”  

It hasn’t been the most positive 12 months for Scotland’s net zero portfolio, aside from the CCC’s report and the government missing seven of 11 targets laid out in the Climate Change Act 2009, two key policies, the deposit return scheme (DRS) and highly protected marine areas (HPMAs) were shelved.  

I ask Topping how he looks at Scotland’s ability to enact effective net zero policies, in light of recent failures.  

“I don’t know the details of why the DRS and HPMAs were shelved, but this is an example of what worries businesses when promises are not kept or policies are not being delivered when they [government] say they will, or if it is implemented and then changed within its effective lifetime. 

“Businesses are having to make really difficult capex (capital expenditure) decisions, training decisions, hiring decisions. And so having a really strong sense of the direction of travel is really important.”  

Topping is clear that this is not just an issue afflicting the Scottish Government.  

“I think that the Westminster also doesn’t always listen as much to business as much as they should. I think sometimes there is a sort of paranoia that businesses will try and fool the government. The government is full of smart people, both elected officials and civil servants, who can see when someone is trying to manipulate them. 

“But some other countries do a better job of regularly engaging with key sectors and building trust, which allows decision-makers to navigate on both sides of that relationship, which we call the ambition loop. And I think it is really important that that ambition loop of more ambitious policy, more accuracy from business, more investment from business, emboldening policymakers to keep moving forward is really important, and I think that is something that we have work to do on generally is how to build that trust between the business community and the government community so that we have more stability in policy and more courage in policy making.” 

In September this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a major U-turn on a raft of measures that were in place to continue to cut emissions. The “new approach”, as he described it, is designed to protect “hard-pressed British families” from “unacceptable costs”. The decision will delay a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by five years and weaken targets to phase out gas boilers. And while Sunak maintains his government is still committed to the UK’s current target of net zero by 2050, Topping characterised the announcement as “unwise” from the perspective of business.  

“I think it was a very disappointing and unwise announcement. There’s no evidence of consultation with industry or even with ministers. It feels like a knee-jerk reaction and an over-interpretation of the Uxbridge by-election.  

“The 2030 date [to stop the sale of petrol and diesel cars], you might remember that the government consulted on whether to bring the 2040 date, which we had in place then, forward to 2032 or 2035 and actually the very strong message from business was bring it in earlier because that gave them clarity and it gives the UK leadership.  

“It is really disappointing that decision that was made in strong consultation with industry has been U-turned on with no consultation.” 

Topping thinks that the decision, although negative for businesses that are attempting to shift with the changing standards, will not set back the progress to net zero within the current timescale. 

“I think that in terms of the speed of the transition, it probably won’t have a huge impact and the government has done some very good things as well, despite that decision. It has continued hard to attract into places like the big battery facility that is going to be in Somerset.  

“There is a lot of investment going on and the government is helping to facilitate that. And of course, they have now implemented the new electric vehicle (EV) mandates that all manufacturers have to deliver through their sales which get us to 80 per cent fully electric by 2030. The original plan was to phase out combustion engines by 2030, and have hybrids until 2035, now it will be 80 per cent EV by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035. So, it probably won't make that much difference in terms of trajectory. 

“The worry I have more is it sends a signal to investors that the UK is flip-flopping and that is the worst thing that you can do.” 

Sunak’s U-turn is not the only decision that Topping thinks is ill-judged. In September, the prime minister announced 100-plus new drilling licences in a “maxing out” policy that environmental groups said would obliterate the UK’s climate commitments.

Following the announcement, Rosebank oilfield, the UK’s largest untapped source of oil, which is situated off the coast of Shetland, was granted consent by regulators.  

The prime minister argues that extracting more oil in areas like Rosebank will sure up the country’s energy security and lower dependence on “foreign dictators”. First Minister Humza Yousaf said he was “disappointed” at the decision and accused Downing Street of “climate denial”, while Tory MP Chris Skidmore, who led a review into net zero, said the decision was “on the wrong side of modern voters”. 

Commenting on the decision, Topping said: “The CCC’s view is that these are very weak arguments. The energy security argument, I think, is weak because the strongest way to deliver energy security is to ramp up renewables. And actually, we could do that far further. 

“It won’t make any difference on cost because oil and gas are internationally traded, and whether or not you produce it doesn’t change the market, we are such a small producer that we have no chance of the marginal difference affecting the cost. It will slightly increase our emissions and it won’t make a difference to global emissions. The government argue that because the UK extraction emissions are below average increasing our production would reduce the global average, but that’s only true if we are displacing higher emissions, which is very debatable and very hard to prove.” 

I ask him about the arguments of job security in the context of the UK Government’s decision that they have used as part of their reasoning, but Topping is quick to disagree with that notion.  

“We are talking about a very small number of jobs. I think at Rosebank we are talking about around 450 jobs, there are a lot more jobs being made in the renewables industry. Oil and gas is in decline and this is a marginal argument at best.” 

Topping says the bigger worry is there is “a sense” the UK Government “are trying to ride two horses at the same time”, whilst “unclear about the direction of travel”.  

“That’s where you miss opportunities to go faster and we have already missed several of those,” he says.  

Topping reflects on what he told Holyrood two years ago; “whether you hope or despair, it’s a choice”. 

“I don’t naively think that achieving our targets is a done deal, it’s bloody hard work, as every government who has committed knows, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, every business knows this.  

“Partly I am hopeful because I think it is the only way you can be motivated to act is to believe that a better future is possible. But I am also hopeful in the transition to net zero because we have increasing evidence that the transition is happening faster and is growing exponentially, which is the nature of technological change in more and more sectors.”

Nigel Topping is among those speaking at Holyrood's Climate Action Summit. Find out more here

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