Archive for category Environment

National or Northern? One is far healthier than the other

There was, for a space of about six months between the release of the White Paper on Independence and the Easter break, a huge upsurge in interest in the Nordic aspects of Scotland’s independence movement. Assorted documentaries on TV and Radio, some SNP rhetoric on ‘Nordic’ childcare and a plethora of newspaper columns ranging from the meticulously informed to the blatantly phoned-in all sought to either support or criticise the idea of Scotland’s Nordic dream.

But then silence.

Criticism of the Nordic Way (a regular and quite conscious trope of the Nordic Council) has come in from the unionist side with their talk of massive tax hikes and from the far left who see the Nordic model as a Faustian pact with capitalism hiding under a friendly veneer of Moomin and mid-century furniture. One of the big problems is that nobody is quite sure what Nordic means. If you’re a political scientist the it refers very specifically to a unique system of tax-based growth economy ploughing profits back into human capital. If you’re of a more cultural bent it is mid-century classicism and nice cakes and Carl Malmsten chairs, or on a more dubious level a perceived heritage shared by Scotland. If, like me, you occupy the that third space between the policy wonks and economists and people munching on Kanelbullar in the West End and going to crayfish parties, it is a useful tool in Scotland’s political lexicon.

What you see most of all is how Nordicness allows Scotland to articulate its own better self, and the apparent waning of interest in Northern Scotland is slightly worrying. Irrespective of how genuine Nordic Scotland is, the referendum campaign appears to be in danger of slipping back into a fight over family silver and half-truths. The Northern dream has briefly allowed Scotland to glimpse an alternative to welfare cuts and Taylor Wimpey homes, daring to speculate on a new aesthetic without recourse to nationalist shibboleths.

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Let’s make a low carbon Scotland a high priority

A guest post today from Dr Sam Gardner, Head of Policy at WWF Scotland: thanks Sam!

5037469308_0718473d8d_bThe UK Committee on Climate Change’s most recent progress report under the Scottish Climate Change Act offers a useful assessment of where we are on our journey towards a low carbon Scotland. It highlights good progress in power generation and an increase in insulation rates, while at the same time reminding us this goal remains a long way off.  Yes, as WWF has documented, there has been excellent progress on renewable electricity but many other sectors need the same level of commitment and focus if the full benefits of a low carbon future are to be realised – across the transport, housing, land-use and waste sectors.

As the report recommends a renewed focus across the Scottish economy is required if our position as a global climate leader is to stand up to scrutiny and the benefits of a low carbon future are to be secured for Scotland. The need for action grows more compelling all the time. This week, the World Meteorological Organisation in their State of the Climate Report, stated that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record occurred this century. In a few days the IPCC will spell out the ever more worrying impacts of a changing climate.

So what is there more to do? The energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes continues to demand attention with the CCC making clear that “substantial additional policy effort by the Scottish Government will be necessary if it is to achieve its insulation and fuel poverty targets”.  Scotland’s homes are exposed to unpredictable weather which means emissions can rise by 15% one year and fall by 21% the next.  If we are to protect our homes from cold snaps and rising gas prices then we need to increase the loft insulation in over 30% of our homes, install cavity wall insulation in 600 000 homes and tackle the many homes needing solid wall insulation, all before 2020.  A transformation of this scale creates jobs (approx. 10 000 according to research for WWF), saves households money and helps tackle the scourge of fuel poverty.  Key to accelerating this programme will be the introduction of regulations for minimum energy efficiency standards and acting on the CCC’s advice that an increase in funding by the Scottish Government is needed given the cuts to the UK ECO programme.

Its no great surprise that the transport sector is another area flagged by the CCC where ‘more needs to be done’.  Transport emissions are the same now as they were in 1990 and there is little prospect of that improving given Scottish Transport’s own predictions that emissions are set to increase.  The CCC repeats its call from previous reports to get behind demand management transport measures and develop and fund a continuation of the Smarter Choices Smarter Places programme that was trialled in seven towns and cities across Scotland between 09 and 2012.  If we want to enjoy the benefits of improved air quality, safer streets and lower emissions we can’t afford to wait until 2018 when the Scottish Government’s climate action plan says the nationwide rollout will commence.

The Scottish Government’s recently published draft heat generation policy has been given renewed importance by the UK CCC’s conclusion that ‘even if all the projects in the pipeline went ahead and were operational by 2020’ we would still miss our heat target.  WWF’s recent renewable heat report outlines steps to be taken to accelerate both district heating and support the uptake of individual property heating technologies like air source heat pumps.

Worryingly, the CCC poses two options for meeting the targets in future: either identify additional effort to meet them, or amend, – or essentially, lower, the targets. This is suggested because changes in the greenhouse gas emissions inventory – the baseline – now means that we effectively have a 47% target rather than a 42% target to meet by 2020.  There are a host of reasons for not amending the targets, not least the signal it would send to other nations aspiring to legislate on climate change.  Having rightly attracted the attention of the world for our Climate Act, it would send a very poor message if we were to choose to lower the targets instead of identifying additional effort.  With so many policy levers still to be exercised, amending targets would simply divert attention from the efforts to deliver better housing, better transport and cleaner energy. For all the progress that Scotland has made so far, now is not the time to take the foot off the accelerator on our low carbon journey. Let’s not start to undermine the hard fought long term stability that the Act provides.

