The SNP’s environmental policies reveal a fascinating muddle of contradictions

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 7 June 2018 in Inside Politics

A look at the SNP's approach to the environment reveals a mixed record on energy efficiency, air pollution and climate change

Image credit: ESA

When Nicola Sturgeon took to the stage at the 2017 SNP conference, it’s probably fair to say she was addressing a party experiencing a complicated cocktail of emotions.

It had been an odd couple of years for the SNP. The party’s polling remained very high, by any standard. And as the party of government for a third consecutive term in Holyrood, with its conference venue packed to the rafters, three years on from the post indyref membership surge, you might have expected the mood to be upbeat.

Yet, coming on the back of the 2017 snap general election, which saw the loss of 21 MPs – albeit against a historic high of 56 seats won in the 2015 election – and with independence no closer than any point since 18 September 2014, the success may have felt somewhat hollow.

The party needed a boost. And so, between the run-up and the conference itself, delegates had been greeted by a series of eye-catching policy moves.

These were aimed at injecting momentum and enthusiasm back into the rank and file, with the Scottish Government’s decision to announce a permanent moratorium on fracking drawing the most enthusiasm from delegates. The decision – widely welcomed by party members – seemed to send a bold, pro-environmental message to Scotland and beyond.

As Sturgeon had put it, looking down on the 3,000 or so delegates awaiting her conference speech last year: “We should be proud of how we handle the difficult decisions involved in tackling climate change.

“We don’t rush to judgment. We weigh up the evidence. We listen to the people. And we come to clear conclusions. Clear conclusions like this one: fracking is now banned in Scotland.”

Seven months on, though, the decision seemed less clear cut, after a legal challenge brought by Ineos prompted a government lawyer to seemingly contradict claims of a ban, despite the fact it had been made repeatedly by senior figures.

Speaking in the Court of Session, Scottish Government advocate James Mure QC had argued: “The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement. What they have done is to announce a preferred position on the issue.”

Predictably, opposition leapt on the statement, with Scottish Labour’s Environment and Climate Change spokesperson Claudia Beamish demanding an explanation from the party, saying: “This sums up perfectly the SNP Government’s attitude – spin before substance.”

Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Alexander Burnett, meanwhile, described the statement as “beyond humiliating for the SNP”, while demanding the party explain to parliament “why these seemingly misleading statements were made”.

For its part, the SNP hit back, with a spokesperson arguing the attacks “defy all logic”.

The spokesperson said: “If the Tories are right – and they’re not – why has Ineos taken its case against a ban to the Court of Session?

“There is no fracking in Scotland and there can be no fracking in Scotland. That’s because the SNP has taken decisive action, which builds on our existing moratorium.”

And so fracking is apparently not banned, even though no one will be allowed to do it, and Scottish politics is as confusing as ever.

In environmental policy, the SNP remains a fascinating muddle of contradictions. A party that accepts the evidence that the world is warming, and that humans are causing it, but rejects the consensus that a majority of the world’s oil and gas reserves must remain underground, untapped, if planet earth is to avoid the most catastrophic effects brought by anything above a two degree increase in global temperatures.

Emissions policy stands as a clear example of the SNP looking to demonstrate leadership on climate change, while continuing to frustrate environmental campaigners by falling just short.

Again, the picture is nuanced. There’s no doubt Scotland’s approach to mitigating climate change is among the most ambitious in the world. The 2009 Climate Change Act – setting legally-binding targets to reduce Scotland’s emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050 – was genuinely world leading. The legislation also included an interim target for a 42 per cent emission reduction by 2020, with the aim then achieved six years earlier than expected.

Meanwhile, emission levels in 2014 were 45.8 per cent lower than in 1990, in large part because of the drive brought by the government’s legislative ambitions.

Clearly that represented progressive policy. Yet new targets, contained in the Climate Change Bill – published at the end of last month – were met by a palpable sense of disappointment from environmental campaigners, who had been pushing for a net-zero emission target by 2050.

Instead, ministers confirmed the plans will target a 90 per cent emission cut by 2050, alongside assurances that the net-zero target will be achieved ‘as soon as possible’.

Under the draft plans, ministers will be required to keep the net-zero target date under review by seeking expert advice on the issue every five years.

New interim targets will aim for a 56 per cent reduction by 2020, a 66 per cent reduction by 2030, and a 78 per cent reduction by 2040.

Publishing the bill, Roseanna Cunningham said: “Our Climate Change Bill sets out our commitment to reduce emissions by 100 per cent with ambitious interim targets which strengthen Scotland’s world-leading position on climate change.”

She added: “By 2030, we will cut emissions by two thirds and, unlike other nations, we will not use carbon offsetting, where other countries are paid to cut emissions for us, to achieve our goal.

“The fight against climate change is a moral responsibility but Scotland’s academic and engineering expertise, coupled with our outstanding natural resources, mean it is also an economic opportunity.

“Climate change is one of the defining challenges of our age and Scotland’s international leadership means our plans must be ambitious, credible and affordable – which is exactly what the new Climate Change Bill delivers.”

But while the Environment Secretary insisted that, because the targets will be legally binding, the 90 per cent reduction is more ambitious than the 100 per cent reduction adopted by other countries, campaigners were dismayed.

Tom Ballantine, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, said: “It’s hugely disappointing that the Scottish Government has failed to live up to its own rhetoric on global climate change leadership, by failing to set a net zero emissions target in the Climate Change Bill published today.

