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The Scottish National Party Can’t Be Trusted to Tackle the Climate Crisis

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP has teamed up with the pro-independence Scottish Greens. But Sturgeon’s rhetoric on climate change has never been matched by action.

First minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon holds a media briefing with Scottish Greens coleaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater (not pictured) at Bute House on August 20, 2021 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff J. Mitchell — Pool / Getty Images)

On Friday, August 20, just over a week after the IPCC delivered its latest, chilling assessment of the state of global environmental breakdown, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) struck a governing deal at Holyrood, Scotland’s semiautonomous parliament in Edinburgh, with the Scottish Greens.

The deal is loosely based on the cooperation agreement signed in New Zealand last October, which handed Green legislators ministerial portfolios in Jacinda Ardern’s Labour administration without binding them to the rules of collective responsibility. As things stand, the pact is provisional: Green activists have to ratify the agreement at a special party conference at the end of this month.

Sturgeon’s motives in seeking to share power with the Greens, who sit to the left of the SNP leader on almost every issue, are not hard to fathom. The incumbent first minister fell one seat short of an outright majority at the Holyrood elections in May and wants to govern without the looming threat of a no-confidence vote in parliament.

The SNP and the Greens both support a second referendum on Scottish independence: the new arrangement will bolster prospects of a fresh poll. And Sturgeon is a staunch Europhile: coalition governments are the norm in Europe, even if they are still viewed with irrational suspicion in parts of Britain.

It’s less clear what the Greens stand to gain from joining Sturgeon’s cabinet. There will be scope for cooperation on some key areas of social and constitutional reform, including rent controls, independence, and LGBTQ rights, as well as additional funding for the decarbonization of Scotland’s transport infrastructure. “There is a great deal to be optimistic about in this agreement as we commit ourselves to rapidly transitioning [away from fossil fuels],” Green co-convener Patrick Harvie remarked at a press conference on Friday.

At the same time, despite the IPCC’s eleventh-hour warnings, in Sturgeon’s SNP, Harvie and his colleagues are planning to partner up with a party that has consistently failed, over the past fourteen years in office, to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves. Indeed, Sturgeon herself — a liberal technocrat with a gift for superficially radical political rhetoric — has mastered the art of environmental doublespeak, humoring the concerns of millennial climate activists one minute before extolling the benefits of extractive capitalism the next.

Climate Triangulation

The SNP’s climate contortions have become increasingly pronounced in recent months, as the debate over Scotland’s role in the fight against global warming has intensified. On the one hand, Glasgow — Scotland’s largest city, and the focal point of the SNP’s Central Belt support — will host the COP26 climate summit in November. John Kerry, Joe Biden’s special climate envoy, is billing the event as the world’s “last, best chance” to stave off accelerating ecological collapse.

On the other hand: Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in London is considering giving the green light to a massive new oil field development eighty miles west of Shetland, in the Scottish sector of the mineral-rich North Sea. The Tories have indicated their backing for the Cambo project, while Sturgeon has hedged her bets.

The Cambo development cannot possibly be reconciled with Scotland’s climate commitments. SNP politicians routinely boast about Scotland’s “world-leading” carbon reduction targets. In 2019, Holyrood passed the Climate Change Bill, an eye-catching piece of legislation aimed at eliminating (or offsetting) Scottish onshore emissions by 2045, five years before the UK as a whole.

The bill represented a global “landmark” that would end Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis “within a generation” — or so Scottish ministers claimed at the time. Patricia Espinosa, a senior climate strategist at the UN, agreed. “Congratulations, Scotland,” she tweeted in September 2019. “This is an inspiring example of the level of ambition we need globally to achieve the #ParisAgreement.”

If it goes ahead, Cambo will singlehandedly wreck Scotland’s reputation for climate leadership — although that reputation is already questionable, as Holyrood has missed its carbon targets for the last three years. The field, jointly operated by Siccar Point Energy and Shell, has the capacity to produce 800 million barrels of oil over a thirty-year lifespan.

The current licensing agreement mandates 170 million barrels, enough to belch out more than 100 million tons of CO2 — roughly the equivalent of running eighteen coal-fired power stations continuously for a year. In 2019, Scotland’s entire domestic carbon output totaled 47.8 million metric tons.

