A stag in Braemar, Scotland. Photo: Getty
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John Burnside on nature: the threat to Scotland's wild north

A new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

I remember how, back in the 1980s, the Scottish Flow Country became an object of bemused controversy as rich celebrities and businessmen from south of the border acquired great tracts of this vast wetland in the far north in order to plant non-native conifer plantations that attract hefty tax breaks.

The RSPB describes the region as “one of the last remaining areas of wild land in the UK”. That anyone would even consider ploughing up the wilderness was cause for dismay, but the handing out of generous subsidies to ensure its destruction was so objectionable that the scheme was phased out in 1988. For once, it seemed, Abraham Lincoln’s old saw had been proven right: “. . . public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” And although immense damage had been done, the Flow Country was given a partial reprieve.

Now, a new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South, adding to its holdings in the north. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

The company has chosen land that was badly degraded by those 1980s “investments” – but its vague promises of a “restoration” programme do not arise from any kind of high-mindedness. It is all part of a nationwide circus of smoke and mirrors. And if we add to this the devastation that our subsidy culture has already wreaked in this part of the country – factoring in the Scottish Executive’s hawkish support for an ill-advised 103-turbine Viking Energy windfarm development on Shetland (previously mentioned in this column) – it is hard to avoid the impression that the Scottish National Party-led government cares less about the environment than it would have us believe.

This should not surprise anyone, however: Holyrood’s very active support in the mid-2000s for the now-infamous Trump golf resort at Menie showed a disregard for the environment that, with each “development” it has since pushed through, has become increasingly apparent – and increasingly worrying. Certainly the publication last month of a new map of Scottish wild land areas offered little encouragement to those who want to see Strathy South and Shetland protected from further encroachment.
Neither the Scottish & Southern nor the Viking site appears on the map – despite expert opinions that if these plans were to go ahead nature would suffer.

Of course, definitions of “wild land” vary and are ultimately determined by the people in charge. But surely it is clear that enough damage has been done, and that it’s time not to draw cosmetic maps (which, should commercial interests challenge them down the line, will almost certainly be redrawn) but to change our way of living?

With energy generation, the first step is to insist that all developments be appropriate in scale, cost-effective and judiciously located to reduce the impact on soil profiles and wildlife to the absolute minimum. (Really, it sounds like arrant cynicism when developers speak of “restoration programmes” while inserting hundreds of huge concrete stabilising plugs into sensitive peatland, such as that found in much of northern Scotland).

We must change – and the first change is to stop believing the lies. To do the research and follow the money trail. Most of all, to ask what “renewable” means, and whether a development is renewable when it destroys birdlife, soil structure and what remains of the last wilderness in an increasingly ruined land. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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