For the SNP, the green agenda has the potential to be a key weapon in winning the independence argument – but only if the Government can uphold its side of the bargain
As 2014 approaches, inevitably, all aspects of political life are being picked over by both sides of the independence debate in order to prove that their argument is the correct one.
And the environment is one topic where the SNP Government is trying to put clear water between what is happening in Scotland and in England.
In both Holyrood and Westminster, politicians have made it clear they understand the green agenda is not just a fringe issue.
Since Prime Minister David Cameron made his proclamation that his government would be “the greenest ever”, he has found the UK’s performance on the environment under constant scrutiny.
Under this Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition some important steps have been taken this year.
The Green Investment Bank, for example, is offering loans to companies wanting to invest in renewable energy and environmental projects, and the bank was confirmed as having an HQ that is to be split between London and Edinburgh. Five key priority sectors have been identified to receive some of the £3bn start-up costs.
The Green Deal, which includes measures to make more homes across the UK better sealed and energy efficient, officially launches in October. The scheme will reduce the need for people to pay the upfront costs for complex and expensive measures in homes, such as solid-wall insulation.
But at the same time, the UK Government’s green credentials have been undercut by a perception that the Treasury has been dragging its heels – Chancellor George Osborne faced criticism for not including green measures in the 2012 Budget in April.
To make matters worse, in July there was an outcry when the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced that a decision on the level of subsidy available to renewables energy technology through the Renewables Obligation mechanism would be delayed – because negotiations were still ongoing between the department and Osborne’s Treasury.
When the decision was finally made with a 10 per cent cut for onshore wind from 2013 and potential deeper cuts after 2014, it also included new tax breaks for gas power to encourage new generation in UK waters.
Against this backdrop, it would seem an easy win for the Scottish Government to show itself united in its quest to make the country greener than the RUK and indeed, it is on some of the big environmental issues that ministers have been keen to show off the nation as a ‘world leader’ on the global stage.
When world leaders gathered in Rio for the Earth Summit, to reach a deal to further tackle climate change, the Scottish Government was there – albeit not at the top table – with Environment and Climate Change minister Stewart Stevenson, and officials, joining a UK delegation.
Before the conference got under way in June, the Government confirmed it was launching the world’s first fund dedicated to ‘climate justice’.
Stevenson, First Minister Alex Salmond and former Irish president Mary Robinson – who now heads her own climate change foundation – launched the Climate Change Fund in Edinburgh.
The fund is based on the guiding principle that developing nations are suffering the effects of climate change, including water shortages, in part as a result of the mass-industrialisation of westernised countries like Scotland. An initial £3m will fund water projects in countries, including Malawi.
And inevitably, some people foresee an independent Scotland as crucial to bolstering what is being done nationwide to protect the environment.
At the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign at the Fountainbridge Cinema in Edinburgh – which aimed to be an all encompassing call for an independent Scotland, rather than it just being the preserve of the SNP – figures, including Stan Blackley, the former chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, pledged their support.
The co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, Patrick Harvie, was also at the launch.
The Greens have officially backed Scottish independence since 2005 but not because they are a nationalist party; rather, they see it as the best way to deliver the policies they advocate.
Harvie set out the reasons for SGP support in 2008: “Our support for independence is grounded in local decision-making and decentralism, not nationalistic fervour or identity politics,” he said.
However, this does not mean that the Scottish Government is getting everything right.
In 2009, the Scottish Parliament received acclaim for backing very ambitious climate change targets; with an aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.
The first full set of results released in July though, were disappointing. For 2010, for example, emissions of the six greenhouse gases were estimated to be 55.7m tonnes. While this was down 22.8 per cent from 1990, it was a rise of 5.8 per cent from 2009. In effect, crucially, the first target in the Climate Change Act had been missed.
The differential was blamed on a “significant rise” in emissions from residential properties and power stations as the harshest winter in 91 years (2010) meant people increased their heating usage substantively.
While the Government would have been expecting to take a hit and has said the unofficial figures from DECC are already showing that 2011 was a far better year, it was still a blow for its green credentials.
When Stewart Stevenson spoke to Holyrood this year about the Government’s 2020 aims, he said meeting the targets would be “tough” but he believed it could be done. But the fact that emissions rose rather than fell in that first year demonstrates just how large a task it is.
The rise allowed environmental campaigners to focus, not on the Government’s ambitious intentions, but on what had not been achieved so far.
The Government has been criticised because despite receiving backing for bringing in more renewable energy projects, it still refuses to let go of fossil fuels, particularly by maintaining a keen focus on the North Sea oil and gas industry, which has brought so much wealth to Scotland.
In transport, the Government has been seen as being too slow in moving people out of their cars and onto public transport. A planned replacement for the Forth Road Bridge, a new stretch of motorway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and a proposed bypass around Aberdeen have all been seen as evidence that the car is, in many ways, still king.
The next stage will be publication of the Government’s Report on Policies and Proposals (RPP). Groups dedicated to alleviating climate change insist that there is more in the RPP that shows that those in charge really mean what they say.
The Government has pledged to provide the equivalent of 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But even with this support for renewable energy, the SNP has met criticism. Wind farms, both on and offshore, have sparked vociferous complaints.
Among those making their voice heard was US tycoon, Donald Trump, who threatened to walk away from fully-completing his golf complex in the north-east of Scotland, if a major offshore testing centre went ahead. He gave evidence to a parliamentary committee, warning that Scotland could lose millions from tourism if it continued with its policy of allowing ‘windmills’ to pop up all over the country.
In an open letter to the First Minster, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, Tom Ballantine, said the missed target on emissions was a “disappointment” to the thousands of people who had helped bring the initial Act onto the statute books and added that the new RPP needed to project better plans for the future: “This document must set out a clear, credible and ambitious plan of action – particularly in the transport, energy efficiency and land-use sectors – backed up with appropriate funding in Scottish budgets.
“World-leading climate legislation needs world-leading climate action and we urge you to take the necessary actions to ensure that Scotland’s Climate Change Act remains a source of pride for people across Scotland.”