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The green in the SNP white paper

This week, the SNP launched their White Paper on what an independent Scotland would look like. Here, Ric Lander reviews what is says about the environment.

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What does the Independence White Paper tell us about how the environment would be protected in an independent Scotland? In one sense, not very much. The SNP's document is a manifesto for a future election to run a state that does not yet exist. A lot of the contents is old news, and of what is new we can rightfully question the SNP's resolve to deliver it.

However this document does bring together, for the first time, a complete vision of what the Scottish Government would do with the powers afforded to it by independence: what it would change, and what it would not.

Naturally the document focuses on areas of policy which are currently reserved, that is to say they are not currently within the power of the Scottish Government. This had led some environmentalists, who note the devolved nature of environmental regulation, transport policy and climate change legislation, to consider the referendum debate largely irrelevant. The White Paper shows this false. In fact sustainability is at the heart of the debate on Scotland's future and this document shows us how.

Oil

The White Paper is screaming about oil, to be specific offshore oil and gas. This is neither novel or surprising given that including oil and gas revenue from Scotland's GDP adds £5,853 per person and according to the White Paper “in excess of 90 per cent” of UK oil and gas revenues derive from Scottish waters (p.31).

The Scottish Government makes no case for reining in the industry offering “no plans to increase the overall tax burden on the oil industry” (p.18). Instead it says its tax regime will “support and incentivise production” and offer future reforms “that encourage exploration and help maximise economic recovery rates” (p.303).

An example is later given of a Norwegian policy to “reimburse the tax value of exploration costs for companies not in a tax-paying position” (p.304).

The purpose of this fresh production and exploration drive? The White Paper says it will raise revenue for a sovereign wealth fund which is invested in when prices are high, cushioning the blow of dwindling reserves and price volatility.

The document asks “is continued oil and gas production consistent with Scotland’s commitments on climate change?” “Yes.” it says. Science disagrees. On first principals we can say that as the world has five times more fossil-fuels than we can afford to burn and therefore any additional extraction is incompatible with halting global climate change. As Stuart Rodger points out in the Herald we must also wake up to Scotland's numbers: “if 12 billion barrels of North Sea oil were to be burned this would emit 5.2 billion tonnes of CO2, dwarfing domestic efforts [to cut CO2]”. In other words, Scotland's climate change legislation is pretty meaningless when you add in the impact of our oil.

The Scottish Government says it wants to “steward our oil and gas assets for the benefit of the nation, as well as supporting the growth of [the] industry” (p.301). It also wants to be a world leader on climate change. The problem with this approach is that sustainability and stewardship, require a sovereign wealth fund and a gradual winding down of the industry. Yet these tasks are directly at odds with the policies which seek to maximise output and create a new drive for exploration.

There is no other mention of other kinds of energy extraction in the body of the document. The word “coal” is not mentioned and onshore oil and gas is only discussed in the appendices.

What the document does say of onshore gas and fracking simply reinforces the Scottish Government current policy position: it is neither welcomed or rejected, and the updated planning policy (which includes proposed “buffer zones”) is referenced (p.513-514). Anti-extreme energy campaigners fighting new extraction from coal bed methane and fracking may be reassured that at least the Scottish Government hasn't attempted to sideline the issue.

Electricity generation

Renewable generation of electricity, a headline SNP policy for some years, gets a lot of air time in the White Paper.

The document reaffirms the target of 100 per cent of electricity demand to be met by renewables by 2020, and a “2030 electricity decarbonisation target to achieve a carbon intensity of 50g CO2/kWh of electricity generation in Scotland.” (p.518) The caveat here of course being that you can meet domestic demand with renewables without turning off your coal-fired power stations: you just sell the high-carbon electricity to England. This is the SNP's plan and they have gone some way to achieving it under their current devolution settlement.

The same big energy companies that are hoovering up our rising domestic bills are also the primary beneficiaries of this policy, something that local anti-wind farm campaigners have not been slow to pick up on.

As a response the Scottish Government makes its case that it is supporting community ownership by helping them to acquire assets and land (p.290) and by “developing new models of community ownership” for energy generation” (p.295).

Unfortunately any detail is lacking. Wind and tidal get a mention (p.57) but solar power, touted as an excellent solution for water heating in Scotland, appears nowhere, and district heating is also not discussed.

