I had worked for a private environmental consultancy firm doing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) on large construction projects for over two years and for the most part was really happy with it, when an email went round my department celebrating a new project win. It was for environmental work on existing sites and feasibility studies for potential new fracking sites in Lancashire, England, for a fracking company I had only heard of through other climate activists (not in complementary terms!). My heart sank.
When I first interviewed for the job they noticed on my CV that I was part of UKYCC, and asked me if I was OK with one of the biggest oil companies in the world being a key client of theirs. At the time I had to think about it, but honestly answered that yes I was. I was happy to work for a company that provided big oil and gas companies with environmental services, because if they were going to continue operating and we could help them damage the environment less along the way then that was a good thing. I was also more positive about the likelihood of big business to change if given sound environmental advice on the inside.
However, that was before Paris. Being able to go to Paris in 2015 for the COP21 UN climate talks was a real privilege, and in some ways massively inspiring. But the main feeling that has been plaguing me since I left is that we are running out of time, and rapidly. Yes, COP21 was a big success on the international scale to get a global agreement between 196 countries on a way forward to tackle climate change– the ‘Paris Agreement’- but to many, this response has been completely insufficient. During the conference we stood with a group of the most climate-vulnerable countries (among others) who fought really hard to get the lower target of 1.5 degrees maximum warming included in the agreement, because then they might have a chance of survival. Indeed, we now know that the time we have left before we go past the point of no return, before we can no longer keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, before we use up all the ‘carbon budget’ is literally about another year or two, depending on the probability scenarios you choose.
We know that 50% of known gas reserves have to stay underground (not to mention 80% of coal reserves!) for us to have any hope of achieving even the less ambitious climate targets. So why on earth are we looking for more? (*cough cough* feasibility studies for new fracking sites in the UK *cough*) We are an island, which even the UK government has admitted is ideal for renewable energy, having plenty of wind (both inland (onshore) and off the coast (offshore)), lots of potential for tidal and wave energy, and it’s even sunny enough for some solar power (in Wales too) believe it or not! And yet the government have chosen to put their funding into the dying but still powerful fossil fuel industries by subsidising them (subsidies are a government payout meant to support new industries which need support at the beginning to get going). At the same time they have withdrawn subsidies for wind and particularly solar prematurely, resulting in lots of workers out of jobs, and have not supported potential new industries like tidal and wave energy.
And yet pipelines and infrastructure to support fossil fuel extraction, transportation and burning is still going on! I acknowledge that we can’t switch to a zero carbon economy or even an energy system powered by low carbon sources tomorrow, but it needs to be happening a darn sight quicker than it seems to be at the minute. Why are we still investing in the future of a technology and industry that we know we need to be scaling out as soon as possible, definitely not expanding?!
Fracking for gas as a source of energy can be seen as controversial to some environmentalists because when burned for electricity gas emits less CO2 than coal, and so it is branded as a ‘clean alternative’. Furthermore, the availability of shale gas in the UK means for some that it could provide ‘energy security’ (which given BRexit and the UK annoying a lot of its neighbours recently is seen as even more of a good thing). But I want to be part of the solution, not the slightly less bad problem. I want to work for a company that is living and breathing a low carbon present, not just future, and recognises the urgency of the situation, designing its work portfolio and office practices accordingly.
My decision to quit can also be seen as controversial. I know many colleagues who believe we should be working with the fossil fuel industries to try to further incorporate climate change into EIA, or to convince them from a position of an advisor (instead of an attacker) to take cleaner options. There is some amazing work going on to this end, but the way I saw it was I could a) do nothing [not an option for me] b) stay and try and influence [I wasn’t high enough up the pecking order to effect much change and the few emails I’d had on it told me change from the ‘we’re doing more good than harm by helping reduce the local environmental effects of projects like this irrelevant of the global impacts’ view wasn’t going to happen quickly] or c) leave and join the fight for a better, cleaner future with my career as well as volunteering time. So here I am.
Fracking for gas is a source of fossil fuel energy, we have plenty of untapped renewable energy potential in the UK, and this is my red line. Where’s yours?
If you’re interested in getting involved in any of the issues mentioned above, please do take a look at the links throughout, or drop me an email, there’s plenty to be done on all of them!
At the latest, for anyone interested in where I ended up, I was looking for a job in EIA for offshore wind farms, or as a sustainability consultant, after a spot of travelling.