If the planet is to get anywhere close to meeting the Paris Agreement target of holding global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, the coming decade will have to entail a massive clean energy expansion and investment drive globally. For the world’s oil & gas markets, as the International Energy Agency made clear earlier this year, this means no new field developments as of 2021.
For the North Sea, a long-producing hydrocarbon basin operated by its littoral nations, this will be an identity-challenging feat, but there is plainly an opportunity for early-mover advantage in the energy transition underway, with some carbon budget scenarios even suggesting a phase-out of oil & gas production as early as 2035 if climate action goals are to be met. Countries including the UK, Norway and Denmark are uniquely positioned to be in the vanguard of such a shift while maximising the social and economic benefits of the coming industrial transformation.
Harnessing natural resources, technology and skills, these three nations can be pacesetters in a rapid clean energy transition in the region. But, as we concluded from our three recent Oil and Gas Transitions (OGT) reports, to achieve this their governments must commit to bold, fair and future-minded pathways to deliver a supply-side managed and just transition by 2050 and so position the North Sea as a role model for hydrocarbon production wind-down the world over.
The first step is to promptly halt new development of North Sea oil & gas, though this is easier for some countries than others. Denmark, the EU’s largest oil producer, has already set a date to shut-down production by 2050. This is positive, of course. But our scenarios, show that any phase-out after 2042, when most licences expire, would have a negligible impact on its state revenues, so bringing forward Denmark’s current deadline can truly position it as a global exemplar.
For Norway, plugging its offshore oil & gas wells represents a still greater challenge, as hydrocarbon production has become vital to its economy and social welfare since the first discoveries were made in the late-1960s. When co-creating the pathways in our report alongside a wide range of groups impacted by offshore energy transitions, not a single person thought Norway would phase out oil & gas by 2050, though they were positive about net zero overall.
The UK, despite being a global market frontrunner in offshore wind with almost 15GW installed, is seemingly heading in the wrong direction, as its Conservative government is seeking to approve more than 100 new oil & gas drilling licenses in the North Sea and shielding its contradictory, yet sacrosanct, maximising economic recovery mandate. It is clear from our findings that to accelerate the end to hydrocarbon licensing, supply side measures will be required.
Of course, a rapid wind-down of oil & gas production in the North Sea or anywhere else can’t happen in isolation and renewable energy technologies will need to be deployed at speed as phasing-out fossils picks up pace to ensure the regional transition is viable and just. Continuing to grow the build-out of offshore wind and supporting the development of higher total clean power production levels with floating arrays will be central.
A rapid wind-down of oil & gas production in the North Sea can’t happen in isolation and clean energy technologies will need to be deployed at a pace
Our Norwegian phase-out pathway is based on the successive upscaling of wind generation capacity to 50GW by 2050 and involves the country spearheading floating wind, a sector currently on the verge of industrialisation and expected to be operating at a levellised cost of energy comparable to tradition bottom-fixed offshore wind inside the decade.
Floating and offshore expansion is vital for Denmark too, as the country is a signatory to the Esbjerg Declaration, which commits it to the huge undertaking of helping to deliver 150GW of wind power in the North Sea by 2050.
In the UK, progress will require the new and chaos-riven Conservative government to foster stronger collaborative intergovernmental relations between Westminster and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A just transition strategy will need to ensure investment in a skilled renewables and decommissioning labour force and a supply chain that carefully manages the ‘externalities’ of the clean energy technologies, such as the mining of metals and materials for turbines.
One such opportunity to deliver an accelerated and just transition for the UK is a decision on how workforces will be reskilled to support the growing offshore renewable sector, with skills passports and standardised qualifications vital to ensuring employers have a responsibility to deliver meaningful retraining. On the other hand, we found Denmark has a more adaptable offshore workforce, capable of transferring from oil & gas operations to renewables.
In Norway, 6% of the national workforce are directly or indirectly employed by the oil & gas sector, arguably a big part of the reason shifting attitudes in favour of a clean transition is a challenge. But workers and trade unions present a powerful lobby that could support the development of renewables to protect future workforces and communities.
The scale of the endeavour of pioneering a North Sea transition out of fossil fuel dependency requires a systemic approach. Our pathways report use a just transition framework and was developed alongside diverse stakeholders in each country.
While there are major challenges, it is clear with ambitious roadmaps the region can lead the global charge on just and clean energy transitions.
· Adriana Chavarria is programme lead on the North Sea transition pathway reports published by the Oil & Gas Transitions Initiative, an evidence-based programme co-led by research bodies Climate Strategies and the Stockholm Environment Institute