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19 April 2024

The SNP’s climate U-turn shows how it has trapped itself

In Scotland, bad strategy is making for bad law across government.

By Chris Deerin

When I interviewed Mairi McAllan for the New Statesman recently, it was evident that she had something on her mind. Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary criticised the “fetishisation” of climate targets – not something you normally hear from an SNP government that has long prided itself on setting environmental goals considerably more ambitious than those agreed by Westminster.

And her game plan has now become clear. McAllan announced yesterday (18 April) that she is scrapping a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent by 2030.

This follows a warning in March by the Climate Change Committee that the 2030 goal was “now beyond what is credible”. In 2021, Scotland missed its annual emissions-reduction target – the eighth such failure in 12 years. The CCC stated that despite the looming 2030 deadline, there was “no comprehensive strategy for Scotland to decarbonise towards Net Zero.”

In this, as with so much else, the SNP has been caught on a hook of its own fashioning. Holyrood must always appear more virtuous than Westminster. It’s essential to the independence cause that Scots are persuaded to see themselves as different to the English – more socially, globally and environmentally empathetic. This might be nonsense, a sort of psychological confidence trick, but it is key to understanding the past decade of SNP governance and the choices that have been made. 

When the UK set a target of cutting carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, the SNP committed Scotland to 75 per cent. The UK has said it will reach net zero by 2050 – Scotland will do it by 2045, apparently.

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There’s nothing wrong with ambition – few issues require moral seriousness more than the future of the planet – but in the SNP’s approach you can see much of what has gone wrong with the debate around climate.

Bad strategy is making for bad law across government. There is the widespread revolt over the Hate Crime Act, ongoing disarray over gender law and now an embarrassing U-turn on climate change. Humza Yousaf had another tough time at First Minister’s Questions yesterday as he was assailed on multiple fronts. Goal-setting without a realistic plan is a hopeless approach. It insults the intelligence of voters and can only ever be a hostage to fortune. Too often on climate, it has seemed as if dates have been plucked from the air for reasons of political advantage or expediency rather than rational assessment. If the 2045 target remains in place for now, that is probably only because it is comfortingly far off.

It’s also worth remembering that the SNP is in coalition with the Scottish Greens, whose daily purpose used to be fighting climate change until they became obsessed with breaking up the UK. The abandonment of the 2030 goal is a self-inflicted humiliation for both of Scotland’s self-righteous governing parties.

Of course, it is, from another angle, perfectly reasonable to reconsider climate goals as the realities change. The issue is complex and impacted upon by matters that are not always under national control, such as wars, global energy prices, the economic conditions and the pace of scientific progress. Targets help governments drive towards change, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken as written in stone or non-negotiable.

For this reason, I had some sympathy with McAllan’s “fetishisation” remark. Her admission to parliament that the 2030 goal was “out of reach” was accompanied by new pledges, including a quadrupling of electric vehicle charge points across Scotland by 2030, a national integrated ticketing system for public transport, and a consultation on a carbon land tax on the largest estates.

But I might have more sympathy had the SNP responded with more caution to Rishi Sunak’s decision last year to delay the planned ban on new petrol and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers. Instead, predictably, the Nats denounced the PM. This “betrayal of future generations is unforgivable”, they said. “While the Tories take this backwards step, it has never been more vital that the SNP government press ahead and ensure Scotland remains a global climate leader that can attract the skills and investment needed to reach net-zero.”

How does that rhetoric sound today? As Sunak said at the time, “there’s nothing ambitious about simply asserting a goal for a short-term headline without being honest with the public about the tough choices and sacrifices involved and without any meaningful democratic debate about how we get there.”

McAllan unwittingly echoed these Tory words when we met, arguing that a rigid approach to targets underplays “the magnitude of what’s actually required, which is total transformation of the way we live our lives and doing it with the speed that the emergency requires – that’s really, really challenging, especially when it’s so expensive. We have to [be] realistic with the people of Scotland about what it actually requires. We should be flexible – with something as new and challenging as the climate emergency we have to learn as we go along.”

Well, quite – they’re both right. But the political rhetoric so rarely tracks with the reality. Yesterday, McAllan was back to blaming the Westminster Tories and other assorted unionists, insisting that the missed target could be blamed on “severe budgetary restrictions imposed by the UK government” and the “restraints of devolution”. “We are operating with one hand tied behind our back,” she grumbled.

The hard truth is that the SNP over-promised and under-delivered. Oil and gas continue to account for 68 per cent of our energy consumption, while that consumption is double our domestic production. Over 40 per cent of our energy is imported, which leaves Britain and Scotland open to market fluctuations and the decisions of despots. Few would suggest, given the darkening global situation, that this situation will improve any time soon. Renewables are simply not ready to take the full strain, or anywhere near it.

Denmark, broadly held to be Europe’s greenest country, is redeveloping the Tyra gas field, helping the country to once again become a gas exporter. The transition to renewables requires the profits and materials that come with the continued exploitation of fossil fuels, and we remain decades from that changing.

Since both the UK and Scottish governments have had to rethink their climate targets in recent months, this would seem like a good moment for a more grown-up and honest conversation with the electorate. People are confused about what they’re being asked to do, and when, and what it will cost them. They’re unclear as to how much impact these alterations would have, despite the significant personal disruption entailed. They have good reason to mistrust government pledges.

Is a nuanced, mature debate, and some political humility, too much to hope for? Well, probably.

[See also: The fight to save a fractured Union]

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