What of our coal and nuclear stations?

The White Paper reminds us that the “Scottish Government is opposed to the building of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland and will phase out existing stations in Scotland over time” (p.514).

As for coal and gas: “it is likely there will be a need to maintain and build new power stations run on traditional fossil fuels. The scheduled closure of existing power plants, and the construction of a minimum of 2.5 GW of new or replacement efficient fossil fuel electricity generation plants progressively fitted with carbon capture and storage , will satisfy security of supply concerns and, together with renewable energy, deliver large amounts of electricity exports” (p.515-516). Good news for the energy industry. Not so great for our environment.

Problems associated with this approach are apologised for with a proposal to roll out “carbon capture and storage” (CCS). Although they state that “only independence provides Scotland with the autonomy to make the necessary strategic investments that will support the growth of CCS” (p.302) we should be sceptical, since CCS trials have failed in Scotland in very recent memory and many criticisms of the technology remain unanswered regarding emissions from coal mining and CO2 storage.

Fuel poverty and energy efficiency

Heating and electric supply is couched in terms of keeping prices down in the document, which is not surprising given the current political climate and rising domestic bills.

The document outlines an intention to eradicate fuel poverty although the only measures proposed is that currently being discussed at Westminster to fund green levies such as the Energy Company Obligation and Warm Homes Discount from central government funds (p.18 , p.298). Other programmes such as the much criticised “Green Deal” are to be supported, as is the Renewable Heat Incentive (p.519).

There is little ambition shown about how the Scottish Government would use its new powers to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.

Climate change targets

Where does all of this leave Scotland's climate change targets? The Scottish Government is confident that “the world-leading climate change legislation”, with its target of a 42% reduction by 2020, “demonstrates Scotland’s progressive approach to the protection of the environment” and “ground-breaking work championing Climate Justice, including setting up the world’s first Climate Justice Fund” (p.291) which will allow it to “champion tackling climate change in international forums including the UN and the EU” (p.17).

There is a strong argument that an independent Scotland would have a louder voice on the world stage but this may be more important than is immediately apparent. A returning delegate from last week's disastrous UN climate talks in Warsaw told me that Climate Minister Paul Wheelhouse's attempts to showcase Scotland's efforts were significantly hampered by the UK Government delegation who resisted giving the Scottish Government air time.

Transport

Reducing the price of air travel features throughout the White Paper. The policy, to “reduce APD [air passenger duty] by 50 per cent in the first term of the independent parliament, with a view to abolishing it when public finances allow” (p.98), is designed to increase tourism and international trade. The document complains that “APD in the UK is now the highest tax of its type anywhere in the world” (p.98) and that cutting it will allow more direct routes from Scottish airports (p.119).

The Government fails to mention the role of APD tax in reducing carbon emissions. This is ironic given the Scottish Government's progressive approach in including aviation emissions in its aforementioned “ground-breaking” carbon targets.

For rail travel, the document is open minded. Stating opportunities for “ different ownership models for the rail network” (p.25) including “public-supported and not-for-profit models” (p.127). Possibilities for renationalisation should be welcomed by campaigners seeking to see private car use replaced by the use of public transport.

There is also some talk of high speed rail in Scotland, although nothing in the way of a specific proposal, other than re-emphasising the Scottish Governments frustration that High Speed 2 is not planned to reach Scottish cities (p.128).

For road travel no fuel duty change is proposed but the document does suggests introducing a “Fuel Duty Regulator” to stabilise petrol prices, something which by itself would be expected to increase car use (p.129).

Currently devolved elements such as road building and so called “active travel” (cycling and walking) are not covered in the document, which is perhaps surprising given the Scottish Government's enthusiasm for the former and enthusiasm for talking about the later. There is also no discussion of the reform of local public transport.

Despite a planned increase in air travel the document is optimistic that carbon cuts can be achieved with rail electrification, electric vehicles, expansion of renewable energy generation, and smart grid technology “achiev[ing] the almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050” (p.127). This target has been singled out as an exciting new pro-environmental policy, but it should be noted that although it sounds ambitious it is in fact necessitated by Scotland's pre-existing 80%+ carbon cut target for 2050.

