Scotland at COP23

Steve Rushton reports from the climate negotiations in Bonn, on Scotland’s climate change strategy, and how they compare to our Nordic neighbours. What difference would independence make to our climate policy?

At COP23, the annual climate negotiations in Bonn, I tried to imagine an independent Scotland attending. Would it push for global climate justice? Could it sustain itself without decimating the world? Hopefully. But wishful thinking only gets new nations so far. The ‘Hows’ to these questions need answering before independence. Scotland moves in the right direction. But as anyone who recently caught a train across Germany since their corporate takeover knows, moving in the right direction is one thing, getting to the final destination on time is another.

“Scotland is making great progress in the area of tackling climate change and there is a lot of recognition for what we do,” Roseanna Cunningham, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform explained. I spoke to her after she addressed the Sustainable Innovation Forum, a side event at COP23. On the panel, Cunningham highlighted achievements including ending coal, increasing renewable energy generation and pushing renewable innovations like the world’s first floating wind-farm.

Compared to other early industrialised nations this is trail-blazing. But then, other nations’ efforts on climate change are often woeful. Current global policies would cause temperatures rise of 3.4 degrees by 2100. Climate disaster. Scotland might be better than many, yet it was criticised recently by the Committee on Climate Change for not doing enough to ensure a safe climate future.

One thing currently holding Scotland back is devolution.

“I’m struck in the way we are curtailed, the current devolved competence does not allow us to make the decisions we might otherwise choose to make,” Cunningham explains. “It was interesting sitting on the panel with the Norwegian minister, who with a smaller population can think and act right across the board.”

She points out how the fellow Nordics will ban petrol and diesel vehicles by 2025. Scotland are phasing out selling these vehicles new from 2032.

Norway is a paradox when it comes to climate. The description comes from the country’s Minister of Climate and Environment Vidar Helgesen. Most of Norway’s domestic power comes from renewables, mainly hydro; the nation is trying to electrify everything, from ferries to container ships to fishing vessels; and it will divest its sovereign fund from fossil fuels. All great. Except Norway is driving Arctic drilling. It wants to dump waste in its beautiful fjords. It is no way a model for a globally just Scotland. But independent Scotland could follow Norway.

“If Scotland became an independent nation – all things being equal – it would become a petro-state,” Tadzio Müller tells me.

Müller is a climate justice expert working for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. With his expertise, I originally wanted to ask him about Scotland independently attending the conference. What nations to emulate. But his reality-check informs these answers; UN climate negotiations do not solve the climate crisis as most nations are in bed with big oil.

“Any independence project must ask what is the political-economic basis of the state, Luxembourg is finance speculation, for instance. You have to generate money to exist in the context of a global capitalist economy. You have to presume some companies would leave, like what is happening in Catalonia now. The bourgeoisie of any national project would look immediately to its national resources with the highest pay-off, and these tend to be fossil fuels, as it is in Scotland.”

Müller points to the Latin-America’s leftist projects, Ecuador and Venezuela for instance, still suffering the resource curse that weakens their leftist agenda. He recalls attending a political conference held by Greek Syriza in 2013. They discussed a green transformation verses drilling Aegean Sea for oil. In government Syriza drilled oil under severe pressure from the international finance community.

Not using Scotland’s oil cuts to the heart of the independence question – if you are asking how to create a nation that embodies global justice.

Scotland’s current trajectory has something of a tension. It is far better that the rest of the UK and rest of the world. Not least banning fracking – itself a climate disaster. But responsibility for its coal phase out can be explained by economic factors as much as government leadership. Warmer winters have assisted reducing emissions. The SNP also deserves criticism for promoting air travel and for wasting energy with carbon capture – a swathe of untried and untested means to provide a techno-fix to climate change by sucking pollutants out of the atmosphere.

Using Müller’s expertise, I ask him to cherry-pick means to overcome the oil curse for a new country.

Key elements include the decentralised energy-democratic renewables sector, like in Germany or Denmark to end monopolies. Feed-in tariffs are important, as done in the Germany Renewable Energy Law 2001, since watered down. An ease to create cooperatives is important, as is constructing municipal-run energy systems, as proposed in the Berlin municipal campaign. Phasing out carbon intense industries with just transition is essential. Also the Swiss model to hold referendums on energy policies is useful.

He adds: “I think this conversation needs to be held at great volume; movements for climate justice and energy democracy need to start to fighting now within the independence movement.”

The good news is Scotland is not starting from scratch.

Minister Cunningham told me about Scotland’s plans for a Just Transition Commission:

“Scotland will be the first in the world to actually formulate and implement one. I have just been speaking to organisations about it here and we are in a bit of a race. We have got there first.”

The Just Transition Commission aims to shift Scotland away from fossil fuels and become economically prosperous. The idea has been formulated by unions alongside Friends of the Earth Scotland. It will enable workers, unions, communities and environmentalists work together. So when high-carbon industry are shut down, low-carbon ventures can replace them. The Just Transition Commission and plan for a new Scottish investment bank could be an engine to join the dots together.

