Why an Independent Scotland is Better Placed to Tackle the Climate Emergency

By Justin Stevens

In 2021 the Parliamentary Elections for Scotland returned a majority for pro-independence parties, with the support of the Green Party alongside the SNP. The momentum for another independence momentum builds.

The two issues of independence and climate are very much interlinked, because if Scotland is able to govern itself then new trajectories and options become available. However, some people have argued that being independent will actually undermine efforts to tackle climate change. In this article, I will examine exactly why Scotland is more able to tackle the climate emergency by being independent.

Reason 1: Track record

For over a decade, the English government has not taken climate change seriously. Against all the spin and rhetoric, one only has to look at actual votes and actions:-

  • Westminster funding of overseas fossil fuel projects amounted to £6 billion since 2010 (as reported here). Only in 2021, after sustained pressure, did the government finally agree to stop directly funding such projects.
  • But, within its own borders, the Westminster government has gone on to approve a long list of climate wrecking initiatives – from the expansion of Heathrow Airport to the extreme reluctance to reverse the building of a new coal mine in Cumbria.
  • In other areas, the Westminster government has rushed to expand road construction, slashed the only green homes grant, cut and scrapped the feed-in tariff for home owned renewable energy, and consistently breached air pollution standards for major cities. The list could go on.

Across this decade, government ministers – including the current Prime Minister – have consistently opposed, challenged and watered down attempts to take a stronger stance on the climate emergency.

Reason 2: Insincerity

Given the above, insincerity about climate change action may come as no surprise. But the extent to which government ministers and the Prime Minister say one thing, only to do the exact opposite, is truly staggering. On numerous occasions, when promoting green initiatives, Boris Johnson has chosen to reach them by plane and helicopter – even, in some cases, when such initiatives were just over two hours away by train.

Even as government ministers stand before press podiums declaring ‘plans’ to tackle climate change, it appoints dedicated climate deniers to environmental committees and aligns itself with billionaire media moguls who oppose climate action (Murdoch being one example).

Reason 3: Crackdown on environmental activism

Despite continuing pressure, the Westminster government is set to impose a draconian new law (the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’) that would outlaw peaceful protests that cause ‘disruption’. The law, seen as an explicit attack on the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion, came in the wake of mounting protests against insufficient government action to tackle the climate emergency. Indeed, the British Home Secretary Priti Pratel was quoted as describing these activists as ‘criminals’ who ‘threaten our way of life’. Efforts were also made to classify XR as an ‘organised crime group’ and, although later dropped, the government has consolidated the impunity of undercover police to infiltrate and disrupt the work of such groups.

Reason 4: An international center of tax evasion and corruption

For anyone who has visited inner city London, it might not be immediately apparently that entire streets are owned by Russian oligarchs, Saudi Arabian princes, and other members of ‘the 1%’ global elite. This, however, is just the tip of a humongous iceberg (and, unlike the others, it’s not melting). The London-centered UK finance center has, for decades, been a hidden epicenter of a globalised network that launders money from former dictators, the beneficiaries of the most extractive and exploitative corporations, and outright criminals. Indeed, mafia expert Roberto Saviano – who dedicated most of his life to uncovering networks of ‘black money’ – described the UK as the ‘most corrupt country in the world. The explosive Panama Papers leak in 2016 demonstrated the veracity of that assessment – with UK firms, top businessman, politicians and even then Prime Minister David Cameron being connected with huge tax evasion networks. But, aside from Panama, the British overseas territories – the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, etc – top the list for the world’s ‘tax havens’, where billions of money is channeled by the world’s richest people in order to avoid paying their fair due of tax.

The implications of this one issue are so huge that it merits an entire article by itself, and even closer to home we have seen leading British ministers willing to engage in outright corruption.

Despite the above, there are chances that the Westminster government could change course and redeem itself. First of these is the landmark Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. If backed, it would be the first piece of legislation with teeth to truly tackle the climate emergency, with concrete commitments that bind the Government to reduce emissions and take meaningful steps, by 2030, in reversing biodiversity loss. We should watch closely how the Westminster politicians vote in this matter, especially those in the dominant Conservative Party.

If Scotland were to gain independence, it could break free from a government consistently opposed to real climate change action and which is heavily linked to vested interests that benefit from a high consuming, high emission trajectory. Independence would also enable rejoining the European Union, which has some of the strongest legislation in the world to tackle the climate emergency and has a long list of environmental achievements, with most EU member states meeting or exceeding their carbon emission reduction targets.

However, independence and even rejoining the EU does not automatically guarantee that Scotland will be a world leader in climate change. Whatever government emerges must be reminded what steps are necessary, rather than being enticed into following the standard model of ‘limitless growth’, based on GDP. It must not be afraid to break from this destructive mould and to place the long-term benefits of citizens, the environment, other species -and ultimately the continuance of life – before short-term votes and securing quick money from elites.

For now, we are still some way from even being in the position of making a choice. Pro-independence parties in Scotland are well ahead of their English counterparts in setting out meaningful climate change policies, but they are still ultimately overseen and restricted by Westminster.