Industry and business

The Scottish Government wants to cut tax and regulation on business, outlining “a clear timetable for reducing corporation tax by up to three percentage points” (p.06) and a simplified tax system “to reduce compliance costs” (p.08). There is also talk of “expanding our manufacturing base” (p.98).

We shouldn't be under any illusions about the impact of current Scottish consumption, which currently exports most of our environmental impact. In this light an increase in manufacturing could contribute to a more sustainable economy: but we should take a sceptical view of the ability of already devolved Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to control the impact of any new manufacturing boom, especially if the invitation to foreign investment is to come to a low tax and low regulation Scotland.

Nuclear weapons

“We would make early agreement on the speediest safe removal of nuclear weapons a priority.” (p.14)

The White Paper proudly references at almost all opportunities the pledge to remove Trident from Scotland post-independence. This is great news not as a sanctimonious stance but because, according to very convincing research by CND, there is a very high chance this force the UK to unilaterally disarm.

However critical questions remain over the SNP's dedication to this cause including an apparent “softening” of their stance regarding admitting ships carrying nuclear weapons into Scottish territorial waters (this is excellently reviewed by Nicholas Watt and Severin Carrell in today's Guardian.

Sea life

Wildlife protection is currently devolved, but fisheries negotiation, which takes place at an EU level, is not. The document pledges to “keep the Scottish quota in Scotland” (p.17) and to “safeguard the future of Scotland’s fishing communities and seafood sectors” by preventing any reduction in quotas (p.282).

This approach may go down well in fishing communities but is considerably at odds with the ecological reality of ailing fish stocks and devastated marine life in Scotland's waters.

Harmonisation

As well as making commitments on specific policy areas the White Paper has a number of provisions for improving policy harmonisation and governance.

Most conspicuous is a pledge to “seek to enshrine environmental protection in the constitution” (p.293) which could provide a myriad of opportunities for campaigners, for example those seeking to enforce the Aarhus Convention in Scotland to give communities better access to environmental justice, sorely lacking in the infamous Trump vs. Menie saga.

Finally the International Development chapter (p.231) outlines a “Do No Harm” policy which will “ensure that other Scottish Government policies do no harm to developing countries, do not undermine international development aims and ideally contribute to international development success”. Such a rigorous approach, if taken seriously, would open doors for people to challenge Government activity which promotes unsustainable Scottish industry abroad; the impact of Government-owned assets and investments (e.g. RBS); and would provide an additional policy lever for action on climate change.

Verdict

The White Paper's greatest value is not to answer all possible questions: the outcome of any election is uncertain and a referendum is no different. What it does do is highlight the kinds of choices open to Scots which are currently out of their reach reserved by Westminster.

It also tells us the SNP's priorities. For example we should infer something from the fact that the phrase “sustainable economic growth” appears 15 times in the document. In it's “Referendum Challenge” the umbrella body of Scotland's environmental organisations told the Yes and No campaigns it's first priority for securing Scotland's future was to ensure “we measure the success of our society intelligently”. The White Paper is clearly far off this. Economic growth, foreign direct investment and North Sea oil run through the whole document.

On the other hand their anti-nuclear intentions, albeit incomplete, alongside their renewables investment drive and new focuses on policy coherence are to be welcomed.

Aside from specific policy commitments the most encouraging thing about this document is the evidence, peppered throughout, of the impact on the document of democratic campaigning. Already on OurKingdom we have heard about Jubilee Scotland's impact on the document. We can also see the stamp of extreme energy campaigners not to mention the constant re-emphasis of the 42% carbon cut target, the great success of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition. Many things which we might feel are lacking, such as reining in of North Sea oil, are simply not things civil society has been talking about.

Ultimately the credibility of this White Paper would be best judged if we had anything to compare it to. Of course we will not receive manifestos for governing an independent Scotland from Labour until after a Yes vote, but what is the Better Together plan for environmental protection? So far the only other substantial contribution to the discussion has come from the Scottish Greens.

In both its failings and its strength the White Paper shows where the battlegrounds would be for making an independent Scotland a sustainable country. There are still many challenges to the Yes campaign to see the SNP meet their ambitions for a greener Scotland. The question is now to discover if a continuing United Kingdom can respond to these same challenges and show a better path for a green society in these islands.

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About the author

Ric Lander is an environmental researcher and activist based in Edinburgh.


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