"My god, your country really does export nothing but weapons and pollution”. Slight over-simplification aside, this comment from a journalist at a well-known UK broadsheet was a very stark reminder of the absurdity of the UK extolling its climate credentials on the one hand, whilst exporting fossil fuels around the world with the other. This is something that, in just three years, Global Witness and its partners succeeded in reversing through a campaign that blended targeted advocacy and a drumbeat of strong and far-reaching communications.
In 2018, lots of us at Global Witness were starting to recognise the UK’s role in exporting CO2 emissions. At around the same time, news was emerging that the government was planning to support a huge oil refinery in Bahrain. For decades, chiefly through UK Export Finance (UKEF) – the UK’s credit agency which underwrites loans and insurance for risky export deals as part of efforts to boost international trade – Britain had been pumping public money into major fossil fuels projects overseas. In addition to UKEF, the UK was also backing fossil fuels via its overseas aid, contributing to around £21 billion of support through a combination trade or export finance between 2016 and 2020.
Not only is there the immediate environmental damage caused by these projects, the UK’s financial support can force countries into “dirty development” where economies rely on the success of this infrastructure for decades to come. It also provides the companies involved with massively decreased risk, enabling the long-term financial viability of fossil fuels, at a time when the world most certainly needs to be curbing the power and reach of the fossil fuel industry.
Faced with an expensive, long-term and catastrophic problem, Global Witness set about a campaign to do something about it – despite our campaigners being told it was an “impossible win” and would be better off left alone. We started by trying to force a parliamentary inquiry into the issue. Despite a knock back from the International Trade Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee agreed to take this on. Global Witness both presented evidence, as well as briefing the MPs asking the questions. It concluded with a strong set of recommendations that crucially included a 2020 deadline for the UK to stop funding fossil fuels overseas.
Backed by strong parliamentary support, attention turned to securing wide-ranging and mainstream media coverage to keep hammering the point home. As part of this, we secured a BBC Newsnight segment, featuring a Global Witness spokesperson, that we helped to shape. Capitalising on this interest, we launched a number of smaller initiatives and reports to keep a regular drumbeat of pressure, including an OECD complaint, analysis of UKEF’s hospitality records and a report looking at other government agencies responsible for funding fossil fuels.
Towards the end of 2020 it was increasingly becoming clear that a victory was possible, although there was still a possibility that other political priorities might kick this into the long grass. However, at the very end of the year, a formal announcement was made – the UK would end all fossil fuels funding overseas. Some small loopholes remain and will need to be worked on but this is a huge step in the right direction.