On community energy Scotland is breaking boundaries again. It was the first country to introduce a community energy target of 0.5 GW for 2020. It broke this in 2015, so doubled it to 1GW 2020 target. Good news again, but compared total Scottish electrical energy generation of around 50GW this could expand far further.

Local renewable energy projects also suffer from Westminster cuts. “Schemes like the Edinburgh solar cooperative are not viable due to the UK government (ending support schemes), solar might become so cheap it might happen anyway, but so far it is stalled.” Dr Richard Dixon tells me. He is Director of Friends of the Earth and on the board of the Edinburgh solar cooperative.

Potentially the New Scottish Investment Bank and the Just Transition Commission could offer the support for these projects. It solves the paradox that Scotland cannot support its renewable until after independence, whilst it cannot escape the resource curse unless it strengthens energy sovereignty beforehand.

Scotland is already showing potential too, in climate negotiations. For the first time the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed the UN on climate. Scotland was the first nation to sign up to the Under-2 Coalition, a convergence of nations, regions, states and cities – pledging their jurisdictions to the Paris Agreement.

Dixon tells me that Scotland is showing leadership on climate justice.

“We have the climate justice fund, small but getting bigger, that sends a strong message to help countries adapt and change as climate change is effecting them. It started in Malawi and other countries paying for hydro and flood resistance. If we were independent we would feel a moral obligation to spend the right proportion of our GDP on aid, and that would mean a lot more money to fund more onto climate justice.”

Speaking to representatives of NGOs involved in the negotiations, no European country of similar size to Scotland stands out as leading on climate justice within the COP. Denmark is great on community renewables – but quiet in negotiations, possibly burned out from Copenhagen 2009 (COP-15). Norway has an environmentalist and young environmentalist delegation, but also has Arctic oil. Sweden is perhaps the exception, planning to go carbon neutral before 2045.

Dixon tells me that Scotland is on the cusp of setting similar targets. The Scottish Government is choosing when to set a target for zero emissions. Some say 2050. FoE Scotland want 2040. His message is Scotland are doing well, but could go further.

FoE Scotland are also making an important decision: choosing where they stand on independence.

“There are several factors that might make us support independence. One is going back into Europe, or having such a close relationship that we are bound by European environmental standards and directives – as loosing them is a real blow.” Dixon explains.

This opens another can of worms: the EU. From a climate perspective, climate regulations are stronger than what the UK government, which could easily use Brexit as an excuse to weaken their commitments. Being in Europe means taking on the role of the Presidency, so you can push for more climate action from within. On the other hand, it is easy to argue the EU is slow moving on climate and entwined with corporate interests, the same ones that pressured Greece including to wreck its environment.

Whether the new Scotland tackles climate change better as a sovereign nation is another factor on FoE Scotland’s decision.

“In Indyref 1, there was talk of a written constitution and there was a firm offer of writing a ban on nuclear weapons and perhaps a ban on nuclear power stations too, that would be a very interesting route to say we are committed to climate justice.”

But this sentiment can be flipped around.

If the independence movement continues to embrace energy sovereignty, backing the Just Transition Commission and Scottish Investment Bank to give it real teeth and make strong impacts. The question could be how could any climate justice advocate – whether from Scotland or not – NOT support a country breaking free of corporate capture and away from climate crisis?

Comments (5)

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  1. Graeme McCormick says:

    We can break free by using land and the built environment as the sole source of our public revenue funding through Annual Ground Rent.

    That allows us to create a self sustainable energy system.

    This will allow us to challenge the EU commitment to climate change and other policies which are undermined by the actions of governments and their industrial giants. Whisky exports might suffer in the transition but the Scottish government could choose to support the Scottish owned Distillers rather than the global corporates who control from the Scottish Whisky Association and have no sense of social responsibility.

    Their position is very precarious. Imagine if each community in Scotland created their own distillery . Within a few years their brand will challenge theDiageos of this world

    1. Thanks Graeme, you are spot on

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Perhaps we can learn from other countries who have made a successful cultural transition to renewal energy and similar policies on the issue of accommodating all those people who have resisted for various reasons. They may fear social devaluation by smug told-you-sos. They may still retain some denial. They may become irrationally over-enthusiastic but ill-informed converts. Or they may form underground coal cults.

    One of my concerns is that no belief held by humanity seems to every quite die, but can survive out of public sight in some subterranean social reservoirs. There could be significant support for all kinds of things supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history. The Wikipedia page on winnowing has an account of Scottish Presbyterian ministers against wind power.

    Maybe it would help if some high-ranking, diehard fossil-fuel executives tearfully recanted on Youtube. Or more approachable every-people giving talks about their conversion, like ex-convicts on the pitfalls of knife-gang culture.

