24) Will Westminster unlock Scotland's renewable potential fast enough?
“Scotland has considerable renewable energy opportunities with around 23% of the total European wind energy resource, both on-shore and off-shore, as well as a very large part of the UK’s marine energy resource, a large proportion of the UK forestry biomass resource and some untapped hydro potential.” - The Power of Scotland, briefing paper, RSPB Scotland, WWF Scotland, Friends of the Earth Scotland
In general, independence is about long term rather than short term questions. But in the case of climate change, the two are indistinguishable. Either we solve the crisis now, or it will be too late.
In the global race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Scotland has a vital place. On its own, the country has 23% of Europe's potential wind power and 10% of the potential tidal power. It's worth emphasising that former figure. Europe is responsible for huge amounts of the carbon humanity has pumped into the atmosphere, and so has a vast responsibility to cut its emissions. A quarter of its potential wind power is in Scotland's hands. It's hard to see humanity tackling climate change as long as this goes untapped ('unturbined'?).
Currently, energy policy is reserved, but planning policy is devolved. This means that both Holyrood and Westminster have some responsibility for delivering this transformation, with London in charge of the flow of cash. What they have each done with this power, and the intent they have shown, couldn't be more different.
Whilst the SNP are too tied to oil, they see the opportunity in renewables, and have pushed forwards an impressive transition to low carbon energy. They say they want to make Scotland the “green energy capital of Europe”.
The current UK government, meanwhile, have gone the other way. They have refused to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow and invest, significantly holding back finance for British renewables; they are cutting subsidies for wind by 25% and have responded to the climate change denying UKIP by promising an end to subsidies for, and a moratorium on, onshore wind farms.
Scotland's renewable generation has trebled since 2000, and renewables provided 40% of electricity in the country in 2012. But if we are to have a chance of leading the way to a low carbon future, we need that revolution to continue, to accelerate. Yet there is a major threat to it from Westminster. We don't have time to mess around. Energy policy is safer at Holyrood, and the only way to secure that in time is to vote yes in September.
“In many ways, Scotland’s environment is superb but it alarms me how quickly it can deteriorate and how little say most of us have in how it is managed.” Louise Batchelor, former BBC Scotland environment correspondent, arguing for a yes vote.
Until 443 million years ago, or thereabouts, the rocks we now call Scotland were physically separated from the rest of Britain. To this day, it has distinct geology which contributes to ecological differences from the rest of this island. Or, to put it or simply, there's lots of hills.
The Mhonaidh Ruaidh (Cairngorms), for example, form a vast arctic eco-system, making up 6% of Scotland's land-mass. Unlike temperate England, a large swathe of the country, before the trees were felled, was boreal. This can still be seen today in the perhaps 38 remnants of what Pliney the Elder called the Caledonian Forest. These remaining patches of our once magnificent woodland are unique, 9000 year old eco-systems.
It's no surprise that it's in Scotland alone that Britain's Wild Cats survive, over Scotland that Golden Eagles famously fly and through Scottish rivers that hundreds of genetically distinct populations of Atlantic salmon swim.
Scottish Wild Cat/Wikimedia
When mountainous geology meets the ocean, it forms islands. And because primarily of one such protrusion – Rockall – Scotland has an immense expanse of water to its name. Relatively clean and warmed by the Gulf Steam, our seas form an internationally significant eco-system. We host the main home of the UK's only resident Orca pod and our cliffs support around 2/3 of the global population of the Northern Gannet: with its two metre wingspan, the largest sea bird this side of the equator. In 1998, a vast, ancient and unique field of deep sea coral reef was discovered off the north west coast: the Darwin Mounts.
Map showing UK territorial waters: Scotland has more sea than the rest of the UK: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5201
But this story isn't a rosy one. Scottish Wild Cats are on the verge of extinction. The magnificent forest Plinney found has mostly been replaced by heather moor: carefully managed wet desert play parks where wealthy Londoners fire lead at small red forest edge birds. All too often, on these barren hillsides, those iconic Golden Eagles are found poisoned. Salmon populations may be stabilising, but they are nothing like what they once were, and the Orca pod hasn't had a calf in 20 years.
Would independence help? Just as Scotland's distinct education system has been better served by having its own parliament, so too would Scotland's distinct eco-systems. Currently, too many powers to protect our seas and coasts lie at Westminster: through the Crown Estate and fishing negotiations with the EU.
As to the land, Holyrood has already shown itself more willing than Westminster to do what it can. Whilst its reintroduction of the beaver – the keystone species of wetland habitat – felt painfully slow, the Scottish Parliament achieved in 15 years what London has failed to do in four centuries. Whilst many powers over land use are already held at Holyrood, controlling economic levers would allow the parliament in Edinburgh to better support diversification of rural economies away from unsustainable grouse shooting.
George Monbiot is right to hope that independence would upend Scotland's bizarre post-feudal class system and decentralise land ownership in the Highlands. This would be key to restoring our wilderness. But even if this doesn't happen, there are very good reasons to believe that Scotland's distinct ecosystems, from the sea bed to the mountain top, will flourish more with Holyrood in charge.
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