Third Way Hand-Wringing

Environmental organizations are scathing about the project. Friends of the Earth Scotland called it an “obscenity” that would “further damage the UK’s credibility on climate action ahead of COP26.” Greenpeace has threatened to take the British government — which, under the UK’s lopsided distribution of constitutional powers, is formally responsible for licensing North Sea investments — to court.

Still, Sturgeon has vacillated. On July 22, her administration published a statement insisting that, whatever the criticisms of Cambo, North Sea oil and gas had a “positive role to play in Scotland’s energy transition.” Three weeks later, the first minister sent an open letter to Johnson asking his government to “reassess” its plan to authorize the development in the absence of more robust “climate compatibility checkpoints.” The letter stopped short of saying production at Cambo should not commence.

Sturgeon’s position has encountered fierce public opposition. On August 7, a group of organizers from Green New Deal Rising, a grassroots climate initiative, confronted the SNP leader at the Govanhill International Festival and Carnival, a community fair held in the heart of her constituency on the Southside of Glasgow. They urged Sturgeon to oppose Cambo on the grounds that it would exacerbate the climate crisis.

Yet Sturgeon responded with a vintage display of Third Way hand-wringing. “We are thinking about all these things,” the first minister shrugged, and “trying to come to the right decision.” At the end of the day, though, Cambo was “not a matter for the Scottish government,” she added. The confrontation, posted on Twitter, went viral.

Some commentators aren’t convinced that Sturgeon is as powerless to stop Cambo as she claims to be. Environmental journalist Adam Ramsay has argued that the Scottish parliament could use devolved planning law to tighten the rules governing oil industry infrastructure in Scottish waters. As Ramsay pointed out, the SNP used a similar mechanism to block the construction of new nuclear power plants in Scotland after the party first secured control of Holyrood in 2007.

Scotland’s Oil

In truth, Sturgeon’s fence-sitting over the future of Scottish fossil fuels extends beyond the disputed competencies of the Edinburgh parliament. North Sea oil and gas has been foundational to the success of Scotland’s postwar nationalism. The discovery of significant mineral deposits off the coast of Aberdeenshire in the 1960s revolutionized Scottish politics. It fueled a string of electoral breakthroughs for the SNP and instantly amplified the economic appeal of Scottish independence, the party’s raison d’être.

In the 1970s, the SNP’s iconic “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign advanced a vision of petro-fired social democracy just as Britain’s industrial architecture was beginning to creak. When UK government ministers opened the North Sea up to American energy companies, Scottish nationalists pushed the case for public ownership of oil and gas assets, anchored by a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund.

In the 1980s, following the defeat of the (ruthlessly gerrymandered) 1979 devolution referendum, the SNP insurgency fizzled out, and North Sea levies flowed south to London, resulting in a four-decade-long, £300 billion tax windfall for the UK Treasury. Jarringly, Margaret Thatcher used peak North Sea receipts to cut the top rate of income tax and bankroll Britain’s mushrooming unemployment rates, prompted by her monetarist attacks on the country’s industrial base.

In subsequent decades, under the leadership of Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s now bitterly estranged predecessor, the SNP moved away from the statism of the 1970s and embraced an Irish-oriented model of Scottish sovereignty, rooted in independent membership of the European single market, low corporate taxes, and financial deregulation — albeit also peppered with some notable populist flourishes.

The party continued to argue that oil and gas could fund public spending in an independent Scottish state until global commodity prices crashed in 2015. In 2017, Sturgeon was still eagerly reassuring oil executives that her government’s “primary aim” was to “maximize economic recovery” of North Sea reserves. Oil remains one of Scotland’s chief export industries, supporting up to one hundred thousand Scottish jobs.

In 2018, the SNP removed North Sea revenues from its annual projections of Scotland’s fiscal health. Then, six months ago, with the COP spotlight looming, the SNP quietly ditched its traditional commitment to maximum economic extraction, in favor of the qualified demand that future drilling projects must satisfy upgraded environmental criteria.

The Saudi Arabia of Renewables?

Sturgeon’s equivocation on Cambo thus reflects Scottish nationalism’s formative ties to the North Sea, as well as its implicit acceptance of neoliberal economic norms. Yet the SNP’s climate hypocrisy isn’t restricted to oil and gas. Its triangulating instincts drive Scottish government policy on renewables, too.

Relative to its size, and thanks to its rolling coastal geography, Scotland possesses a disproportionate share of the world’s green energy potential. By some estimates, it has 25 percent of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal resources and 60 percent of the UK’s onshore wind capacity.

