As the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Authority (EBA) move from London to Amsterdam and Paris, and Labour vote to leave the Customs Union – as the full scale of the Brexit calamity unfolds, new alliances and connections are to be made. Scotland is looking north.
Over the past few days Edinburgh has been host to the Arctic Circle “the largest international gathering on Arctic issues”. As Finland’s Samuli Virtanen put it: “Even though the UK is leaving the EU, we hope you are not leaving Europe and the Arctic cooperation”.
As Nicola Sturgeon explained in her address: “The northern part of Scotland is closer to the Arctic than it is to London.”
” …the focus of this Forum is not our shared past – important though that is. It is about the future – and specifically Scotland’s modern relationship with the Arctic region. Now, our similarities – both geographic and cultural – mean that Scotland and the Arctic states often face many of the same issues. In fact, we’re seeing that more and more, as our nations adapt to major economic and environmental changes – from the onset of global warming to the effects of globalisation. It means that, now more than ever, there is a need – and indeed an opportunity – for us to work together on shared priorities. That’s fundamentally what this Forum – and our concept of the ‘New North’ – is all about.”
Presentations on resilience, indigenous culture, marine energy, fishing, transport, renewables, sustainable tourism and digital connectivity for rural and remote communities jostled together. This was Scotland acting ‘As If’ in the best possible sense. Welcoming representatives from Iceland, Norway, Greenland, the Faroes, Denmark, Alaska and Finland was not just an exercise in soft-power but a step towards brokering innovative and potentially groundbreaking deals and alliances.
But the event was not without tensions and contradictions.
The map-graphic of the event excluded Orkney, Shetland and the Faroe Islands, an oversight that seemed to reflect the missing grassroots, civic and community groups from across the ‘New North’. This was a technocratic, business-focused meet-up.
At times the outlook and focus of the event seemed unclear.
Chairman Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson stated:
“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. In addressing it, it’s important that Scotland’s expertise is involved” and Nicola Sturgeon made it clear in her opening remarks that environmental justice was key. This point was reiterated in a striking speech by Rt Hon. Lord Deben (Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change) in which he highlighted the industrialised nations moral responsibility to overcome climate change for those poor & vulnerable communities unable to adapt to its impacts.
But if this was how the event was framed, it was not how the focus unfolded.
A series of quietly terrifying presentations by research bodies mapped the global consequences of climate change in the Arctic. But this mixture of cooly presented data on the polar ice shelf melting was then interspersed with shipping magnates drooling over the commercial opportunities of exciting new shipping routes.
If we do not collectively respond to climate change as a systemic problem rather than a commercial opportunity then we are lost. If we do not confront the dynamic of the growth economy and attend to a dramatic carbon reduction plan then our efforts to reach solutions to the climate crisis are meaningless.
The Arctic Circle highlighted the deficiency of Scotland’s infrastructure in comparison to our near neighbours. Our ports, our shipping and our transport infrastructure are not fit for purpose, and the connections being made across the new north might well motivate us to confront this as partnerships are made and ideas exchanged.
Scotland’s climate targets are indeed world-leading and our expertise in marine renewables and technology invaluable.
But Scotland’s emissions reductions have been overwhelmingly focused in energy.
Where is the strategy for low carbon travel to and from Scotland?
There is none.
Where is the strategy for a low carbon food economy?
There is none.
As one delegate explained how his company was going to fly fish from Iceland to New York and another promised how Scotland could be a stop-off in the international container shipping route, the notion of Scotland as a partner to the Arctic countries takes a different shine.
A European Parliament study prior to the Paris Agreement showed that shipping GHG emissions were up 70% since 1990 and are projected to grow by up to a further 250% by 2050. It predicted that if left unregulated almost 40% of all CO2 emissions in 2050 will be caused by shipping and aviation.
If we have a role in the new North – and we do – it should be in highlighting the need to move away from polluting practices, innovate to a low-carbon future and create an alternative to the economic suicide that fuels the climate crisis.