The launch of a draft Climate Change Plan (“Scotland sets ambitious goal of 66% emissions cut within 15 years”) lacks the bombast and ceremony of a presidential inauguration- given political developments in the USA and the wider world in recent months, the actions of a small country in the chilly Northern periphery of Europe could easily be forgotten. Events in the Scottish Parliament this week, however, are made no less significant by their context; in fact, it may make them more important than ever. A man who claimed that global warming was invented by the Chinese to undermine US manufacturing being elected president of the United States does not inspire confidence that he is the man to lead the US, and the world, to a carbon-free future; but a reassuring whisper need not be lost in a cacophony of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
It is pointless to despair at that which we cannot change – we must instead endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and focus on what is achievable and productive. Scotland cannot, on its own, prevent catastrophic global warming; but as an industrialised, oil-rich nation it is incumbent upon us to innovate, atone, and pioneer the post-carbon future. In many ways we already are – be it via the world-leading European Marine Energy Centre on Orkney, or smaller scale demonstrations of clean tech like the PURE project on Shetland, powering cars from hydrogen and wind.
Such technological innovation does not happen in a vacuum and is not without wider-ranging consequence. Communities like the Standing Rock protestors can change the course of a pipeline, but nations can affect entire continents. Scotland has long had lofty ambitions in environmental manners – embracing with enthusiasm European environmental directives, smashing its renewable energy generation target six years early and pursuing ambitious policies in land reform, waste reduction, and community ownership of energy sources. The SNP’s draft climate change plan is a continuation of this proud tradition and has admirable intention – but it is not without its challenges.
• 40% of all new cars and vans sold in Scotland to be ultra-low-emission by 2032, with 50% of Scotland’s buses to be low-carbon.
• A totally carbon-free electricity sector based entirely on renewable energy sources by 2032, when Scotland’s last nuclear power station will close.
• Four out of five of Scotland’s 2m homes to be heated using low-carbon technologies.
• The repairing of 250,000 hectares of degraded peatlands, which store a total of 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 in Scotland.
• At least 30% of Scotland’s vital publicly owned ferry fleet to be low-carbon, powered by hybrid engines.
The plan to decarbonise heating by providing 80% of heating via low carbon means is incredibly bold. Heating is notoriously difficult to clean up, particularly in the UK with its aging, leaky housing stock. In general terms, a lot of Britain’s housing stock was built when energy was dirt cheap. To heat a house you could just connect it up to gas mains and run the boiler, or, if you didn’t have gas, a two-bar heater in the living room would do the trick. The poor standard of housing stock is symptomatic of wider socioeconomic challenges which have plagued the UK since before the Five Giants identified in the Beveridge report. To fully decarbonise heating therefore requires significant investment not just in energy transmission and generation, but, if we really want to make a profound difference, housing standards and energy efficiency.
Many subsidies at the moment simply reward people who do not need support in the first place, especially feed-in tariffs. Middle class people can afford to put solar panels on their roofs, then benefit from the income that comes from the electricity generated. A refocussing of subsidy schemes towards working-class people could provide genuinely transformational outcomes both cities and rural areas. This would both help decarbonise electricity by reducing demand and, more importantly, improve standards of living for people currently experiencing fuel poverty. Providing financial support to housing associations and local authorities to carry out such work would be socially and environmentally revolutionary. If Scotland wants to meet its target for reducing carbon in heating, and its equally ambitious target for a 66% carbon reduction, it needs to address fuel poverty and its housing stock as an absolute priority.
On a wider scale, the plan mentions Scotland participating in the EU Emissions Trading System- a scheme whereby companies which do well to reduce their carbon emissions can “sell” their spare carbon on a market to companies who failed to meet their own targets. Needless to say, this is a particularly brave assumption to make as the Conservatives try and drag Scotland out of Europe by the scruff of its neck. It is, however, yet another example of the absolute necessity of Scotland’s continuing participation in the EU and its institutions. On its own, as noble as it is for Scotland to take arms against a sea of troubles, its voice is lost. However, as a couple of regions in Belgium can flummox a trade deal for the entire EU – a country like Scotland could revolutionise the entire EU’s energy generation.
Scotland has the potential to generate over 140% of its electricity consumption via renewables such as wind and wave, according to the WWF: it just needs the political and social will to do so. Schemes such as the Renewable Obligation and Feed-In-Tariffs helped get wind to the point where it is now genuinely competing with coal in cost and production, but onshore developments are continually stymied by middle-class hill-walkers in the Central Belt taking umbrage with developments hundreds of miles away in post-clearance land in the Highlands and Islands. A realistic balance needs to be found to support the retention of skills and jobs in the H&I, and the associated economic growth thereof, whilst still respecting local communities. The current planning system can be guilty of appeasing John Muir Trust supporting Morningside Monarch-of-the-Glen nostalgists at the cost of jobs and opportunity for communities in the wider Highlands.
A lot of the painless, easy gains have already been made regarding decarbonisation of energy, Longannet’s closure being a prime example of this. That hulking monster of a generator needs replacing, and once again Europe offers the solution in the form of the EU Supergrid. Scotland already generates more wind power than almost anywhere else on the planet, and you can get 4 times more power out of a wind turbine in Scotland than in Italy, with the reverse true of solar power. The future of power is European – buying solar from the Mediterranean, and selling wind from the North Sea. The planned European Supergrid, with its heart based in enormous off-shore wind-farms between Scotland and Norway, is the future of the North East of Scotland and has the potential to replace thousands of oil-based jobs with clean power ones indefinitely- well before the last well runs dry – if we have the will to do so.
The future of Grangemouth, given its enormous contribution the Scots economy and correspondingly enormous carbon footprint, also cannot be ignored. We cannot do to the people of Grangemouth what Thatcher did to the communities surrounding collieries and steel mills. The reindustrialisation of Scotland cannot simply discard oil and gas workers as expendable externalities on a spreadsheet – but the operations, manufacture, and supply of renewable technology and engineering in the wind capital of Europe offers the best chance we’ll ever have to simultaneously decarbonise and revitalise Highland and Island communities.
The Climate Plan is ambitious and reflective of a confident and environmentally conscientious nation. It has its challenges, but its recognition of the importance of the EU to Scotland and the need to decarbonise heating and transport are worthy and admirable. The targets are admirable and bold, but how we achieve them and retain our rightful place at the heart of Europe’s environmental revolution – that is the question. Having achieved so much, we simply cannot allow Scotland’s climate and renewable energy ambitions to be undone by the carelessness and xenophobia of Eurosceptic Tories.
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