Mitigation or Adaptation?

When we think of tackling climate change, the first thing that comes to mind is reducing greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons). Alongside this, we may consider ways to improve natural ‘carbon sinks’, such as planting forests. But there is another element – one that has, for the most part, been consigned as a secondary consideration, or even something that is deliberately avoided. It is, of course, climate adaptation.

What is not often realised is that climate adaptation can actually complement, and enhance, mitigation. When we retrofit our homes to be more energy efficient, we are simultaneously helping to reduce emissions. When trees are planed in urban areas to provide shade and a cooling effect, they also store atmospheric CO2. Putting in place ways to adapt and build resilience to climate change, of the kind we recommend, always has some interconnection with adaptation.

The more we leave adaptation on the sidelines, the greater the risk of it being picked up by powerful players, who can even go on to shape what it actually means to people.

This does not mean that adaptation will inevitably, by itself, be positive. Consider, for example, the way rising temperatures in some parts of the world entail widespread and growing use of air-conditioning. This is adaptation to the impacts of climate change (heat), but in doing so it creates – rather than reduces – greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, adaptation schemes can end up being imposed on communities rather than built in consultation with them. The more we leave adaptation on the sidelines, the greater the risk of it being picked up by powerful players, who can even go on to shape what it actually means, regardless of the social impacts.

Whilst we may hear very little about climate adaptation (although mentions are growing), the concept crops up numerously in governmental and large business circles. All governments are expected to produce reports on how they will adapt to climate change, with Local Authorities being required to do the same. For Scotland, this is reflected by Section 53 of the Climate Change Act 2009, which notes the need for public bodies to be resilient to climate change and plan the continuing delivery of key functions in presence of possible climate related disruption.

In some regions the public duty to consider climate adaptation has been shared or delegated to NGOs. In Glasgow region we have Climate Ready Clyde. Their detailed risk assessment sets out recommendations for the region, together with the challenges and opportunities that exist. From reading this, climate adaptation is not just a positive response to an urgent problem; it also represents a catalyst for a rejuvenated economy, with green jobs and chances to empower the next generation to tackle the mounting threat of climate change.

Starting 2025, all organisations employing more than 200 people will need to provide a mandatory report every year that sets out how they are addressing climate change risks.

It does not end there. For many businesses, taking into account the impacts of climate change will soon no longer be optional. Starting 2025, all organisations employing more than 200 people will need to provide a mandatory report every year that sets out how they are addressing climate change risks[1]. Legislation is only heading in one direction, so there is a good chance this requirement will be extended to more organisations, with additional factors around climate adaptation coming to bear. In short – whether you like it or not – adaptation is moving out from its obscure position and into the spotlight. As it does so, we should look to good examples of community rooted, socially just, initiatives, which double up as climate mitigation. They are out there: watch this space!


Covid and Climate: How Much is Too Little?

By JUSTIN STEVENS (Director, Climadapt)

The second wave of COVID-19 is still hitting many countries, and total lock-downs are the norm. Working from home and travel bans have resulted in a fall in CO2 emissions, outpacing the 2008 recession and even WWII. So has this bought us more time, and is the climate emergency now a little less urgent?

A report published by the World Meteorological Organisation in September 2020 showed that the reduction of emissions from COVID-19, although significant, was not enough. It was also the case that, towards the end of the first wave, emissions started to increase again.

Even now, in the midst of another even deeper lockdown, the world’s climate emissions are above what is needed to keep temperatures below 2 degrees. They actually need to fall by at least 7.6% globally, each year, until they are zero. Because so much carbon has soaked into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and since it lasts for several hundred years, our ability to emit even more without consequences is shrinking. Each gigatonne now only adds to the carbon ‘bank’ – at present over 415ppm. The last time this amount of carbon was seen in the atmosphere was 3 million years ago, when sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are now. And the warming created by carbon takes time to happen.

For some, the election of President Biden in the US and his subsequent rejoining of the Paris Agreement was a cause for hope. Unfortunately, it is the case that even if countries meet commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement – and there is not much to even bind them to those commitments – the world is still heading for a 3.2 degrees rise in global temperature.

These are scary figures to get your head around, and perhaps that explains why many people – including entire governments – are burying theirs in the sand.

What it means, for both them and the rest of us, is at least 3 degrees rise by 2100. If you want to know what a planet 3 degrees hotter looks like, check out this video.

There’s a chance, of course, that there will be a flurry of new policies aimed at driving down climate emissions and perhaps even the deployment of technologies from the atmosphere. If that happens temperatures will stay within 2 degrees rise – with deep impacts to our way of life, but ones far easier to deal with than if it gets to over 3 degrees.

And there’s also a chance, as we saw with the first wave of COVID, that industries will roar back into life, and emissions will continue on an upward trajectory. Indeed, many nations have already indicated that ‘economic growth’ (as measured by GDP, the thing driving emissions) takes priority.

We’ll see. But whatever happens, we need to be prepared.