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Plenty to talk about at the net zero discussion event in Shetland

Publication: Shetland News

From left to right: event chair Hans Marter, of Shetland News, Uplift's Tessa Khan, ORION's Gunther Newcombe, Daniel Gear, SIC's Claire Ferguson. Photo: Shetland News
From left to right: event chair Hans Marter, of Shetland News, Uplift's Tessa Khan, ORION's Gunther Newcombe, Daniel Gear, SIC's Claire Ferguson. Photo by Shetland News| Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

New oil and gas developments, hydrogen production, peatland restoration, and wind farms – these were just some of the topics brought up in a busy discussion about net zero held in Lerwick, the main town and port of Shetland, in January.

The event, hosted by Shetland News, explored how Shetland – and the country – can go ‘net zero’ by 2045.

It was perhaps best explained by one of the four panellists, ORION project manager Gunther Newcombe, who described it is a like a “big jigsaw puzzle” with many elements and solutions needing to be slotted together.

Also on the panel was Tessa Khan, the founder of Uplift, an organisation that supports a rapid transition away from fossil fuels in the UK.

Joining Newcombe and Khan were Daniel Gear, outgoing general manager responsible for the local operation of energy logistics company Peterson, and Shetland Islands Council’s climate change strategy team leader Claire Ferguson.

There also happened to be a film crew from the TV network Bloomberg capturing the meeting whilst they followed Khan on her visit to Shetland.

It is fair to say Shetland is uniquely placed in the global push to reduce emissions, having benefitted financially from oil and gas for decades.

But it is now looking to be at the forefront of future energy – not only wind power but also through possible industrial-scale hydrogen production.

Whilst the panel agreed on the need to reduce emissions – and quickly – perhaps the more contentious topic was whether to continue with new oil and gas developments around Shetland, such as Cambo and Rosebank.

Gear opened the event first, saying we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption to the “irreducible minimum” fairly and efficiently.

But he questioned whether not going ahead with Cambo and Rosebank would result in greater emissions through the UK having to import more oil.

“If Cambo and Rosebank are produced, will that result in a net increase in global oil demand?” he asked.

Gear said if the answer is yes, then they should not be produced – and if net demand will stay the same, he said you could make a case for them being produced.

He also highlighted the challenges around the level of workforce needed to enable a transition to new energy.

But Khan opened her presentation by disagreeing with a number of Gear’s finer points – namely, how quickly the UK has to reduce burning fossil fuels and the idea that not producing oil and gas in Cambo and Rosebank means it will be produced elsewhere.

She said Uplift believes it would be a “real mistake” to lock into new oil and gas production that would “prolong uncertainty around the inevitable transition around oil and gas in the UK”, and that most of this would be exported.

She agreed that if the country is to stay within internationally set climate limits – a 1.5-degree threshold – “we will be undertaking one of the greatest industrial transformations in human history”.

Tessa Khan being interviewed in front of the camera for Bloomberg. Photo: Shetland News
Tessa Khan being interviewed in front of the camera for Bloomberg. Photo by Shetland News | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Khan stressed there has to be “proper government investment” in domestic renewable production and manufacturing, agreements for local communities to retain profits and retraining programmes for the workforce.

Meanwhile, Newcombe explained what the ORION project is and how the strategic framework aims to turn Shetland into a “world-leading green energy island”.

A key feature is the hope to primarily use offshore wind to produce hydrogen for energy use, with a hope to export south and potentially abroad too.

But he explained a “top priority” is to provide “affordable clean energy” for Shetland residents amid high levels of fuel poverty.

When asked how Shetland could get affordable energy, he said the key is being able to “produce our own product for ourselves” – hydrogen – before upscaling it. In contrast, at the moment, oil and gas taken into Shetland is exported away from the isles.

Newcombe also said ORION helped to encourage bids for offshore wind east of Bressay, one of the Shetland islands. At the same time, around £10 million has been put into studies that involve renewables in Shetland.

Ferguson explained the process behind the council recently producing two “net zero route maps” – one for the SIC, but one for Shetland as a whole.

The isles have the largest Scottish local authorities carbon footprint, with Shetland’s location, transport services and industries key factors.

A key finding, though, was that land is the biggest contributor in Shetland to emissions – such as degraded peatland and peatlands that have been converted to grazing or cropland. At the same time, there is relatively little woodland to offset this.

Ferguson advocated shifting away from fossil fuels “as quickly as possible”, increasing energy efficiency measures and reducing consumption.

She also stressed that community engagement in the process is “absolutely essential”.

Going by the healthy turnout at the meeting, there is likely to be healthy community interest going forward in the push to net zero, which includes the ambitious Scottish target to reduce greenhouse emissions by 75 per cent by 2030.

And there were plenty of questions on the night, with the panel quizzed on topics such as peatland restoration, energy storage and developments’ impact on local biodiversity.

Gear said installing energy infrastructure in Shetland will “inevitably have some sort of impact on the environment” that developers need to mitigate.

One audience member said she felt people need to “question why we have arrived here,” – adding that she does not find things ambitious enough.

Another said there were two emergencies – climate and biodiversity.

“We are part of nature, we are part of a whole, and if we don’t recognise the biodiversity emergency, there’s no future for us either,” she said.