The Government is committed to granting new UK oil and gas licences but “would never” approve anything incompatible with net zero and 1.5C, the climate minister has said.
Scientists and campaigners are worried they will grant permission for Norwegian firm Equinor to develop the Rosebank oil and gas field in the North Atlantic, which would produce around 500 million barrels of oil if it goes ahead.
The International Energy Agency has said there must be no new oil and gas projects if the world is to become net zero by 2050.
Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also said emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure are already enough to heat the world beyond 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
Overshooting this target is likely to lead to catastrophic and irreversible tipping points, climate experts have warned.
Graham Stuart, minister for climate and net zero, said the Government is committed to new oil and gas licences in the North Sea but would not say when a decision on Rosebank is likely to be made.
Speaking to reporters at the Innovation Zero Congress in London, he said: “I can’t comment on a specific project.
“What I can say is that we’re committed to new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.
“We firmly believe that producing our own oil and gas as net importers, and will continue to be even as demand drops, is the right thing to do.
“Otherwise we’ll be spending tens of billions, if not more, on foreign-produced fossil fuels, often with lower standards of production than will happen at home.
“We would never license oil and gas development in the UK that wasn’t compatible with net zero and 1.5C.”
Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Philip Evans said: “What an absurd thing to say. All new oil and gas drilling is incompatible with 1.5C.
“Don’t just take my word for it, this is also the view of the International Energy Agency, the UN secretary general, as well as countless academics and scientists.
“If the Government had a shred of interest in limiting the impacts of the climate crisis, it would reverse its decision to allow more fossil fuel production and stop propping up an industry that’s destroying the planet.”
Mr Stuart said developing North Sea oil and gas is better for the environment as it would reduce emissions from shipping fuel from overseas, with UK-based companies cutting emissions from their operations.
Renowned climate scientists professors David King and Johan Rockstrom opened the conference on Wednesday by saying the world is currently on track to warm by 2.5C degrees by the end of the century, which would melt the big glaciers, destroy rainforests and lead to the collapse of marine life.
They said overshooting 1.5C is likely to trigger five tipping points, such as melting of polar ice sheets and the mass die-off of tropical coral reefs, that would carry us irreversibly towards disaster.
Mr Stuart blamed this catastrophic scenario on the rest of the world, saying the UK is fulfilling its climate obligations.
He said: “We are practically alone in being on a trajectory to net zero, so we are the one country in the world that you can say is not going to be contributing to that.
“We will still, in 2050 under net zero, be using around 20-25% of the gas we use today, and producing it at home with very high standards rather than tacking it in is the right thing to do.”
Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, said: “It is impossible to reconcile approving a huge new oil field like Rosebank with the UK meeting its climate obligations. The Government knows this.
“It’s also worth noting, as we learn today that we’re facing unaffordably high energy bills until at least the end of the decade, that approving Rosebank will do nothing to lower UK fuel bills and will do very little for UK energy security as most of these reserves will likely be exported.”