“The Government claims Scotland will be one of the first countries to achieve zero emissions, but the bill does not commit to that. It sets a target of only a 90 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.

“By failing to ally with the global momentum towards zero emissions, led by countries like France, Sweden and New Zealand, Scotland is missing a huge opportunity to end its contribution to climate change in a generation, attract clean investment and retain its position as a leader on the global stage.

“We’re now calling on MSPs from all parties to push for stronger targets on emissions – net-zero by 2050 at the latest, 77 per cent by 2030 and the action needed to deliver on them in line with the Paris Agreement.”

Yet clearly, when it comes to environmental policy, all things are relative. In fact, considering there’s a climate sceptic in the White House and a Conservative government in Westminster seemingly intent on tearing apart support mechanisms for clean energy, the SNP starts to look much greener.

In July 2017, the UK Government announced plans to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040. Soon after, the Scottish Government went further, with Nicola Sturgeon using her Programme for Government (PfG) to announce plans to do the same, but eight years faster.

Similarly, Michael Gove earned plaudits for tough action on plastics, after seeing their impact on the marine environment in the BBC’s Blue Planet II.

The environment secretary’s response in March this year was to unveil plans for a deposit return scheme. Yet the Scottish Government had already boasted of very similar plans six months earlier, when the BBC’s hard-hitting documentary was still in the editing room.

In fact, the PfG, greeted as the “greenest in history”, also saw the FM announce plans to establish an advisory group on reducing waste, including consideration of a possible levy on single-use coffee cups, double investment in active travel to £80m per year from 2018-19, and introduce a Transport Bill “to provide local authorities with flexible options to improve bus services in their local areas”.

In all these areas, Scottish ministers could lay claim to pushing forward the green agenda. And yet doubts remained.

Air pollution stands as perhaps the clearest example of Scottish policy meeting a simultaneous mix of praise and damnation.

Concerns over dangerously high levels of air pollution have been growing for years now, with the problem thought to contribute to somewhere between 2,500-3,000 early deaths each year north of the border, and to around 40,000 annually across the UK. In fact, with the UK having been dragged to court by the European Commission over its long-running failure to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, action would have been required whether the Scottish Government wanted to take any or not.

And so plans for low emission zones (LEZs) were unveiled, with Glasgow named as the trial city at the 2017 conference. Yet, as with action on emissions, reaction was mixed.

For campaigners, the draft plans for Glasgow’s LEZ fell far short of what was required, given only 20 per cent of buses would be required to meet cleaner emission standards by the end of 2018, before including all buses by 2022.

Emilia Hanna of Friends of the Earth Scotland was damning. “The people of Glasgow were promised a low emission zone, but these proposals will create a ‘no ambition zone’ that does almost nothing to speed up air quality improvements so desperately needed in the city.

“The proposals condemn Glasgow to illegal air for years to come and must be urgently improved.

“Councillors must recommend these proposals be significantly improved when they discuss them next week or they will have failed the people of Glasgow who suffer daily from the health impacts of air pollution.

“A low emission zone which has no signs to mark it, no new cameras to catch offenders and continues to allow almost every dirty vehicle into the city centre, is not a low emission zone.”

The decision lay with the council, an SNP minority administration, but critics questioned whether the £10.8m in Scottish Government funding for LEZs was enough to fund upgrades to exhausts across Scotland.

But still, a sense remains that, for all the criticism, Scotland is performing pretty well in an international context. For example, in a recent analysis, WWF ranked Scotland as among the top five global leaders on ‘clean vehicle ambition’.

Only Ireland, India, Austria and Norway, which all plan to achieve 100 per cent clean vehicle sales between 2025 and 2030, ranked ahead.

Energy efficiency, too, offers a glimpse into environmental frustrations with SNP policy.

After all, campaigners have spent years urging the party to adopt tough new measures aimed at ensuring all homes achieve an Energy Performance Certificate rating of at least Band C. And last month, that’s exactly what they got, with Sturgeon’s announcement backed by £54.5m in government funding towards making buildings “warmer, greener and more energy efficient”.

But while the target was welcomed, the timing was not, with ministers aiming for a 2040 deadline, rather than the 2025 cut off touted by groups ranging from health campaigners to poverty activists.

Fabrice Leveque, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables, said: “The launch of a long-term route map to reduce and clean up the energy we use in our buildings is welcome, and the proposed measures should start to accelerate energy-efficiency improvements to homes and offices.

“It is however disappointing that the route map says very little about renewable heat. With uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of key policies like the Renewable Heat Incentive, this is a missed opportunity to show how this programme will capitalise on Scotland’s emerging renewable heat industry.”

And so the sense remains of a party walking an increasingly tight line between calls for progressive environmental policies and the need to balance the books and pursue economic growth; a party that remains fiercely committed to the North Sea oil and gas industry, while simultaneously claiming to lead the fight against climate change.

Critics will label it a form of cognitive dissonance. SNP supporters will call it realism.

SNP delegates, of course, would point to the limited levers available to the Scottish Government in building a more sustainable Scotland, and, four years on from the independence vote, the party will have plenty to talk about on the referendum front.

Delegates will arrive in Aberdeen keen to chew over details of the newly published Growth Commission report, based around a supposedly more realistic economic assessment of the challenges brought by independence, alongside the case for making a better, more equal and more sustainable Scotland.

Its supporters hope the new Growth Commission report will offer the key to bringing about a Yes victory. Until then, the FM’s environmental tightrope walk act looks set to continue.

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