John Ferry

Can Scotland reach net zero without the Union?

Can Scotland reach net zero without the Union?
(Photo: Getty)
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What’s more important to supporters of Scottish secession, achieving the break-up of Britain or seeing Scotland successfully transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions?

It is a difficult question for environmentally conscious independence supporters to face, but face it they must, for it is becoming increasingly clear that Scotland cutting itself out of the UK will see England, Wales and Northern Ireland power ahead to net zero while Scotland gets left behind.

This month saw the publication of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) latest fiscal risks report. The bi-annual document identifies and models potential shocks to the public finances. The new analysis has lengthy, detailed sections dedicated to examining the government budget implications of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

The UK has targeted 2050 to reach net zero on greenhouse gas emissions. In Scotland, environmental policy is devolved while energy policy is reserved (although responsibility for awarding fracking licences was devolved in 2018). The Scottish government has set a target of 2045 for Scotland to achieve net zero.

The cost of getting the UK there is estimated to be £1.4 trillion in real terms. The OBR takes as a reasonable scenario that the government will pick up a quarter of that cost, which gives a net bill for the state of £344 billion in real terms over the next 30 years. That means tens of billions of pounds will be required to be spent by the government in Scotland over the next three decades if the country is to meet its target.

These costs have not been factored into any SNP separation plans. The 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report, which remains Nicola Sturgeon’s benchmark policy document on the technicalities of separation, has no decarbonisation analysis. It mentions ‘the transition to a low carbon economy’ once in passing but fails to factor in the enormous costs of achieving net zero (and in its section on infrastructure discusses an independent Scotland’s economic strategy in terms of ‘if renewable energy continued to be a priority’).

To bring the price of transition further into perspective, take one of the key challenges we face: decarbonising our homes. The government advisory group, the Climate Change Committee, estimates that between 28 and 29 million houses across the UK will need heating and insulation conversions and upgrades in the coming years if they are to be net zero compatible. Estimates of the average cost of upgrading and retrofitting an existing single home range from £10,000 to £19,000.

What portion of these costs would a 2028 independent Scotland cover for Scottish households, and how would it meet those costs? No work has been done on this.

Realistically, it seems the new breakaway state would find itself unable to fund any of these or other zero carbon transition objectives, given the precarious financial position it would start with. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that Scotland’s deficit will be touching 10 per cent of GDP in 2025-26. With no national currency of its own, no central bank with the ability to do quantitative easing, and no record of issuing sovereign debt, an independent Scotland would most likely find itself making large-scale emergency cuts to public spending – never mind funding decarbonisation. The switch to net zero would be one luxury among many Nicola Sturgeon would not be able to afford.

Sturgeon insists Scotland will have another referendum once the country is through the immediate coronavirus crisis. This fails to account for the fact that Scotland is in the midst of two emergencies – the pandemic and the climate emergency. If the former is deemed important enough to halt constitutional hostilities then why not the latter?

As priorities go, the climate emergency clearly sits some way below the break-up of the UK for both the SNP and their nationalist outriders, the misnamed Scottish Green party.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on Scotland’s self-proclaimed champions for the environment. The Scottish Greens campaigned hard for Alex Salmond in 2014 when his secession plans for North Sea oil would have made a Texan neoconservative blush. Today they campaign for a secession that would all but guarantee pushing Scotland off the decarbonisation path for lack of funding. They may be many things, but environmental champions they are not.

Sturgeon often likes to frame politics as a straight binary choice, with her on the side of progress. If Scotland were to have another referendum then the choice would be between a Scotland in the Union with a chance of getting to net zero, and a secessionist Scotland cut off from the funding structures needed to achieve the green transition.

As the UK prepares to host the COP26 United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow in November, Scotland’s environmentally conscious citizens should reflect on the danger the SNP and the Scottish Greens pose to Scotland’s chances of reaching net zero.