The ‘Green Energy Shift’: A Race for Change

The ‘Green Economy’ has been deemed a ‘hot practice’ area in the legal sphere for the next decade. The global pandemic has certainly fuelled this change as demand for oil has decreased. This shift is being reflected in the present commercial world, as oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell cut 9000 jobs following this oil slump, turning their focus toward a green energy overhaul. This shift to green energy will provide many opportunities for environmental lawyers for years to come. The UK government has been a keen supporter of this change, but is it happening fast enough to make a meaningful difference in the current climate era?

The UK – A Future ‘Green Economy’?

The environmental doomsday clock is set at 100 seconds to midnight as of January 2020. This means that humankind is currently at the closest brink of an environmental catastrophe, more than ever before. Thus, climate change, whose perils are experienced already on a worldwide scale, must be mitigated at all costs. A race for change is underway, as lawyers and lawmakers look towards a ‘Green Economy’ for a more sustainable future.

A ‘Green Economy’ is one where visions for growth and development are in line with sustainable development. The goals of a Green Economy are to sustain and advance economic, environmental and social well-being.

The UK is part of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which sets international climate targets to cut carbon emissions by 2040. In early 2018, the UK government launched its own 25-year Environmental Plan. The plan is a comprehensive commitment to improving the UK’s environmental responsibility. As part of its strategy to mitigate climate change, the government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% and ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. Although the UK is a world leader in using renewable wind energy, an issue the UK has in its journey to lowering its carbon footprint is that its heating mainly relies on fossil fuels. According to the Financial Times, clean hydrogen, sustainable wood and nuclear heat could be viable alternatives in replacing gas and oil for heating.

Currently, 10% of the UK’s oil and gas is provided by Dutch Royal Shell. The oil giant recently revealed tremendous losses following the oil-slump heightened by the global pandemic. Its decision to cut 9000 jobs and plan for a Green Energy overhaul may seem excessive, but this is actually consistent with its plans to become a net-zero emissions energy business. Its green energy overhaul is evident from its plan to close 7 more oil refineries in the next few years, as it shifts its focus to renewable energy investment. Companies like BP and Total have announced similar strategies. The strategies have been criticised for falling short of what’s needed to meet global climate goals as the real decrease in their oil output is slower and less significant than portrayed. Their net-zero approach relies instead on reforestation efforts or other emission ‘cancelling’ measures.

A 2020 report by UK non-profit climate change think tank Carbon Tracker says the world’s listed oil and gas majors must cut combined production by 35% before 2040 to keep emissions within international climate target. Although, the current ‘Green Energy Overhauls' amount to a step in the right direction, is a mere step enough at 100 seconds to midnight?

Drivers for Change

Since the majority of environmental law in the UK stems from European Law, Brexit is likely to bring even more change in the field in the coming years. Although a new environmental bill will ensure the necessary checks and balances remain in the UK even after Brexit, the change represents a significant opportunity for the UK to reach its goals of mitigating climate change and improving the environment. Only time will tell if the UK will be the winner in this race against climate change.