Words by Jessica Kleczka
2021 was a key year in the fight against climate change. With time running out to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, campaigners across the world mobilised to demand more ambitious climate action from political leaders. This was particularly evident at the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, where over 100,000 people took to the streets to demand climate justice. More recently, the Cambo oil field off the coast of Shetland was paused after Shell, one of the main stakeholders, pulled out - a decision influenced by mounting pressure from activists and environmental groups.
Cambo, however, was only one of many wins for the climate movement in 2021. While environmental policy is yet to be aligned with rapid decarbonisation and a just transition, it is worth recognising these five big events which pave the way for more ambitious climate action in the year ahead:
In June, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was cancelled by its owner TC Energy after US president Joe Biden revoked its licence soon after taking office. The 1,200-mile project was first proposed in 2008 and would have carried 830,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to Nebraska. Donald Trump had approved a permit for the line in 2017, but it continued to face legal challenges on environmental and economic grounds. The project was vehemently opposed by landowners, Indigenous tribes and environmentalists, and finally scrapped after a twelve-year delay.
While the Keystone XL cancellation is a huge environmental win, it is overshadowed by the United States’ continued expansion of oil and gas extraction, and associated infrastructure. One of those projects is the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada to Minnesota and will undermine the new US government's climate ambitions, whilst endangering Indigenous lives and livelihoods. Recently, the Biden Administration approved the largest oil exploration in the history of the Gulf of Mexico - clearly, there is a lot more work to be done.
In November, the first dedicated Environment Act in 26 years passed in the UK after years of campaigning by MPs from all parties, businesses, NGOs, and activists - with the Greener UK coalition at the heart of the effort. First proposed in draft form in 2018, the bill has been significantly watered down in government - but nevertheless has the potential to significantly limit environmental pollution and biodiversity loss. After the uncertainty that came with Brexit, the Environment Act signals huge progress.
There are now plans for an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), a semi-independent watchdog which will hold the government and other public bodies to account to ensure that they comply with environmental laws after Brexit. The act includes binding targets to halt species decline by 2030, limit deforestation both at home and abroad, tackle air pollution, increase water quality and significantly reduce waste. A welcome move is the new “polluter pays” principle, and the ambition to tackle all single-use items (not just plastic) to promote environmental health.
The legislation will be reviewed in two years time, where current gaps should be addressed - such as the focus on illegal deforestation (only one third of tropical deforestation is considered legal), the exclusion of the finance sector (despite the City of London constituting the ninth biggest emitter in the world), and insufficient independence of the OEP (with its budget and board steered by government ministers). The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth - the Environment Act gives hope that this may finally change.
Not long after hailing itself as a climate leader, the UK government allowed Cumbria County Council to open a new coal mine, citing that it was a “local issue and therefore outside its jurisdiction”. The project, which would be dedicated to steel production, was a controversial one from the outset - with about 85% of the Cumbrian coal projected to be exported, and the mine creating only a few hundred jobs. While the mine has been framed as a “carbon neutral” project, the extraction process alone would emit around 420 million tonnes CO2 – almost as high as the UK’s entire annual emissions. The mine's annual emissions would be more than double the annual emissions of the whole of Cumbria. According to a report by Green Alliance, a new coal mine would undermine broader decarbonisation strategies – instead, the government should prioritise low-carbon jobs, as well as shift towards a circular economy in which more steel is recycled. The technologies for recycling steel are already available, according to industry experts - but more government investment in research and development is needed.
After pressure from campaigners and environmental groups, Cumbria County Council decided in February to review its decision. A subsequent inquiry closed in October, with a final decision expected in the new year.
More than 40 countries committed to shift away from coal at the COP26 in Glasgow, including some major coal-using countries including Poland, Vietnam, and Chile. Signatories pledged to end all investment in new coal power generation, both domestically and internationally. They also agreed to phase out coal in the 2030s for major economies, and the 2040s for poorer nations. Dozens of organisations also signed up to the pledge, with some major banks agreeing to stop financing the coal industry. Coal produced around 37% of the world’s electricity in 2019, and major investments will be needed to make the energy sector cleaner globally. In a separate commitment, 20 countries - including the US and UK - pledged to end public financing for “unabated” fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of 2022.
While this is good news, it is important to note that some of the biggest coal-using countries, such as China and the US, did not sign up to the pledge. The final COP26 agreement was also significantly watered down, with countries agreeing to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, and a general lack of language on phasing out oil and gas. The change in wording came after a last-minute intervention which was widely blamed on India and China, but also reflected the unwillingness of many developed countries to include all fossil fuels and take the lead in their phase out, as well as stepping up to their climate finance commitments - which are massively delayed.
COP26 was the first UN climate conference to mention fossil fuels in an agreement - not even the Paris Agreement had made an explicit mention of it. This opens the door for political pressure to phase out fossil fuels more rapidly, and for rich industrialised countries to do their fair share and support others in moving towards more sustainable economies.
We all love a plot twist to a bad story: Last month, environmentalists were in shock when a high court in South Africa allowed oil giant Shell to conduct seismic surveys to explore for petroleum off the eastern seaboard’s Wild Coast. The area is an important migration corridor for whales, and the surveys would cause irreparable harm to wildlife and diverse ecosystems; but the court ruled that harm to marine species could not be proven by the claimants, which included Greenpeace and local fishermen.
Fast forward three weeks, a different South African high court blocked Shell from conducting the offshore surveys after another case was filed by environmental group Sustaining the Wild Coast and impacted communities. The court found that Shell was under a duty to meaningfully consult with communities as well as individuals who would be impacted by the surveys, but failed to do this as well as respecting local peoples’ spiritual and cultural connection to the ocean. The judgement also read that the previous exploration licence was based on flawed assessments and therefore invalid.
The ruling was celebrated by environmentalists and set a precedent of “listening to the voices of the voiceless” by protecting both human and animal rights set out in South Africa’s constitution. It marks an important milestone in the country’s relationship with oil and gas, and its impacts on local and Indigenous communities.