In 2011, Alex Salmond suggested, somewhat crassly, that Scotland could become the “Saudi Arabia” of global green energy production. But government inaction and market-friendly procurement policies have frittered away the dream of Scotland as a green industrial powerhouse, propelled by domestic manufacturing expertise.

The experience of BiFab, a Methil and Lewis–based engineering firm, is particularly telling. Once viewed as the great white hope of Scottish offshore wind manufacturing, in late 2020, the company entered administration at the cost of four hundred high-skilled engineering jobs.

In 2017, the Scottish government stepped in to rescue the firm, which had been commissioned to build jackets for the French-owned Neart na Gaoithe wind farm in Fife. However, when the renegotiated contract fell through, politicians in Edinburgh and London said they had exhausted all legal pathways to intervention and refused pleas for additional help.

BiFab isn’t unique: under the SNP, foreign investment and private ownership have become the twin motors of Scotland’s much-hyped but largely illusory green growth. Turbine construction for the Moray East wind farm, located off the coast of Caithness, for instance, is funded by a consortium of firms from Portugal, France, and Japan, while the turbine blades are being manufactured by a Danish company, MHI Vestas.

Meanwhile, the fabrication yard at Machrihanish, near Campbelltown, west of Glasgow, has been left idle as its South Korean owners, CS Wind, fight a legal battle to offshore manufacturing equipment from Scottish soil. In both cases, Scottish workers have missed out on the economic benefits of Scotland’s extraordinary abundance of green power.

Under the Bus

Sturgeon’s government insists it is doing everything possible, within its limited legislative control, to ensure that Scotland’s renewable resources aren’t squandered in the same way the country’s oil wealth was in the 1980s and ’90s. Representatives from organized labor are not convinced.

“A decade on from the promise of a ‘Saudi Arabia of renewables,’ we’ve been left with industrial ruins in Fife and Lewis,” the GMB and Unite unions remarked in the aftermath of BiFab’s collapse. The BiFab controversy exposed “the myth of Scotland’s renewables revolution,” they said. Two of the three BiFab yards have since been bought out: they are now owned by the London-based firm InfraStrata.

As if to underscore the SNP’s current indifference to the politics of domestic economic ownership, investigative journalists at The Ferret revealed that the parent company of Siccar Point Energy — which maintains a controlling 70 percent stake in the Cambo field — is registered in Luxembourg. “Luxembourg,” the website noted, “is ranked sixth-worst in the world for both tax avoidance and financial secrecy.”

Sturgeon’s government has presided over a litany of other environmental failures. Since 2007, the SNP has repeatedly pledged to overhaul Scotland’s feudal patterns of land ownership: fewer than five hundred people own half the country’s nonpublic landmass. Yet its proposals for reform invariably fall short of the radical change activists say is needed to democratize Scottish rural life. The SNP–Green shared policy document, published on Friday, said they would introduce a new land reform bill to Holyrood before the end of 2023.

Last summer, Sturgeon appointed Benny Higgins, a private-sector banker, to chart Scotland’s fiscal recovery from COVID-19. His first act in his new role was to launch an unprovoked attack on climate campaigners, whom Higgins denounced as “ideological zealots” determined to “throw economic growth under the bus.”

In February, SNP ministers granted the British royal family — which owns vast tracts of Scottish land as a matter of hereditary right — an exemption from new energy efficiency rules the party had otherwise insisted were necessary to cut Scottish carbon emissions. Freedom of Information requests later revealed that the Palace had secretly lobbied the Scottish government for the exemption — and that the latter had facilitated it without disclosing the lobbying to parliament.

This is the administration the young, combative, anti-capitalist Scottish Greens are on the brink of joining. Assuming that the governing deal is ratified, one of two outcomes await. Either Green MSPs will push Sturgeon into embracing ever more ambitious positions on the climate without being absorbed into the vitiating machinery of her government, or they will provide PR cover for the SNP’s ineffectual climate gradualism — and end up paying a heavy political price at future elections.

Sturgeon’s evasiveness over Cambo is unsettling for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the nationalist leader isn’t a climate denier. She understands the science of global warming and, on some level, knows that the development must not and cannot go ahead. The success of the Greens over the coming months will be measured by their ability to resolve the SNP’s climate dissonance.