For the love of a safer, cleaner, future for all, lets throw our weight behind delivering a low carbon future and ensure we fulfil the promise Scotland made when it passed the Climate Change Act five years ago.

Time to close Longannet

5037469308_0718473d8d_bThe most recent figures on Scotland’s energy mix are a small step in the right direction, with renewables accounting for 29.8% of 2012 generation (don’t be misled by the consumption figures at the beginning there).

The same data, however, shows that coal accounted for almost 25% of Scotland’s output. That figure will be significantly reduced for 2013, because Cockenzie closed in March of this year, a plant which amounted to about a third of Scotland’s coal-fired capacity.

The remainder is almost entirely Longannet. It’s Scotland’s number one source of carbon emissions, and it’s a killer: literally. Stuttgart University did the sums for the years by which coal shortens lives, and Longannet’s annual toll was substantial.

The third key figure in there was that 26% of the energy Scotland generated in 2012 was exported, almost exactly the same amount as was generated from coal. Essentially, we’re burning vast amounts of coal at Longannet and massively aggravating climate change not “to keep the lights on”, but just to keep Iberdrola’s profits up.

This isn’t just a failure of the market: it’s entirely consistent with the dirty little misdirection at the heart of the SNP’s energy policy in their last manifesto. As I put it in 2011: “On the environment, the 100% renewable pledge looks good, until you see that for the SNP it also means retaining all the climate-busting generating capacity for sale.”

The climate doesn’t care whether coal’s burnt for export or domestic consumption. And no amount of renewable generation does a damn thing for climate change unless we use it as an opportunity to close down coal, oil and gas plants at the same time. The figures are clear: Scotland can’t afford Longannet.  It needs to be shut down as soon as possible, and proper training and investment put in to support the hundreds of people who work there. And yes, coal plants must be shut before the nukes: their time will come.

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The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

Fracking is not just an issue for a small corner of England

As I write this Caroline Lucas MP is being detained in the back of a police van and likely making her way to a charge desk for her part in the anti-fracking protests in the sleepy English village of Balcombe. If you’re in any doubt as to the pros and cons of fracking, this piece by the Northern Irish green researcher Ross Brown should set you straight

Caroline will be the first MP arrested this year for reasons other than fraud, sexual assault and perjury. This alone is a feat to be applauded. What will be interesting is how the rest of the Commons reacts to one of their own being detained when they have previously shuffled uncomfortably in their shoes and looked the other way.

Caroline Lucas is no George Galloway, and bundling one of Britain’s more popular MPs into the back of a police van is unlikely to make the government’s support for fracking any less dubious than it already is.

The reason that Caroline was the only MP at the protest is that she is, at present, the only English Green MP. That may well change at the next election if people suddenly find gas wells popping up at the ends of their gardens and draw a blank when writing to their local parliamentarian. Rather shamefully, every single other English party has refused to properly assess the risks of the technology. The Lib Dems and Conservatives are all on board because their energy policy is such a woefully inept compromise of ill-informed dogma and private interest, and Labour have offered some typically non-committal assurances that they will look at the impact of fracking once it is underway. They tried the same with PFI ventures and we all know how that ended.

So it has been left to Westminster’s solitary Green to stand up for what any right-thinking MP should be and protect the energy bills, water supplies and integrity of the English public’s landscape.

How and where fracking might happen in Scotland is less clear cut. The Scottish Government currently exercises control over planning but not over energy. What’s more, the Scotland Act means that the Westminster government could feasibly overrule Holyrood if push came to shove. This might sound unlikely, but the dash for gas is so great that speculators will be looking longingly north. As we all know, there is pretty much nobody in Scotland to complain anyway. It was at least easier in the old days when you could just force people off of their land if you fancied using the natural resources.

Neither should we rely on the benevolence of the SNP in safeguarding Scotland’s communities and natural resources. As Trumpgate has shown, the modern-day SNP behemoth is no more a friend of the small man than Labour or the Conservatives when money is being waved about. The biggest challenge will be to appeal to Alex Salmond’s past as an oil economist – hopefully even black-eyed Alex will see that the sums don’t quite add up.

If the SNP or, in the future, Scottish Labour decide that fracking is a good idea they’ll be met with all sorts of opposition from Greens and non-Greens alike. As the German Green Party have shown in Stuttgart and elsewhere, riding roughshod over the rights of communities and public opinion does not make those pesky environmentalists go away. It instead leads to them having a workable majority in the local state parliament. MPs and MSPs all across the central belt would be wise to do a bit of research before they do as much as invite Dart Energy and the rest of Scotland’s fossil lobby around for a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake.

Caroline Lucas’ arrest is a sign of the seriousness with which we should be taking Britain’s worrying energy politics, but also a concrete illustration of the commitment which Greens across the board have to doing as much as talking. You can pass as many climate change acts as you like, but when push comes to shove there is apparently only one group of parties in the British Isles and across Europe that has the courage to stand up and be counted. Hopefully there’ll soon be a lot more of them to count.

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