It won’t be easy to satisfy Greta Thunberg on climate change

Schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has sparked global protests calling for a climate change emergency
Schoolgirl Greta Thunberg has sparked global protests calling for a climate change emergency
Brian Wilson
Opinion by Brian WilsonFormer UK Energy Minister

Emergencies are not to be taken lightly so I am waiting with interest to find what the UK Parliament and Scottish Government announcements of a climate change emergency add up to.

The issues relating to climate change are not new so it is reasonable to expect that any actions to be taken post-emergency were also on the agenda pre-emergency. Apart from the announcements, I’m not sure what has changed.

The mood music was created by the series of school strikes and the visit by Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg. The devil will be in the implementation and it will not be easy to deliver enough to satisfy Greta.

As it happens, the immediate measure announced – cancellation of the cut in Air Passenger Duty – had little to do with climate change.

It was driven by the Scottish Government discovering that it would have to go back to Brussels to secure a continuing APD derogation for Highlands and Islands airports. The green escape hatch proved useful.

Other measures will prove more politically challenging. For example, a major switch in spending from road-building to public transport and fuel-efficient vehicles is popular but has always proven difficult to sell.

I happen to think it is long overdue but it will be a real test of commitment in the next Scottish budget.

Environmental responsibility is, of course, a key duty of any government. The problem is that every environmentally-driven action has both social and economic consequences – and sometime adverse environmental ones as well.

Scotland has no shortage of these dilemmas. We have a huge economic interest in the wellbeing of the North Sea oil and gas industry. But how does that sit with a climate change emergency whose proponents are demanding that producer countries should “leave it in the ground”?

No government is going to say that the declaration of an “emergency” demands abandonment of their commitment to the industry. Indeed, Scottish Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse could not have made this clearer.

The world, he explained, “will require hydrocarbons during the low-carbon transition” so there is a “responsibility” to keep on producing.

Scotland’s blanket ban on fracking is paraded as a demonstration of climate change commitment. But that doesn’t really add up. If it is reprehensible to extract indigenous resources, how can it be acceptable to ship the same commodity from the other side of the Atlantic?

Once again, you cannot just close down industries that employ thousands of people. Furthermore, as we turn ourselves into net energy importers, our reliance on interconnectors will grow. We will take what we are sent – including increasing volumes of gas extracted from under the Russian Arctic.

The best green initiatives are those that link environmental virtue with economic benefits and local employment. Once upon a time, that was my dream for the Scottish renewables industry but it hasn’t worked out like that due to the failure to keep manufacturing in Scotland.

Matters seem to be getting worse rather than better. At least the onshore wind turbines were made in Europe and shipped relatively short distances. The offshore wind farms, it seems, are destined to come from much further afield.
Yet how do the environmental maths add up if the hardware to generate green energy comes from the other side of the world?

The Scottish Government’s environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, said that “the climate emergency must be hardwired into the national psyche”. Yet it is the psyche of government which will often yield to the need to balance environmental objectives with other policy imperatives.

It will be interesting to revisit the climate change emergency in a year’s time. Will any of the difficult issues have been addressed?