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The UK says it’s a climate leader. But it’s complicit in climate atrocities

The government’s actions show it backs a damaging neocolonialist agenda that’s locking developing nations into high-carbon industries

David Cameron delivers a speech as he attends Heads of States’ Statements ceremony of the COP21 World Climate Change Conference 2015.




‘UKEF’s actions certainly seem a long way from what David Cameron was promising on the podium in Paris.’
Photograph: Etienne Laurent/EPA

It wasn’t long ago that Theresa May stated boldly that she wanted “the Britain of the future to be a truly global Britain, which is a force for good in the world. Steadfast in upholding our values – not least our fierce commitment to protecting the natural environment”.

Not everyone was fooled – least of all the thousands of young people striking from school today to call on world leaders to finally take the climate crisis seriously.

The UK government likes to be seen as a climate leader. But while it continues to make some slow progress in decarbonising its economy at home, companies continue to take advantage of the UK’s “light-touch” corporate regulation to commit climate atrocities abroad.

The current generation of schoolchildren have a much more global perspective than any before. Social media and the internet have made the world feel much smaller, and well-informed young people are quick to challenge governments over activities built on global injustices, past and present.

That’s why stories like DeSmog’s Empire Oil investigation resonate with so many of those taking to the streets today.

The six-month investigation by DeSmog reporter Chloé Farand showed how a group of companies listed on London’s junior stock exchange – the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) – were taking advantage of the UK’s lackadaisical regulation to exploit fossil fuel resources across Africa. Her stories showed that beneath London’s green veneer lies some dirty business.

AIM was set up to make it easy for companies to raise capital, with much lighter oversight than they would experience on the larger London Stock Exchange. Some household names have grown extremely fast thanks to this model – fashion retailers Asos and Boohoo, and posh tonic water company Fever-Tree, for example.

There is no suggestion that those companies have done anything wrong, and they are regularly held up as shining examples of how a lack of government interference can stimulate innovation.

But there is a darker side to this system. AIM’s approach to regulation has also allowed dozens of small oil and gas companies to raise capital with the aim of exploiting Africa’s natural resources – all with minimal oversight.

Many of these companies are registered in tax havens. And the organisations tasked with overseeing the activities of AIM-listed companies – known as nominated advisers or Nomads – are allowed to have a financial stake in the companies they are meant to regulate. All of this leads to flawed oversight and a web of conflicts of interest.

In the background of all this is a neocolonialist agenda that this new generation of social activists are quick to recognise. They understand that there is something unjust about western companies based in Mayfair offices prospecting for oil and gas in countries that until recently would have been described as “colonies”. And they are quick to highlight the government’s hypocrisy in calling for global action on climate change while tacitly encouraging activities that will lock developing nations into high-carbon industries for decades.

The school strikers, unlike many of the adults they feel have let them down, are not scared to point out this injustice. “How is it,” the strikers ask, “that the UK can claim to be a climate leader when it continues to encourage a system that allows companies to explore for fossil fuels in some of the world’s most politically unstable regions with minimal oversight?”

In 2019, that seems a legitimate question.

The UK government’s resistance to walking the walk on climate action goes beyond encouraging private companies to get out there and drill, however. Its own agencies are also complicit. Perhaps the best example of this is UK Export Finance (UKEF), a government credit agency that works to secure Britain’s economic interests abroad.

In the past four years, UKEF has put up financial support for a massive new oil refinery in Oman, invested millions in offshore oil and gas development in Ghana and Brazil, and provided credit for coal-mining equipment in Russia, to name but a few projects. A joint investigation between Greenpeace and Private Eye calculated that UKEF had provided fossil fuel companies with £6.9bn in financial support between 2000 and 2017.

MPs have finally cottoned on to this conflict between the government’s positive words and less-than-stellar international action. Parliament launched an enquiry into UKEF in December 2018.

UKEF’s actions certainly seem a long way from what David Cameron was promising on the podium in Paris, days before hundreds of world leaders signed a landmark climate change agreement in December 2015, when he declared: “Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.” Well, those children have now marched out of school to make it clear that the all-too-familiar excuses for inaction will be accepted no more – today, tomorrow, or at any time in their future.

Mat Hope is editor of investigative journalism platform DeSmog UK

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