Scotland needs to move to a low carbon economy, but is there a danger some will be left behind?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 8 May 2019 in Inside Politics

From Extinction Rebellion to school climate strikes, protest over a lack of action on climate change has become impossible to ignore

Image credit: Alamy

“Hearing yourself quoted by an eight-year-old really focuses the mind.”

That was how environment committee convener Gillian Martin put it after being grilled, along with the rest of the environment committee, by some of the young people taking part in the school climate strikes.

The strikers – ranging in age from eight up to 21 – had been invited into the Scottish Parliament to meet politicians to express concern over a perceived lack of action in fighting climate change, and they came prepared. Armed with copies of speeches, stacks of research and lists of each of their voting records, it wasn’t an easy session for the MSPs.

And the strikers are just one wing of a recent explosion in civil disobedience, generated by growing anger over global inaction on climate change. While kids across Scotland walked out of school, Extinction Rebellion, a new climate protest movement, took to the streets – taking over cities around the world, shutting down roads, transport hubs, and at one point, even choosing to strip naked and glue themselves to the visitors’ gallery in the House of Commons.

The protests feel different to previous ones, both in tone and scale. For years, environmental campaigners have been careful to balance warnings over the risk posed by a warming planet with attempts to highlight the positives of a low-carbon future. There seemed to be a fear that too much doom and gloom, too many images of the apocalypse, and people would switch off.

But this feels different. The protest in Edinburgh, which saw 29 people arrested for refusing to move, shut down North Bridge for hours. At another point, they closed down the Scottish Parliament chamber. A few weeks after that, around 300 took part in a mass ‘die-in’ protest – they all lay down and pretended to be dead – in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Protestors lay there for about 20 minutes, underneath ‘Dippy’, the skeleton copy of a diplodocus, with signs asking, ‘Are we next?’

These movements are bigger and more aggressive than the ones that came before, and they are not messing around. As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who led the school strikes put it: “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.

“Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Her reading of the science is sound, with a recent IPCC report warning that humanity has 12 years in which to take the action needed to keep rising temperatures under 1.5C and avert catastrophe.

The difference between 1.5C and 2C, according to the report, is the difference between a world with or without coral reefs. That half a degree is also the difference between summer sea ice disappearing from the Arctic Ocean once per decade, or once per century. Go beyond 1.5C, even by half a degree, and the risk of drought, flooding, extreme heat and rising poverty will put the lives of hundreds of millions of people at risk.

At 1.5C, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50 per cent lower than at 2C, while the number at risk of climate-related poverty would vary by hundreds of millions.

At 2C, extremely hot days would become hotter and more common, leading to increasing numbers of heat-related deaths and more forest fires. Meanwhile, insects would be twice as likely to lose half their habitat at 2C compared with 1.5C. That would mean more crops would go unpollinated and more people would go hungry. The planet is currently on course to hit 3C.

And so it was that 144 scientists from 14 Scottish universities and research institutes across the country wrote to the Scottish Government backing the school strikers and urging ministers to declare a “climate emergency”.

Taking aim at the Scottish Government’s climate change bill, which recently completed Stage 1 in its journey through parliament with targets for a 90 per cent reduction in emisions by 2050, the scientists demanded tougher action.

Referring to the Scottish Government’s targets, the letter says: “We do not believe that this adequately reflects the level of urgency which this issue merits, or the level of societal engagement which the necessary changes will require.”

It adds: “In recent weeks there has been an unprecedented surge in non-violent direct actions across the world to highlight the global climate and ecological emergency. These movements are calling for urgent upheaval of the status quo. They demand that the government declares a climate emergency, that we halt biodiversity loss, reduce net emissions to zero by 2025, and that we explore a ‘Green New Deal’ to restructure the economy. Most importantly, these movements emphasise reformed school curriculums and mass democratic political involvement such as citizens’ assemblies to implement these changes. We believe that the science is there, what is required now is action.”

If it seemed hard on a government which is generally considered to be progressive on climate change – UN Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, complimented Scotland on its “exemplary record” – the wave of protest certainly seemed to reach into Bute House, with Nicola Sturgeon using her spring conference speech to acquiesce and declare a “climate emergency”.

As the SNP leader put it: “We are already a world leader and our new legislation commits us to being carbon neutral by 2050. It contains some of the toughest targets in the world. But many are urging us to do more and go further. I am listening. Later this week, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will publish new scientific advice on Scotland’s targets, so I am making this public promise to the young people I met, and to their entire generation. If that advice says we can go further or go faster, we will do so.”

The move was greeted with a standing ovation from delegates, even if the idea that policy will be guided by the CCC is hardly a new one.

And so the Scottish Government then confirmed amendments had been lodged to the Climate Change Bill to set a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest, with Scotland becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

With the CCC advice calling on ministers to go further, they agreed to target zero emissions by 2045, alongside interim targets for a 70 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 and a 90 per cent reduction by 2040, relative to 1990 levels. Scottish emissions were 49 per cent below 1990 in 2016.

 Yet campaigners were quick to ask for more detail. As Friends of the Earth Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon put it: “We have known for years that there is a climate emergency, what we need now is an emergency response.”

