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How would an independent Scotland tackle climate change?

Published: 22 September 2020

How would an independent Scotland tackle climate change? Antje Brown, University of St Andrews, has been searching for an answer. 

When I was asked to address the above question, my initial reaction was: do you want me to answer that right now with the pandemic and Brexit in full swing? However, never shying away from a challenge, I then went on to think this question through, taking into consideration the moving constellations that we are finding ourselves in.

The question of how an independent Scotland would tackle climate change is difficult to answer for a number of reasons. To start with, Scotland is inextricably tied into wider political-economic structures, at the UK, EU and international levels. It would therefore be misleading to assume that Scottish independence would equate to complete policy autonomy on climate change, which the above question implies. Even if Scotland became independent from the rest of the UK and chose to take radical (and radically different) policy measures, Scotland would still not be able to single-handedly and independently tackle climate change as climate change is, in essence, a complex and truly global challenge.

While an independent Scotland may not single-handedly tackle climate change as such, it would certainly be in a much better position to shape its own political discourse on climate change as well as policy targets and societal behaviour. So perhaps a better question would be: how and to what degree would an independent Scotland pursue its own ambitions and targets on climate change?

Having looked at the evidence to date, I would argue that a second referendum resulting in Scottish independence would indeed offer Scotland constitutional and legal clarity which in turn would enable Scotland to pursue a much more bespoke and arguably more ambitious set of climate change aims. As a policy area, climate change is currently shared between, and often contested with, Westminster. While the often-ambiguous relationship between Westminster and Holyrood has spurred some competitive ambition to outdo one another on climate change, Scottish independence would give Scotland a chance to navigate more freely and without competitive distraction. What works in Scotland’s favour is a comparatively strong civil society and its political landscape both of which are currently relatively favourable towards a strong climate change policy. It is therefore likely that we would see a more ambitious drive in that direction.

However, as we all know all-too-well, we are currently in a period of fundamental change and uncertainty: apart from the impacts of Brexit, we are also dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which is unprecedented in its scale and impact. Both events, one arguably more seismic than the other, will leave their mark on every aspect of Scottish politics and society. Whatever conclusions we therefore develop, they need to be considered in the context of wider and unprecedented uncertainties that may lead to political opportunities for the better but may equally lead to political stalemates and policy regression on the climate change front.

One of the insights presented in the chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics is that while Westminster is actively cutting ties with the EU, Holyrood is busy securing and reinforcing its environmental acquis communautaire with the EU. The Scottish Government does so under the watchful eye of the Scottish Green Party and environmentalist groups who keep reminding the government that ‘Brexit [must not] derail us from tackling these huge global challenges’ such as climate change. The Scottish Government does not need reminding though and we are witnessing numerous statements and measures coming from Holyrood that are produced with a palpable sense of urgency.

It is within this context of intergovernmental tensions, that Scottish and UK Governments prepare themselves for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties COP26, which is now rescheduled for 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As tensions on climate change leadership were already high prior to lockdown, the postponement comes as a temporary relief and respite. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, both sides sought to use this COP26 opportunity to showcase their ambitions and commitments on climate change, in the usual competitive fashion. With the climate conference postponed, the issue of who is taking the lead is no longer a matter of immediate concern, at least for the time being.  

From my perspective as an environmental politics scholar, addressing the question of how an independent Scotland would tackle climate change is an intriguing and complex exercise. There is still a lot of uncertainty as power constellations are still shifting with the impacts of Brexit and now Covid-19. Whereas the 2014 Scottish referendum result took the wind out of the pro-independence sails, Brexit brought the wind right back and with it came a knock-on effect in the form of environmental and climate change policy reinforcement and strengthening. But that is not to say that all is well in Scotland in environmental terms; the Scottish Government could, theoretically at least, pursue an even greener policy in all aspects of socio-economic life. As paradoxical as it may sound, the Covid-19 crisis may present an opportunity to convey and then cement a carbon-free future for Scotland as the Scottish Government, Parliament and civil society need to find radical answers to pressing and complex problems. However, this opportunity needs to be recognised and pursued throughout.

No matter what constitutional shape Scotland is going to take in future, there will always be complexity and interdependency when it comes to global challenges such as climate change and Covid-19. Scotland is currently on track to becoming one of the climate change leaders. Independence, if it were to happen, would give Scotland more freedom to accelerate on that track if the political will remains. It will be interesting to see how the constitutional debate over the next few months and years will further shape environmental and climate change policy. Hopefully for the better.

Antje Brown is a lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews. 

'Green Politics' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash




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