As Greenpeace UK's executive director John Sauven awaited a verdict that could send him to jail, he recently reflected on the dramatic changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and told Upstream that companies and governments must “grab the current opportunity” to stop global warming.

“The ecological emergency that we are facing has not gone away, but I don’t think anyone was expecting what has happened,” Sauven told Upstream at Greenpeace offices in North London, a day before the UK government advised social distancing.

“We were in a ‘business as usual’ situation, with companies planning to spend millions of dollars to hunt for more oil and gas, and being backed by banks and others in the financial sector," he said. "What we are going to see, I think, is a very different world going forward – at least the possibility of one.”

Some oil-industry leaders also have emphasised the need to persist with transitioning to clean energy during the current crisis – including the new chief executive of supermajor BP.

Yet it was BP's Vorlich oilfield that Greenpeace targeted for disruption in a protest on the North Sea last year and in a separate UK legal challenge this year.

Greenpeace now faces potentially steep fines and Sauven could face two years in jail if they are found in contempt of court for allegedly breaking an injunction during their protest of BP's offshore drilling.

During trial proceedings last month in a Scotland civil court, Switzerland-based Transocean sought tough penalties for Greenpeace. The environmental group blocked Transocean's Paul B Loyd Jr rig from drilling at BP’s 30-million-barrel Vorlich field during the June protest.

But Edinburgh’s Court of Session last week postponed the verdict hearing – which was originally set for this Monday – as the coronavirus (Covid-19) spread to thousands of people in the UK. The court has not yet specified a new date for the hearing.

The deadly pandemic has spread from its epicentre in Wuhan, China, throwing global markets into disarray. Severe government measures to try to stop the virus have prevented travel while shaking the world’s economy. Sauven sees this moment as a chance for meaningful change in fighting global warming.

Sauven urged oil and gas companies to begin lobbying governments for plans that support portfolio diversification and capital reallocation.

“Tell governments you want to invest in new energy systems," he said. "Ask them to start putting in place policies and regulations that will enable new energy systems to come to fruition.”

Transocean vs. Greenpeace

During the trial in Scotland, press reports said Transocean argued the court's verdict should send a message to protesters that disrupting offshore operations would not be tolerated ahead of a United Nations climate change conference scheduled for Glasgow later this year.

According to the press reports, John Barne, QC for Transocean, said in his closing comments: “With the Glasgow COP 2020 the wider public will be interested in seeing how the court responds.”

The Glasgow COP 2020 conference is due to be organised by the UK in partnership with Italy. While no changes have been made to the conference schedule for now, large gatherings around the world have been cancelled amid the pandemic.

Greenpeace argued before Judge Lady Wolffe that its actions were “justified in the face of BP’s reckless business plans”.

“Our action was peaceful and proportionate to the climate crisis that we are facing. We did not feel it was right that we could be silenced because these companies run to the court to get an injunction,” Sauven told Upstream last week.

Covid-19 reducing emissions

After the US-China trade war appeared to ease, recent instability in the Middle East brought on by drone attacks and then China's novel coronavirus outbreak have whipsawed oil prices in 2020. Now, the Saudi Arabia-Russia standoff over oil-production levels has exacerbated a plunge in oil prices.

Emissions are widely expected to drop this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are going to see a drop in CO2 emissions as a result of the coming global recession, as well as the fact that we have had the airline industry grounded, and people are in lockdown,” Sauven said. “However, this is not a planned drop, but a forced one because of Covid-19."

"Governments have a huge responsibility now, and whether it's state aid, subsidies, regulations, research and development – governments can ultimately decide the trajectory we will travel on,” he said.

Previous arguments that investors could get higher returns from oil and gas projects than from renewable energy and clean technologies now fall short, Sauven said. Companies like BP could shape the path of the energy industry, he said.

The ‘need’ for re-invention

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, BP's new CEO Bernard Looney has reaffirmed his recent commitment to reinvent the company.

“Some people have also questioned how the current circumstances affect our purpose and net zero ambition," Looney said in a LinkedIn post. "I think what is going on now only reaffirms the need to reinvent our company. And we will.”

The BP boss previously said the company’s low carbon push will mean less cash for exploration. Details about the reorganisation and decarbonisation drive are expected in September.

Some observers also fear the oil-price collapse could undermine the energy transition. But Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said governments' new coronavirus-related economic stimulus packages could actually lend support.

“Large-scale investment to boost the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies – such as solar, wind, hydrogen, batteries and carbon capture – should be a central part of governments’ plans because it will bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions,” Birol said.

He said the precipitous oil-price drop was also “a great opportunity” for countries to lower or remove fossil fuel-consumption subsidies.

Greenpeace's Sauven wants climate action on the same scale as pandemic-containment efforts. “The climate emergency will not go without us putting in the same kind of effort that we are putting in to fight Covid-19,” he said.