    Because unless we give proper consideration and effort towards enlightenment (or ideological conversion, if you prefer), then I doubt we can proceed at enough pace to avoid civilization-threatening effects. Or more bluntly, in this fast-changing world, can intellectual revolution be limited to generational* timescales? Do we need to step up persuasion and education beyond targets for energy, transport and climate?

    *I make no connection between age and viewpoint, only the time for a policy-effecting mass of those sticking fast to a belief system to be naturally replaced by newer generations.

  3. Pogliaghi says:

    There are a few points to unpack here. (They are, it must be said, predictable and repetitive points needing to be made in the genre of Scottish left-nationalist writing about the environment. But anyway…):

    1/ Longannet could be closed because Scotland’s peak demand is already met by its two nuclear stations. Which also means the baseload demand is met by nuclear. Which means we aren’t yet bumping up against the severe intermittency limitations of current renewables. (But when we do, as Hunterston and then Torness close, we’ll have more interconnectors to England to balance our wind power with gas power. Which is much dirtier than nuclear, but more profitable for the operators and for the rhetoric of “environmentalists”).

    Longannet closure also comes in a context in which privatisation has meant grid managers take a laissez faire attitude to cutting reserve margins (spare redundant capacity there to make the system more robust), and also, famously, a transmission pricing system designed to reduce costs to the private grid operator. Which is WHY the SNP have effectively taken credit for a coal phase out they never instigated, but in fact, dragged their feet on rather leadenly.

    Let me repeat again: nuclear and, ironically, market-liberalization, not some abstract (and, frankly non-existent except for in the PR sense) political will, deserves credit for Scotland’s coal phase out.

    2/ It’s high time to burst the bubble of this mealy trope “Nordic”, “fellow Nordics” etc. which has outlived its sell by date. Beyond political rhetoric, Scotland is only “Nordic” insofar as Orkney remains linked to Norway, and in fact the rest of Scotland is no more “Nordic” because of Orkney than England is “Nordic” because of the old Danelaw.

    3/ The sell by date is due now because the rhetoric is enabling conniving wee mental somersaults in which one basically says: “Norway is a petro-state, but it is a progressive country. Therefore, Scotland can adapt petro-stateism in service of higher purposes.” The problem is: no it can’t.

    For a kick off Norway’s climate policies are not adequate in 2017.

    Full stop. No whataboutery or side-comparisons; they are not adequate.

    Arctic drilling is Not OK.

    Inveigling a putative iScotland into silly wee geopolitical Arctic Council jockeying vis a vis Russia over arctic commercialization and industrialization (like Riddoch is being suckered into becoming a promoter for, to feed her ego basically)…

    is Not OK.

    Moreover the “Nordic” approach to decarbonization, is in fact, nothing other than the pan-European Green approach more plainly implemented; which is in practice.. rather crap. Let’s take Sweden for example: fossil phase-out by 2045. Sounds wonderful. Yes, but where is the energy going to come from in a country with a similar nuclear situation to Scotland (eg.: 50% of total capacity from nuclear, but with a nuclear phaseout policy). Here’s where: biomass. AKA burning forests. Brilliant! (As for Norway: it’s a completely irrelevant case because of its geographical potential for hydro almost unique, per capita, on earth).

    This is the sort of folly which fairly meaningless cant about “decentralization” and “democracy” (effectively: buying off the middle class opinion-elites with rooftop solar subsidies) disguises. And whom it actually suits are the oil companies, seeking to promote natural gas via the backdoor as the reliability component of the renewable energy system.

    But why feign shock? We are aspiring to be a “Nordic” petro-state with “Nordic” petro-state hypocrisies………… but it is Not OK either

  4. Steve Rushton says:

    Thanks for all the comments, here’s some comments to keep the conversation going.

    I think an annual ground rent, or a land value tax, or any other means to progressively redistribute income in society should be included in both the independence/ energy sovereignty debate.

    Sleeping dog
    Attending COP-23 certainly confirmed the world needs to move faster than the states in bed with big oil have moved. But what I was also struck by is how the carbon intense industries are being successfully held back/ and stopped by at least three other means
    1. Climate litigation
    2. Direct Action and the worldwide protection camps, for instance against dirty coal in Germany
    3. Clean energy beating dirty energy on price.
    I’m not sure how far you could appeal to big oil owners’ conscious, my cynicism is based on how much money they use to fund climate denial. But the divestment movement is a fourth means to undermine big oil – awakening the conscious of potentially unaware investors, for instance, holders of pensions. Another pathway where there is big movement in Scotland.

    Massively agree that Norway is not the way (as I thought the article made clear). Arctic drilling should be stopped. Earlier this year, I travelled (without flying) to Hammerfest to analyse the fightback
    This case is now being argued in the courts, Greenpeace vs. Norway.
    When it comes to Sweden – my point was more that they’re the best of a bad bunch.

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