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by Louise Wilson
04 September 2023
Gillian Martin: If other countries mirrored Scotland on climate change, we could breathe a sigh of relief

Photography by Michal Wachucik

Gillian Martin: If other countries mirrored Scotland on climate change, we could breathe a sigh of relief

Teenage Gillian Martin was absolutely terrified of nuclear war. It was the 80s, Cold War tensions were at their most heightened and everyone was talking about Threads.

“Nuclear war was the thing that made me worried because that was what was in the media. That was the threat, the end of the Cold War. I'm making myself sound ancient, but that’s the sort of thing I’d sit up and write poetry about, crying.”

She’s come onto the topic after being asked whether she understands the very real fear that people, especially younger generations, feel about climate change. “Climate change is this generation’s nuclear war. I remember how angsty and frightened I was about that, and I completely understand.

"We should be frightened about it. We’re watching things happening across the globe that are a result of climate change.”

If Scotland’s ambition was replicated in every other country, young people would not have to be as worried

Indeed, this past summer has been one of extreme heatwaves, wildfires across Europe and record-breaking ocean temperatures.

But as Scotland’s energy and environment minister, Martin is optimistic about the role this small nation can play in responding to the global issue. That optimism stems not just from the 2045 net zero target, as important as that is, nor from the technologies coming to fruition on these isles – but also about how the Scottish Government has embraced the climate agenda as a whole.

“Climate change and our net zero goals go right across everyone's portfolio in the Scottish Government. It is our number one priority. I would say that we are one of the governments that is actually doing more in a lot of our portfolio areas to reduce our emissions.

“If Scotland’s ambition and also the Scottish Government’s action was replicated in every other single country, then young people would not have to be as worried as they are right now. If America had the same targets, if China had the same targets, we could breathe a sigh of relief.

“Scotland’s a small country. We are not going to solve climate change on our own – of course we’re not – but we have to lead the way.”

She also believes there is an opportunity to harness some of that anxiety people have around climate change and use it as a catalyst for action – for example by getting them into careers that will pave the way to a net-zero world. She says some of that is already happening: “Quite a few people have told me they wanted to do something that was helping them fight against climate change. They’re now working in a lab, they’re working in an energy company, because that’s where the real tangible change is going to happen.

“Worries about climate change is not just about protesting. It’s actually about what your career decisions are, what you decide to do as part of the societal effort to reduce our emissions. I think if I was a young person today, and I was coming out of school, I would be looking at doing something in the energy sphere that was about helping in the fight against climate change.

“I guess I’m hopefully doing that right now as energy minister. I understand how important it is for us to reduce emissions, but I also understand very clearly how important it is to preserve Scotland’s energy security in a really difficult landscape right now, and to bring jobs well into the future.”

Martin’s promotion into government earlier this year was not widely anticipated. Despite having made a name for herself as a well-respected, thoughtful politician with a good amount of backbench experience, and as a committee convenor, most people – including Martin herself – thought any aspiration to higher office had been halted back in 2018.

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon had invited her to become the minister for higher education, but that job offer was withdrawn almost immediately after blog posts she had written more than ten years previously came to light. Instead, she became convener of the parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. In that role, Martin flourished.

“I'm a big believer in no opportunity should be wasted,” she says of the period since the failed promotion. “[Being convener] gives you massive experience and policy knowledge, and a massive ability to scrutinise what’s going on and to think carefully about what we’re doing in whatever space. I would hope that those years of experience mean that I am ready to be a minister.”

You could have a far more nuanced and sensible approach to this if you were to say licences will be granted on a case-by-case basis

Even so, Martin admits she was “surprised and delighted” when she got the call from First Minister Humza Yousaf inviting her onto his team. Naturally questions followed about why the appointment was appropriate now when it hadn’t been five years ago. But Yousaf defended his decision, highlighting that Martin had apologised and pointing to her actions since – including voting for the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill. “[Yousaf] came and told me afterwards what he had said and how he was going to stand by me. That’s the measure of the man, isn't it?” Martin adds a little tearfully.

And this second chance is one she has gripped with both hands – in part because the importance of achieving a just transition to net zero is something that hits close to home. Martin’s own family relocated from Clydebank to Aberdeenshire when she was young after it became clear her father would have to change careers to keep the family afloat. It’s one of the reasons she’s so passionate about supporting oil and gas workers now.

