Analysis: A turbulent 12 months for Scotland's environment
From the Paris climate talks, to land reform, to scandals over CAP payments, it has been an eventful year in the environment sector
Hills - credit: Flickr
Looking back, November’s Paris climate talks feel like a really long time ago. Maybe it’s natural. Maybe inevitable. But even by the time the world’s delegates packed up their bags, stowed away policy documents and got on their flights home from COP21, the world, and the news agenda, had already moved on.
The talks themselves had been overshadowed by atrocities carried out in Paris on the eve of the conference, with a series of coordinated terrorist attacks sweeping across the capital and killing 130 people. Some questioned whether it was even feasible for them to go-ahead in the circumstances.
In the event things went smoothly, in fact with protests banned following the heightened security alert, the talks were unusually quiet.
But while the atmosphere may have been tinged by tragedy, in the end the deal was stronger than many had predicted, at least on paper, with governments agreeing to limit warming to 1.5C against pre-industrial temperatures – even if the agreement will remain largely theoretical until it is ratified by states. Nonetheless, it went further than many had expected. In the fight to mitigate global climate change, the Paris talks were the most critical event of the last 12 months.
Closer to home, tensions between the Scottish Government and its UK counterpart over energy policy, particularly in relation to renewables, had been increasing ever since the Conservatives won their surprise majority in the General Election.
In mid-November then energy minister Fergus Ewing warned that UK Government plans to build new gas-fired power stations while investing in new nuclear plants was “bad news” for Scotland’s renewables industry. By the end of that month he had called the UK Government’s decision to scrap its £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) programme – funding which had been pledged in the Tory manifesto – a “disgrace”.
Then last month the party accused the UK Government of launching a “relentless and sustained assault” on the Scottish renewables sector. Scottish Tories aside, this feeling was broadly shared across the Scottish Parliament, with this general sense of hostility towards UK energy policy succeeding in uniting parties more used to clashing. This sense was most obvious with the UK Government’s decision to permit onshore fracking for the first time.
The Scottish Government introduced a moratorium on both fracking and underground coal gasification back in 2015, yet as the year went on the debate over unconventional gas extraction in Scotland became ever louder.
Things came to a head with a non-binding motion tabled by Scottish Labour in June, which stated that “to meet Scotland’s climate change goals and protect the environment, there must be an outright ban on fracking in Scotland”.
In the end Labour, the Greens and Lib Dems voted in favour of the motion, the Tories voted against and the SNP chose to abstain. It was passed.
Recriminations quickly followed, with the SNP claiming it had been forced to abstain in the vote to avoid a legal challenge if its consultation – due to report in the autumn – does finally result in opposition to the technique. Labour, predictably, rejected this.
Whether the move was a political stunt or not remains disputed – and the motion was non-binding anyway – but the fallout showed how strained the debate had become. In fact, it may well have been his perceived support for fracking that led Nicola Sturgeon to move Ewing out of energy and promote him into the rural affairs brief.
The reshuffle came as a surprise, with Richard Lochhead, one of the joint longest serving cabinet secretaries, moved to the backbenches. His portfolio, covering Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, was split up into two – with one cabinet secretary covering Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, and another taking on Rural Economy and Connectivity.
But while Roseanna Cunningham had time to reacquaint herself with the brief she had held up until the 2011 election, Fergus Ewing was forced to begin his time as rural affairs secretary with an apology over delayed CAP payments.
Ministers had promised farmers they would receive payments by the end of January. By mid-February, only a third had been made. In the end the European Commission was forced to extend the deadline, saving the Scottish Government from a potential £125m fine in the process.
Criticism had been building throughout that period, with the Scottish Tories focusing on the issue heavily in the election campaign. As Ruth Davidson had put it: “The First Minister has lost the trust of rural Scotland.”
And so it was that Ewing, just days from taking over as Cabinet Secretary, was forced to stand in the chamber and offer a full apology.
“On behalf of the Scottish Government, I address three simple words to all farmers and crofters who have suffered as a result: we are sorry. Let me follow that up with four further words: we are fixing it.”
Land reform too has divided the environment and rural briefs. With half of all rural land in Scotland in the possession of just 432 owners, campaigners have long argued that a package of radical land reform must be brought to bear in the name of greater equality – indeed, Nicola Sturgeon made the issue one of her main focusses upon taking over as First Minister.
The Land Reform Bill was passed in March, creating a register of landowners, provisions to force owners to sell if it is in the public interest, as well as plans for a new land commission. It also ended tax breaks for shooting estates and established a £10m land fund to help community buy-outs.
Yet parties across the chamber were pretty unimpressed, albeit for entirely contradictory reasons.
For the Scottish Tories, the plans were the result of an ideological fixation that would cost jobs in rural areas. As Alex Fergusson put it: “Overall, we cannot support a bill that will disadvantage tenants, make it harder for new entrants and discourage owners of land from letting it.”
However, for the Greens and Scottish Labour, the legislation did not go far enough. Amendments aimed at stopping land ownership via offshore tax havens, as well as measures capping the amount of land an individual could own, were blocked by SNP and Tory MSPs, with Sarah Boyack describing the way the legislation had been treated as “an absolute shambles”.
Following moves at SNP conference to push for tougher action, it seems likely some in the governing party too will have been disappointed by the relatively limited reach of the legislation.
Speaking before the debate, Andy Wightman said: “With a government majority, it’s simply baffling that the SNP – whose own membership has been agitating for radical measures – have passed up the opportunity to deliver real reforms.”
But despite the occasionally fractious exchanges in Parliament, and the strained relations between Holyrood and Westminster, the EU referendum brought international issues back into the sector, and environmental groups were worried.
As Friends of the Earth Scotland put it: “If you care about the environment you should vote to remain in the EU”.
The effect of Brexit on the environment sector is still unknown. Cunningham summed up the importance of the vote on her portfolio, telling the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Committee: “The past week puts everything in my portfolio into a slightly different light; my portfolio and possibly the rural economy portfolio are the two that are most heavily impacted by the EU. Just about every aspect of what we do will have to be seen against the new backdrop.”
The decision to leave, she said, was a “big unknown”, in terms of how it would impact on different policy areas.
And more worryingly, the Brexit vote could also put the future of the Paris agreement at risk. Within days of the vote, questions emerged over whether the chaos unleashed by the Leave vote, and David Cameron’s immediate resignation as Prime Minister, could delay the deal’s ratification.
It will be interesting to see how the UK Government proceeds. But with the fracking consultation due to close, land reform unfinished, and the SNP apparently set to plough on with plans to cut Air Passenger Duty – regardless of the environmental consequences – the next session of the Scottish Parliament looks set to be as eventful as the last.
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