Will an independent Scotland be greener?

Published: 30 November 2013
Author: Nicola McEwen

Scotland has been championed as the ‘green capital’ of Europe. The ambitious climate change legislation passed unanimously by the parliament in 2009 is often hailed by ministers as ‘world-leading’.

This ambition is reflected in the White Paper, albeit with less emphasis than one might have expected. The White Paper talks of “Using independence to build a clean, green and nuclear-free nation”, which would make Scotland “a beacon of environmentalism and sustainability”.

But what difference would independence make? Would it create more opportunities or more constraints on realising this ambition?

Long-term ambition has to be checked against progress. The 2009 Climate Change Act set the ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020, with legally-binding annual targets toward that goal. The White Paper boasts that:

  • Scotland has had the biggest cumulative fall in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 (29.6%) of any of the EU-15
  • higher than the average emissions reductions of all 27 EU member states
  • and the highest emissions reductions of the nations of the UK.

This isn’t just a result of recession and industrial change, which usually reduces emissions. The UK Committee on Climate Change confirmed in a report earlier this year that Scotland is making good progress towards its carbon reduction goals. But the government failed to meet its first two annual targets. The first failure was at least in part explained by a very cold winter. This year, the government pointed toward changes in the counting methodology. Whatever the merits of these explanations, lack of constitutional power doesn’t appear to be the problem.

Indeed, many of the policy areas needed to reduce carbon emissions already lie with the devolved parliament or local government (with the significant exception of ‘the traded sector’, which accounts for around 40% of Scotland’s emissions and falls under the ambit of the EU emissions trading scheme). These include housing and building, transport, land use, environment and waste management. There is little in the White Paper to suggest the kind of transformative change in these spheres that would accelerate us towards the low carbon future many desire.

Of course, climate change is not just a national problem, it’s a global problem. The European Union also plays a key role in this sphere, shaping and constraining what its member states can do. The White Paper claims Scotland is ‘held back from championing action on climate change internationally’ because of its lack of independent status, and its lack of voice in the international community. For an independent Scotland to have influence in the world, it would have to forge alliances with other nations – big and small. I have no doubt whatsoever that an independent Scotland would be a member of the European Union, and it is possible that it could exercise influence in this sphere, if it cultivates expertise and remains in the vanguard of low carbon innovation. But that will require continued commitment, investment and action to match the ambition.

Ambition and action have clearly been evident in the development and deployment of renewable energy. Under the current devolution settlement, responsibility for energy policy and the energy markets lies with the UK authorities, not the Scottish parliament. That makes it all the more remarkable that the Scottish government has been able to demonstrate genuine leadership in renewable energy, setting itself apart from the rest of the UK and much of Europe. The Scottish government is committed to sourcing the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s demand for electricity from renewable sources by 2020. This is a highly ambitious target, but it is backed by a level of commitment, action and progress to suggest that it could be met, whatever the outcome of the referendum. There are some constitutional barriers. The Scottish government and industry have frequently complained that certain aspects of the current regulatory system – such as the system of grid charging – inhibit renewable energy ambition in Scotland.

The renewables policy of the current government is not just an environmental policy, focused on making Scotland greener. It is also – and perhaps principally - an economic policy designed to make Scotland wealthier. This is why it sits so easily alongside the continued commitment to exploit fossil fuels. The renewables revolution is dependent upon continued investment in technological innovation through R&D, the growth of manufacturing in new technologies to support high skilled jobs, and the ability to export surplus electricity for use in businesses and homes south of the border.

The White Paper assumes that independence can go hand in hand with sharing energy resources with the rest of the UK. This would help secure the necessary investment while helping rUK meet its own renewables obligations – which it evidently can’t do alone. The White Paper also suggests that there should be a formal Energy Partnership with the Westminster government. This, it is argued, would help to address the failings of the current system of market regulation and ensure that the system could be steered to match the needs of Scotland as well as the rUK.

Sharing resources within an integrated GB market seems feasible, practical and likely to be in the mutual interests of both Scotland and rUK. There are precedents elsewhere of that level of market integration, and it would be in line with broader trends towards EU market integration. Establishing an energy partnership that would work for both Scotland and the rest of the UK may be more problematic. Even if there was a will to form such a partnership, there is every possibility that the two governments would diverge significantly over the paths they wanted to take. That makes it difficult to see how the failings identified with the current system of market regulation could be adequately addressed in the context of market integration and a strategic energy partnership.

So, would an independent Scotland be greener than it is today? Maybe it will. But I’m not convinced that independence, as set out in the White Paper, will provide the constitutional tools to make that happen. It might, however, reinforce the determination to realise ambition.