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by Mandy Rhodes
31 October 2021
Editor's Column: Winds of Change

Editor's Column: Winds of Change

Maybe Scotland’s bid just wasn’t good enough. That can happen. Maybe in a UK competition to award the first two carbon capture, usage and storage clusters, the Scottish proposal just wasn’t worked up enough. Maybe our politicians and civic leaders hadn’t done enough of the running. Maybe the business case just didn’t stack up. And maybe, despite the Scottishness of it all, Humberside and Liverpool just had the edge on us – this time.

And maybe, just maybe, getting top ranking on a reserve list, with a tacit reassurance that things will go forward next time around, is where, at this stage in the game, we deserved to be.

But of course, the First Minister wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t extract some constitutional grievance from a decision made by a UK government on a game-changing project that could put these small islands at the fore of the global battle to tackle climate change with an innovative process that captures carbon and, at the same time, promises to reinvigorate parts of the country decimated by deindustrialisation.

And on cue, the First Minister has labelled the UK Government’s decision not to take an Aberdeenshire bid forward in this first round as “inexplicable on any objective grounds”. 

The MP for Aberdeen South, Stephen Flynn, has called it “a betrayal”. 

But is it? 

Unquestionably, this would have been a huge win for the north east of Scotland. It would have transformed a city built on oil that now is holding itself tight against the inevitable consequences of the environmental imperative that we transition away from fossil fuels. It would have brought some certainty to an uncertain outlook, creating an exciting hub for a new greener future and the creation of as many as 26,000 jobs.

What’s not to champion?

But the Scottish bid, like several others, didn’t make the grade.

The First Minister claimed that: “Arguably, there is no country in the world better placed than Scotland to maximise the benefit of that transition.”

All logic tells you that this was not a decision rooted in the politics. For if a UK government, led by a deeply unpopular prime minister in Scotland, really wanted to ingratiate itself and love bomb its way to strengthening the Union, it would have simply awarded the Scottish cluster the bid.

 

But let’s just consider how that Scottish exceptionalism looks for Scotland’s much-lauded claim to be a fair and just nation, in that, in effect, we’re claiming priority over another impoverished industrial heartland that just happens to be in England. How do you think Liverpudlians may have reacted if the competition had gone the other way? Would their political leaders have been so churlish as to suggest they had been cheated out of what was rightly theirs, or would they have accepted that the two best bids went forward and they had more work to do?

Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan last year promised two industrial carbon capture and storage (CCS) clusters by the mid-2020s, and four by 2030. And for once, he has kept a promise. 
The fact that we don’t like it is neither here nor there. 

And on the question of why the Scottish cluster didn’t get through, it’s instructive to look at what the government is trying to achieve with support for carbon capture. It’s being pitched as a way to do several things: industry decarbonisation, low-carbon power generation, engineered greenhouse gas removal technologies (where you grow biomass and then use it in an energy process with carbon capture to get ‘negative emissions’) and low-carbon hydrogen production.

The Scottish bid was good, but undeniably the two lead projects offered a better opportunity across all of those applications. And on a bigger scale. 

Note, too, the fact that Teeside politicians, at every elected level and not least the Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, were never away from the relevant ministers’ doors, championing their particular CCS cause. 

And while this has been cast as the UK Government playing politics at Scotland’s expense, all logic tells you that this was not a decision rooted in the politics. For if a UK government, led by a deeply unpopular prime minister in Scotland, really wanted to ingratiate itself and love bomb its way to strengthening the Union, it would have simply awarded the Scottish cluster the bid.

It would have heralded Scotland’s financial opportunity as [importantly] an integral part of the United Kingdom. It would have been chief cheerleader in promoting Scotland’s role in the critical efforts to decarbonise the world – on [vitally] behalf of Great Britain. And Boris Johnson would have exploited it for all he could at COP26 in Glasgow this month, then patted himself on the back and told the north east of Scotland, ‘I did this for you’.

If anything is to be achieved in Glasgow at COP26 this month, it is that, at the very least, countries must see beyond their own borders and realise the pooled efforts that are required to save this planet.

 

If a UK government had wanted to steal Scotland’s political thunder, the bid would have made it over the line. No question. Which tells you something very different about why, on this round, we just didn’t cut it.

Decarbonisation and the race to net zero is about saving the world, not just Scotland. Going forward, we’ll likely need five or six CCS clusters across the UK – so there is still a significant opportunity for Aberdeenshire and beyond. That support will almost certainly come later.

But, and here’s the politics, there’s an awkward interaction with the Scottish Government’s 2030 emissions target and the decision that has just been made. Holyrood set a target of a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 (against, it has to be said, formal advice from the Committee on Climate Change for a lower number). It’s extraordinarily ambitious, and made for good headlines at the time, but has just been made much more difficult now that the UK-wide CCS story doesn’t start here. 

The onus on Scotland now is not just to sit back and nurse a grievance but to work up the bid, forge the relationships in Whitehall that oil the wheels of the decision-making process, and so cement its position as a global leader in climate change technology, and not just be a winner at being a sore loser. 

If anything is to be achieved in Glasgow at COP26 this month, it is that, at the very least, countries must see beyond their own borders and realise the pooled efforts that are required to save this planet.

Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Best buddy: an interview with George Adam

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