A greener Scotland? The SNP's promise and the minefield of delivery

The Scottish Nationalist Party has positioned itself as a leader in Europe on green issues. Then why the internal strife between the government and environmentally-conscious Scots?

Christian Eriksson
5 April 2012

At first sight, you would be forgiven for thinking that the greatest tensions in contemporary Scottish politics are those between a green-friendly centre-left and a corporatist right-wing, a lobby that is anti-green to its very core. Donald Trump's written denouncement of the SNP's support of offshore wind turbines, for example, is one story amongst many that fuels this perception.


Salmond signs Abu Dhabi green energy deal

But this is incorrect. The right has long been a marginal force in Scottish politics, a fact evident both in the lack of serious attention devoted to Trump's ravings, and the unpopularity of traditional conservatism.

The greatest political tensions in today's Scotland, I shall argue, are not between right and left, but between a centre-left and those of a green persuasion who supported the SNP on the strength of their election pledge to move Scotland into a “low-carbon economy”. There is a media perception that all is well between these camps. Since securing for Scotland one of the most exhaustive climate change acts in the developed world, and with their leader Alex Salmond talking of "climate justice", the centre-left SNP have seemingly confirmed their green credentials. But scratch below the surface and one quickly realizes that not all is as it seems. Three examples are instructive.

Consider, first, the agreement signed by Alex Salmond at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi this January. Hailed as the first step towards greater investment in the Scottish renewables sector from Abu Dhabi, it will see twelve Scottish universities partner with The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology to develop renewable technologies. The SNP is hoping this agreement will lead to lucrative future investment: Masdar steers a multi-billion pound capital fund for investment in renewable projects across the world.


Plans for a Masdar eco-city “positive energy” building

Masdar city, the location of the institute with which Scottish universities are now set to partner, has been hailed by plaudits as the first of its kind: a carbon-neutral city built upon sustainable principles that is a first step towards making renewables respectable to big business. To its critics, however, the city is either a cynical exercise by the oil-rich Emirates in green-washing, or a hubristic attempt to build an ‘ecotopia’ that has only resulted in a gated community, an enclave for the wealthy Emirati elites that has little to do with long-term issues of sustainability.

Unfortunately, there is more truth in these criticisms than the SNP might care to admit. Not only will Masdar city always be dependant upon oil-funded state subsidies, but how it will contribute to reducing the greenhouse emissions of the Emirates, the world’s third highest emitter of carbon per-capita, remains unclear. Difficulties in desalinating sea water locally and with renewable technologies have meant that the city’s water will be desalinated using heat from huge fossil-fuelled power stations for the foreseeable future. When the oil wells of the Emirates dry up, so too will Masdar’s water supply.

So, besides the SNP having to remain silent about the Emirates’ substantial human rights violations, investment from Masdar means having to tacitly endorse a disingenuous scheme for tackling climate change. Whilst the momentum of the ‘renewables revolution’ is being translated into a new vehicle of corporate profitability, the polluting industries and corporate structures that are the real drivers of climate change will go largely unquestioned. A complicit silence on this issue is no way to endear the SNP to those voters sympathetic to green political thought.

By accepting investment from Masdar, the SNP will have made it clear that its solutions to climate change extend no further than national lines. This is particularly tragic since the international community is increasingly looking to Scotland as a leader in sustainability. A Scotland - perhaps even an independent Scotland - that is not able to speak out critically against polluting nations amounts to a huge loss in the struggle for international climate-change regulation.

Now consider, secondly, the case of China. Although there has yet to be any direct investment from China in the Scottish renewables sector, Lena Wilson, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, has claimed that Chinese investors are beginning to take an interest. But for business relations between Scottish and Chinese companies to, as Alex Salmond has put it, “bear fruit for both nations”, the Scottish Government must remain equally silent on China’s well-documented human rights violations.

The last thing Scotland needs is to follow Norway's lead. After the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in December 2010, Chinese authorities blocked imports of Norwegian salmon and imposed stringent new “veterinary controls” that meant what fish did get in was left to rot.

The upshot of Norway falling out of Chinese favour has been an increase in Chinese demand for Scottish salmon. A trade deal signed at the start of last year between Alex Salmond and the Chinese vice-premier, Li Keqiang, effectively commits Scotland to an increase in salmon farming.

This leads to my final example of centre-left/green tensions. Critics have warned that an increase in salmon aquaculture is environmentally unsupportable, and is to blame for the depletion of wild fish stocks. The problem is that farmed salmon are prone to high levels of sea lice. Wild salmon and trout have to swim past farmed colonies, picking up lethal numbers of these parasites in the process. Only exceptionally high levels of environmentally-toxic pesticides can keep the parasites at bay. This has led Greenpeace (amongst others) to argue that salmon aquaculture is fundamentally unsustainable.

Of course, the hard reality of politics is that some goals have to be sacrificed for the chance at achieving others. Investment from dubious regimes who are more concerned with green-wash than initiating structural change in a bid to avoid climate collapse will remain palatable to Scottish voters of a green persuasion only in so far as the SNP can remain on the green agenda in other respects. This could be, for example, by committing themselves (in deed as well as in word) to reducing the individual's reliance upon fossil fuels, or by rolling out greater regulation of polluting and unsustainable industries. Currently, the SNP look set to do neither.

Until they do, the greatest tensions in Scottish politics will remain those between centre-left and green. 

Christian Eriksson is a freelance journalist living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Read his work at

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