Planned UK oil project a 'clear climate contradiction', say campaigners

A controversial new offshore oil project in Scotland would require an area the size of England to offset its carbon emissions, analysis by the charity Oxfam has revealed, as part of a new report that hits out at a “smokescreen” of net zero promises.

An offshore oil project in Scotland would require an area the size of England to offset its carbon emissions, says Oxfam. Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images An offshore oil project in Scotland would require an area the size of England to offset its carbon emissions, says Oxfam. Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images

The proposed Cambo oil field near the Shetland Islands could produce up to 255 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, releasing an estimated 132 million tonnes of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, according to the charity. The proposals have been submitted to the government, awaiting approval.  

Jamie Livingstone, head of Oxfam Scotland described the project as “a clear climate contradiction”, adding that the UK government “must intervene” if it wants to be a “credible broker” at COP26.

The analysis comes as part of Oxfam’s Tightening the Net report, which says governments and corporations are “hiding behind unreliable, unproven and unrealistic ’carbon removal’ schemes” in order to claim their 2050 climate change plans will be net zero.

It adds that the problem with net zero targets more broadly is that “they give government and corporate leaders what they are desperate for: a convenient way to look like they are taking dramatic action to stop climate catastrophe while largely failing to do so”. 

The report also highlights the impact carbon offsetting plans could have on land for food production, saying that one-fifth of the world’s 2,000 largest publicly listed corporations have net zero goals dependent upon land-based carbon sinks. 

The NGO warns that if these methods, such as tree planting, are used at scale global food prices could surge by 80% by 2050.

Examining the climate promises of four of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations - BP, Eni, Shell, and TotalEnergies - Oxfam said meeting these could in reality require reforesting an area of land equivalent to more than twice the size of the UK to achieve net zero by 2050. 

“All of our lives and futures depend on the world’s biggest polluters quickly, drastically and genuinely slashing their emissions, phasing out fossil fuels and investing in clean energy and supply chains”, Livingstone said. “Instead, what we’re seeing is too many net zero strategies being used as smokescreens to mask dirty behaviour: promising unrealistic carbon removal schemes in order to justify the continued plundering of our planet.” 

Commenting on the report on social media, Doug Parr, UK chief scientist for campaign group Greenpeace, said: “Tree planting in the right place with the right trees to nurture biodiversity is great. As a systematic programme to get us out of the climate mess, it sucks.”

Oxfam’s report comes as wildfires rage across large parts of North America and Europe, with companies including BP and Microsoft finding that their carbon offsets are now ablaze.

“We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning,” Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme manager, said at a recent event hosted by non-profit Carbon180.

In response to Oxfam’s report, BP said it did not intend to rely on offsets to meet its 2030 emission reduction targets, and that it sees offsets potentially helping to go beyond them if possible. 

Shell told Oxfam that its 2050 goal did not rely on extensive reforestation, and Eni said that nature-based solutions were “crucial” to achieve carbon neutrality in the long-term. 

TotalEnergies said it operated on the principle that “natural carbon sinks must be connected to an agricultural or forestry value chain that is local and sustainable”.

A spokesperson for the government said it is “absolutely committed” to meeting the UK’s climate commitments, and will be publishing its  Net Zero Strategy later this year.

The spokesperson added: “While we are working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels, there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years, as recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee.”

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