The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Scotland, Renewables and Oil




The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that the world, and the Scottish Government, must embrace radical policy shifts.

The report, which cites almost 10,000 scientific publications, concludes that concentrations of greenhouse gases are at levels unprecedented in 800,000 years and that human influence on the climate system is clear.

It also projects that global temperatures could rise by up to 4.8 degrees by the end of the century.

The tone of the report is clear - the need for action to reduce emissions has never been more urgent. Scotland has apparently "world-leading" emission reduction targets, but we've failed to achieve them two years running. The government's policy response has so far been feeble.

If we are remotely serious about living up to our ambitions we need to see radical policy shifts. Putting off action on key areas such as transport, housing and energy is now undeniably irresponsible.

On transport we hear repeated excuses from SNP ministers that there's no budget available to improve the poor state of our public transport services or our cycling infrastructure, yet they're happy to commit billions to dual carriageways, motorways, bypasses and bridges that are destined to increase emissions. And they're constantly banging the drum for unsustainable aviation expansion.

On housing we've seen budgets cut, and a failure to properly grasp the benefits of a nationwide insulation scheme which could cut people's energy bills for the long term and create thousands of local jobs.

On energy, it's disappointing but perhaps not surprising that a recent report on the idea of an independent Scotland having a national fund from energy revenues failed to consider the climate implications of continued fossil fuel extraction.

The Scottish Government's Fiscal Commission should also be looking at how to harness the growth of our renewables sector for maximum public benefit.

Scotland is already generating substantial energy from renewables, and as wave and tidal schemes come online through the 2020s this will grow significantly. We should be focused on how to harness the economic benefits of the whole energy sector for the greatest public benefit. As a finite commodity fossil fuels can only offer economic benefits for the next few decades. We must think ahead, and consider not only the scale of renewable energy, but the ownership too.

There is a small ray of hope. I recently asked climate change minister Paul Wheelhouse about the new IPCC report and the growing consensus that most of the world's reserves of fossil fuels must be left unburnt if we are to avoid serious climate change.

To explain, in 2010 governments confirmed in the Cancun Agreement that emissions should be reduced to avoid a rise in global average temperature of more than 2 degrees. This makes the carbon "budget" for a 2 degrees scenario around 565 to 886 billion tonnes of CO2 up to 2050. This budget, however, is only a fraction of the carbon embedded in the world's indicated fossil fuel reserves, which amount to 2,860 billion tonnes.

In answer to my question, Paul Wheelhouse said: "I do not have a figure to give Mr Harvie for the percentage of fossil fuels that I would like to see remain under the earth, but I accept the point that, if we were to burn all the fossil fuels in the world, we would be doing untold damage to our environment."

So, if he takes the point, will this lead the SNP to change its approach to energy? I'm not holding my breath, as the independence debate continues we have the opportunity to question this crucial aspect of Scotland's economic direction.

So far both UK and Scottish governments are merely attempting to outdo each other in a battle to extract every last drop of North Sea oil. Each is promising favourable tax regimes, support for maximum recovery and hand-in-glove relations with the fossil fuel industry.

There is no doubt that North Sea oil and gas have delivered vast economic benefits to some over the decades. They have literally fuelled our economy and transformed our society.

But they are finite resources and we now know the damage they do to the environment that we depend on. To chase after and burn every last drop would be an abdication of our moral responsibility.

We can maintain a high quality of life, and achieve a fairer share of the benefits, if we extract only a responsible proportion but harness its value for investment in clean and sustainable energy resources, and ensure that this new energy model generates public benefit, not just private profit.

Whether we're independent or remain part of the UK, simply putting the pedal to the floor would mean dumping a massive problem on those future generations who'd face a fuel gauge reading empty.

I know some who would suggest that this discussion is best kept till after the referendum in September, but I believe that the Greens have a responsibility to make it central to the independence question.

In the event of a Yes vote Scotland must establish, through independent scientific advice, what proportion of our fossil fuels can be responsibly used and what proportion must be left untouched. Scotland could also show leadership by making oil and gas companies report the emissions potential of their reserves. This is something the UK Government has so far ducked and the Scottish Government would do well to consider.

The independence debate is a golden opportunity to set out a vision about the future direction for our country; its economy, its society, its politics, and its relationship to the environment we depend upon for our survival. It's clear that Scotland must break our economic dependence on fossil fuels, and the sooner the better. Those who wish to claim green credentials mustn't be allowed to ignore the reality that a greener Scotland cannot remain reliant on the black stuff, or to pass up the opportunity to build a renewable future that works for the public interest.

Patrick Harvie MSP is Co-convener of the Scottish Green Party

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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