Earlier this week I took part in a breakfast debate at the Scottish Renewables annual conference on the impact that Scottish independence might have on renewable energy in Scotland.
I’m not an expert in energy policy, although I do have some knowledge of the issue from my 23+ years as an environmental campaigner, most recently as Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland. What I am is a passionate believer that Scotland’s energy future must (and will) be a clean, green, renewable one.
During my time as a campaigner, I’ve dealt directly with both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments. The difference between the two experiences has been night and day. I’d liken trying to have any influence on the UK Parliament to ‘banging your head repeatedly against a brick wall’. Influencing the Scottish Parliament, by comparison, could be described as more of a ‘pillow fight’.
Environmental campaigners have made the most of the last dozen-or-so years of devolution, starting with relatively soft targets, such as banning fox hunting and establishing National Parks, and, more recently, ensuring that Scotland’s Climate Change Act was one of the strongest in the world, which was a much greater challenge.
However, the limitations of the current devolution settlement are now beginning to restrict the influence that people like me can have. The risk is that I once again find myself banging my head against a brick wall. My colleagues and I have achieved what we can with the opportunities we currently have available to us and we now need to gain more influence over, for example, the reserved issues of taxation, defence, foreign policy and energy to continue our work to make Scotland a better place for its people, and a better place in the world. That is one of the reasons why I support Scottish independence.
I currently work for Yes Scotland – the campaign for a Yes vote at the referendum on Scottish independence. The Yes campaign is a broad church, which means (just like the ‘No campaign’) we don’t always agree on specific or detailed policy issues. What unites us all in the Yes campaign is the belief that Scotland should control all of the policies that impact on its people, and that future decisions about Scotland should be taken by those with the biggest stake – the people of Scotland.
It’s easy to see that renewables policy in Scotland has already delivered jobs, investment and environmental benefit, but Scotland needs more say in its own energy future to achieve the clean, green, renewable one that I dream of and expect.
For example, our politicians at Holyrood can promote renewable energy through the planning system and by showing consistent policy support, but without the power to regulate the energy market they can do nothing to shift incentives towards renewables and a sustainable energy policy.
I believe we should be devoting far more resources to energy efficiency and demand reduction (and the social and economic benefits that spin out from these) but without the power to define the energy companies’ obligations we’ll always get less bang for our buck.
The Scottish Government can argue the case for high voltage North Sea grid connections to create a Europe-wide market for Scotland’s clean, green electricity and ensure supply and security, but without the status of a separate member state in Europe, Scotland is left with UK Ministers to speak on its behalf – those who are prioritising new nuclear power stations and the dash for unconventional gas.
We are now well accustomed to the negative tactics of the ‘No campaign’, whose campaigners waste no opportunity to cast doubt and scaremonger, yet when these claims are examined in any detail they often fall apart. For example, at the Scottish Renewables conference, UK Energy Minister, Ed Davey, argued (rather petulantly) that the rest of the UK would not necessarily buy its electricity from an independent Scotland, yet the UK Government has admitted that energy is a cross-border asset and it is clear that the rest of the UK will actually rely on Scotland’s renewable electricity supply to meet its legally binding renewables and carbon emissions reduction targets.
The idea that the rest of the UK wouldn’t buy clean, green, affordable electricity from an independent Scotland is ludicrous, especially when the UK Government recently announced that it will be buying electricity from Ireland. With Ofgem fast-tracking £7 billion worth of upgrades to the grid in Scotland to boost transmission, it’s implausible that the UK electricity market won’t remain, giving an independent Scotland the opportunity to be a net exporter of renewable electricity and a good neighbour.
Scotland should be rightly proud of how much it has achieved so far in the establishment of a renewables industry that is seeding a green economy and helping reduce carbon emissions, but we still need to do much more. We’ve managed to achieve so much without having complete control over energy policy, without having our own voice in Europe, and despite the disinterest and opposing direction of UK Ministers. Imagine what we could do if we had complete control over all of the decisions relating to Scotland and its energy future.