Hopes for independent Scottish voice at climate talks

An independent Scotland would be a green role model to the world, says climate minister Paul Wheelhouse

Scotland's Penland Firth is home to marine energy technology trials

Scotland’s Penland Firth is home to marine energy technology trials

By Megan Darby

It is two weeks until Scottish voters decide whether to break away from the United Kingdom.

Polls have consistently shown a majority want to stay in the union, but the independence campaign is closing the gap. The latest YouGov survey puts the “No” lead at 6 percentage points.

RTCC asked Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s minister of environment and climate change, what difference a “Yes” vote would make to the climate.

“In some respects, things will be the same,” said Wheelhouse. “We have an ambitious set of climate change legislation – not to say everything is easy in terms of delivery.”

Scotland already has a devolved administration with power over certain areas of policy. Independence would give the Scots complete control.

The Scottish Government has set more ambitious targets for carbon reduction than the UK as a whole, but has missed them for two years in a row.

The goal is to cut emissions 42% from 1990 levels by 2020. The most recent available data, for 2012, shows Scotland is slightly off course.

Paul Wheelhouse (Pic: Flickr/Agriculture, Food and Rural communities)

Paul Wheelhouse
(Pic: Flickr/Agriculture, Food and Rural communities)

Wheelhouse said: “We are trying to present Scotland as a role model, or at least a case study, of how a country is making the transition to a green economy.

“Irrespective of what is happening in the referendum, these are key priorities for us.”

As things stand, Scotland is not directly represented at international forums such as the UN climate talks, however.

Wheelhouse wants Scotland to speak with its own voice and potentially enshrine its ambition on climate change in a written constitution.

He said: “I do believe the UK is relatively ambitious compared to other nations, but Scotland is more ambitious than all of them.”

The vote comes on 18 September, five days before Ban Ki-moon hosts a climate summit for world leaders in New York.

If Scots vote “Yes”, there will be months of negotiation with the UK government before the split is complete.

Wheelhouse is not expecting Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, to get an invite from the UN secretary general.

But he says: “I would dearly love us to be directly represented at these talks.”

Renewables

Scottish politicians have consistently championed renewable energy more than their counterparts south of the border.

Salmond likes to call his jurisdiction “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”, in light of its wind and marine power potential.

And Wheelhouse talks of having a responsibility to move to a low carbon economy “as fast as we can”.

Scotland already fulfils more than 40% of its electricity demand from renewable sources, with a goal to reach 100% by 2020.

Much of this is variable wind power, so in practice the strategy relies on the availability of baseload nuclear and flexible fossil fuel generation to balance supply and demand.

It also benefits from an estimated £530 million of wind, wave and tidal subsidies levied across UK consumers. The “No” campaign has argued Scotland cannot take these subsidies for granted if it splits off.

While the “Yes” camp talks up renewables, it is also counting on fossil fuel reserves for revenue.

Salmond bullishly asserts that there is £1.5 trillion worth of oil and gas left in Scotland’s patch of the North Sea.

That claim has been savaged by experts. Output from the North Sea is in decline and the reserves are getting ever more costly to extract.

Sir Ian Wood, who recently carried out a review of the UK’s oil and gas resources, said Salmond’s predictions for recoverable oil were 45% to 60% too high.

Nonetheless, Salmond’s hopes for an independent Scotland include setting up an oil and gas fund, based on Norway’s US $884 billion sovereign wealth fund.

The more oil Scotland can extract, the wealthier it will be.

“We recognise it can appear somewhat contradictory,” admitted Wheelhouse.

“In the long term, there is only so much fossil fuel we can burn while staying within a 2C scenario,” he said. “In the short to medium term, there is still a need for fossil fuels.

“We have a responsibility to steward that oil and gas reserve efficiently.”

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