Monday, 7 October 2013

Independent Scotland - eco pioneer or oil state?

There has been a bit of chat around recently about whether Scottish independence would be good for the environment. Some people seem to think that it will be, and the Scottish Green party are generally supportive. I am not so sure. Of course, I would say that – I am instinctively opposed to independence for cultural and political reasons – but I hope you will hear me out and think there might be more to it than Scotland good, rUK bad.

In one way the argument that independence would be good for the environment seems intuitive. Scotland has been one of the star regions of the UK. It generates a lot of renewable energy and has the largest resources in terms of wind, wave and water. Scottish governments of every stripe have done their best to encourage this. More broadly it is the greenest, wildest part of the UK, with some of the most spectacular wildlife in Europe. Crucially though it has achieved this while still part of the Union. The question really is what would be the implications of separation?

Those in favour argue that more local decision making would allow Scotland to make more beneficial choices. Yet in most areas which affect the environment, Scotland is already able to make its own decisions. Additional subsidies for renewables along with policies on plastic bags, transport, planning permission, wildlife and countryside laws are all devolved. The areas were it cannot – fishing, farm subsidies, clean water standards, air pollution – are largely controlled by Europe. Out of the UK, Scotland would undoubtedly have a weaker voice. If Scotland were to leave Europe of course that would change, but none of the pro-independence parties is promoting that (nor am I).

Clean energy too might suffer. In order to increase the amount of renewable energy it deploys, Scotland relies on a unified energy market with the rUK. It is too small to absorb its potential otherwise. For the next decade or two at least this means that the direct costs of subsidizing renewable energy are borne by the UK as a whole, regardless of where they are built. It is hard to see this happening under independence, and it would certainly be open to whims of politics. The result could be a rapid decline in renewable energy deployment, potentially on both sides of the border.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that an independent Scotland would effectively be an oil state. Depending on who you listen to Scotland would rely on North Sea oil and gas for as much as 20% of its economy.i That is a huge amount by any standard. That's more than twice as much as the UK relies on financial services and is a much more homogenous industry. The record of oil states is not good. Would a Scotland so reliant on fossil fuels really be willing to blaze a trail in weaning itself off them? It might develop some domestic measures for renewables, but will it back international efforts to end fossil fuels? Unlikely. Would the UK as a whole? Also unlikely, but perhaps a little less so. Furthermore, given the nature of the economy Scotland runs it will be totally reliant on the ups and downs of the oil industry to pay its bills. Again, not a happy place for an environmentalist to be. One need only look at resource states like Canada and Australia to see what can go wrong. Even green and golden Norway is one of Europe's leading polluters.ii

But what of the other stuff? Well we have seen that most local environmental issues are already devolved. Many others would be better handled at the municipal and county level (recycling, community energy, local nature reserves) but this is the case regardless of independence. Cities across the UK are seizing local powers and directly elected Mayors, driving change. Currently those in Scotland do not have this opportunity, tying them to Edinburgh. This could change regardless of Scotland's larger status.

It is important too to dispel the idea that Scotland is a lonely voice in a UK that couldn't care less. This is unfair. Many regions of England are doing pretty well on this front. From cycling to recycling and community energy the South West is a pioneer in many respects, while other areas like the North East and the Humber are world leaders in offshore wind. Lincolnshire will soon be able to supply the entire electrical demands of its one million people from offshore wind. 

This leads to my final little point. What is good for the environment is not just about what is good for the environment in Scotland. There is little doubt in my mind that Scotland acts as a counterbalance to the anti-green crowd in the Home Counties. Without it there is a serious risk that the rUK will lurch further down the wrong path than it already has. I don't see how that will help anyone. 

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