He added: “We need to stop doing the things which are ploughing us ever further into crisis. That means an end to new oil exploration and a plan to replace North Sea oil jobs with clean energy jobs, it means investment to make our energy-wasting homes more efficient and it means spending transport money on walking, cycling and public transport instead of things which encourage people to drive even more.”

Dixon was not alone in calling for a plan, backed by heavy investment, to create a new generation of jobs in the industries and infrastructure needed to tackle the climate crisis. Yet while new UK Government figures showing Scotland increased renewable energy generation by six per cent between 2017 and 2018, the increase was largely driven by the growth of wind power, with offshore wind projects off the east coast coming on line last year. Progress in other areas, such as the heat sector – as well as in reducing transport and agricultural emissions – remains much slower.

And while the need to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions while transitioning rapidly to new forms of renewable energy is widely accepted, concerns remain about how the process will look, and who the potential winners and losers may be. That was the thrust of a recent report from the STUC, examining how past promises of employment in the low-carbon and renewable energy (LCRE) economy have not translated into the jobs boom promised.

Stressing the STUC supports transitioning to a low carbon economy, the report takes aim at “the failure of industrial policy to ensure that workers, businesses and government in Scotland benefit from Scotland’s natural resources”, adding: “Without a domestic industrial base for the LCRE economy, not only will workers in Scotland miss out, but there are serious implications in terms of tax, transparency, economic democracy and meeting climate targets.”

The report, ‘Broken promises and offshored jobs’ highlights the gap between government promises and the new opportunities created in renewables, with ministers having forecast up to 130,000 jobs in the LCRE economy by 2020, and current figures revealing around 46,400 (21,400 direct and 25,000 indirect) employees working in the sector at present.

So what caused this gap, between hope and reality? To the STUC, the problem comes from a failure to build a Scottish supply chain, through producing and, ideally exporting, domestic content rather than importing content from overseas.

As the report warns, “a number of current renewable energy development projects illustrate the failure to build a domestic industrial base and an over-reliance on imported goods and services”, with the authors castigating “a web of financial interests which leads to overseas state-protected, loss-making industries gaining an uncompetitive advantage within Scotland’s LCRE economy, while simultaneously driving down working conditions”.

Releasing the study, STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: “Carbon reduction will only come from economic and social change on a massive scale. Work will be transformed, and that comes with uncertainty and risk.

He added: “Equally, commitments to new jobs and policy reforms have failed to materialise, time and time again. Scotland’s unions each have a different stake in this debate, but they are clear that market-driven policies are not the answer. Interventions in research, education, industry and ownership – as well as international cooperation – are crucial components of any just transition to a low-carbon economy.”

So how to avoid history repeating itself? The Greens have long championed the idea of a Green New Deal, potentially creating 200,000 Scottish jobs through interventions across the entire economy, with parliament then backing a motion on the subject put forward by Alison Johnstone. Her motion, as amended, urged ministers to develop a Green New Deal for Scotland that establishes a 10-year economic and public investment strategy to promote “an inclusive and sustainable economy” that prioritises decarbonisation, the eradication of inequality and the restoration of Scotland’s environment in a way that supports community and employee-led actions.

It also welcomed the work of the Just Transition Commission, recognised the role of the Scottish National Investment Bank (SNIB) in making the transition to a carbon neutral economy, and called on the Scottish Government to work with other parties to ensure that this agenda is a central part of the SNIB’s core activities.

Part of the answer should lie with the SNIB, which was established to “provide finance and act to catalyse private investment to achieve a step change in growth for the Scottish economy by powering innovation and accelerating the move to a low carbon, high-tech, connected, globally competitive and inclusive economy”.

Meanwhile, responsibility for advising on the journey to a carbon-neutral economy lies with the Just Transition Commission. Established in September, following a pledge in the Programme for Government, the commission will look at how to maximise opportunities of decarbonisation, in terms of fair work and tackling inequalities, while delivering a sustainable and inclusive labour market.

And while the commission’s work is still in its infancy, the task facing it is urgent. For Labour MSP Claudia Beamish, a key factor in its success will be whether it can make long-term decisions, free from party-political considerations, with the Shadow Environment Secretary leading a campaign for it to be established on a statutory, long-term footing, right up to 2050, though questions remain over how it would be made accountable to parliament in practice.

The Scottish Government agreed to consider the idea in a vote earlier this year, with Beamish planning to lodge a Stage 2 amendment in the climate change bill requiring the commission to report regularly, possibly every two years.

Beamish told Holyrood: “I am absolutely clear the commission should be on a statutory footing so that it can’t be the case that the next government doesn’t want a Just Transition Commission, or doesn’t see it as important, and therefore it should be statutory.

“It’s important for a whole range of stakeholders and it’s important for strategic planning that the Just Transition Commission is giving direction in relation to the development of new skills, and in relation to transferable skills, not only for the energy sector but for farming and transport. There are all sorts of ways we are going to have to change. Even if we don’t know exactly what those ways are at the moment, the commission, in my view, should be tasked with making sure that it is done in a strategic and just way. A fair way.”

She added: “If you look at when the mines were closed, a lot of communities were just left and abandoned by government. I can only speak for my own party but from the Labour movement perspective, we are determined that won’t happen again and we have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t. If there are policy changes which affect working people, and communities, and businesses, then we must make sure we plan for that transfer.”

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