“It’s very personal for me,” she says, adding: “We know that the North Sea basin and the UK continental shelf is declining in terms of the amount. It’s getting harder and more expensive to extract out of the North Sea. It is a finite resource. I feel it has to be used sensibly.

“I feel that we have to also recognise that even if it wasn’t a government decision about licences, it’d be a commercial decision for a lot of companies as to what they do in the North Sea, because around the globe there are younger fields out there. We can’t just hide under a blanket and say it’s going to last forever. We have a responsibility for what we do with it. But we also have a responsibility to plan for what replaces it in the future.”

That’s where the government’s Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan comes in. The final version is due to be published before the end of 2023 (“it’s being actively worked on,” Martin says), but the draft version published in January has already caused waves, because it included a presumption against new oil and gas exploration.

“We feel that the UK Government should be awarding licences on a case-by-case basis, and that there has to be a justification for the awarding of those licenses based on a climate compatibility checkpoint,” Martin explains.

It’s a position which puts the Scottish Government at odds with both the Conservatives – Rishi Sunak was recently in the north-east to announce 100 new licences – and Labour – Keir Starmer said his party would ban future licensing.

As a reserved policy area, the Scottish Government does not officially have a say either way. As such, Martin admits she finds it “frustrating” to be repeatedly asked about it. “But also, nobody is listening to our very sensible argument that we are offering to the two major parties that are in contention for Number 10. You could have a far more nuanced and sensible approach to this if you were to say licences will be granted on a case-by-case basis.”

On devolved areas, Martin says the most important contribution her government can make is to “make sure that our systems in civic society are not relying on burning the stuff”.

The Greens have moved into a different space on carbon capture and storage. They’re on a journey with it

“Obviously, I would say that energy is one of the most important things – and the energy strategy is one of the most important areas of policy – for Scotland’s future. It’s about energy security. It’s about sustainability. It’s about getting to net zero. It’s about making sure that we take the skilled workforce that we’ve got in our traditional areas of energy and make sure that they are ready and able to continue their journey into the next stage of what we’re doing energy-wise. There’s so much in there that’s going to be of huge importance.”

She adds that Scotland is “very lucky” in that it has so many natural resources but also a ready-made workforce to meet the challenges of reaching net zero. “But it’s a case of planning, timing and making sure it happens at the right time, and also recognising that oil and gas and that transition into renewables is actually all just one energy piece. It’s going to be a transition.”

One major new area for Scotland, and the wider UK, is the development of carbon capture and storage technology. Over the summer, the UK Government confirmed funding for the Acorn CCS project in Aberdeenshire. Martin says she is “extremely excited” it can finally move ahead after several false starts. “We have been pressing the UK Government to make a decision on this for quite some time. I can’t say anything other than I’m delighted that they finally woke up to the fact that the Scottish cluster, the Acorn project, deserves funding and it’s actually going to make a massive difference.”

We’re in different parties, and with cooperation comes discussion

But one difficulty around CCS is that not everyone is convinced by this technology. Some of those sceptics happen to sit alongside Martin in government – the Scottish Greens. I ask Martin how she deals with some of that discord within the ministerial team.

“By having conversations with them and telling them the things that convinced me about it... I think the Greens have moved into a different space on carbon capture and storage. They’re on a journey with it. But like everything, everything technological has to be proven.”

CCS has so far only happened on a small scale. The Acorn project, Martin says, is “the biggie”, because it is “opening the door” to using it on a much larger scale – for example at Grangemouth. “The proof is going to be in application of that technology. I’m confident it’s going to prove itself,” she says.

Speaking of the Greens, I ask Martin how her relationship with the party is, given recent speculation over whether the Bute House Agreement will continue. She says it is “pretty good” and, on any disagreements, she adds: “We’re in different parties, and with cooperation comes discussion. And you would expect that, you know, it’s not a case of someone falling into line with the other. We have robust discussions. And if you have the courage of your convictions, and you’ve got the evidence, you can be arguing the case. There’s always going to be some things that we don’t agree on, but we’re not in the same party, so of course there is.”

So, is the Bute House Agreement here to stay, I wonder? “I believe it is. That’s what the First Minister has very much signalled.”

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