John Ferry

The strange greenwashing of Nicola Sturgeon

The strange greenwashing of Nicola Sturgeon
(Photo: Getty)
Text settings

It was only a matter of time. When the Scottish Green party entered government alongside the SNP in August, it was clear Nicola Sturgeon would use the party as a shield against her questionable record and stance on the environment. The surprise is that it happened so quickly and so blatantly.

This week we had the extraordinary situation of the Scottish Greens attacking Greenpeace for daring to push the First Minister to explicitly come out against exploitation of the Cambo oil field off Shetland. Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said Greenpeace was unfairly criticising Sturgeon and is ‘not particularly politically active in Scotland’.

Ramping up the ‘othering’ of Greenpeace, Harvie’s fellow Green MSP, Ross Greer, then did an interview where he said it’s ‘fair to say Greenpeace don’t really understand Scotland’ because ‘they’ve never had a permanent presence here’. He accused Greenpeace of ‘landing here in Scotland having spent very little time trying to understand our situation’, and said the organisation had ‘come here to lecture us on the action that we’re taking’.

He rounded off by saying: ‘It’s entirely fair for us, those of us in the environmental movement who know the state of play in Scotland, to be critical when those from outside, when London-based NGOs, come in and tell us what they think we should be doing.’

The most disturbing aspect of Greer’s words was the chauvinism – the framing of campaigners from an international NGO as unworthy outsiders to be denigrated because they’re not Scottish enough. Greenpeace are based in Amsterdam and originated in Canada, which suggests Greer’s ‘London-based’ slur was nothing but a dog-whistle for nationalists.

The readiness by the party to turn on one of the world’s most prominent environmental campaigning organisations is a good example of how nationalism corrupts politics by smothering the clash of ideas in identity and substituting principles for a flag. This will not be the last time the Scottish Greens debase themselves on the altar of separatism.

A truly green party would be holding Sturgeon’s administration to account over its egregious claims to be leading the world on tackling climate change. The claim is partly based on setting ambitious emissions reduction targets, such as the Scottish government’s aim to see Scottish emissions cut by 75 per cent by 2030. Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, the statutory body that advises government, has described this and other Scottish government targets as ‘overcooked’.

The Scottish government already has a history of continuously failing to meet legally-binding annual emissions targets. But as with hospital waiting time targets, there is no sanction for failure. Indeed, there is an upside to the SNP in failing, in that when the big targets are missed they can pin the blame on being tied to the UK energy market, systems and regulations. It will be another grievance opportunity, and the Scottish Greens will assist in setting climate policies aimed at stoking division instead of healing the planet.

The ‘world leading’ target is also based on progress already made in cutting emissions in Scotland, and on the amount of energy produced from renewables. But the cutting emissions part came about despite SNP policy.

It became UK government policy in 2015 to phase out coal-fired power stations across Britain within 10 years. In 2016, the Longannet coal-fired power station in Fife closed, ostensibly on economic grounds but clearly also in line with the UK’s switch away from coal. The plant had been responsible for nearly a fifth of Scotland’s emissions.

In 2015, Sturgeon’s then energy minister, Fergus Ewing, described the closure of Longannet as a ‘national scandal’ and pushed for the preservation of it as a consumer of coal to ‘allow for the restoration of the mines in Scotland’. The Sturgeon government therefore was very much pro-coal. Taking all the credit today for the fall in emissions is a bit rich.

The one area where the Scottish government does get green credit is in their readiness to force through planning applications for wind farms, which has dramatically increased Scotland’s renewable energy production. But again, never mentioned by the SNP is the fact that windfarm expansion in Scotland has been subsidised by surcharges applied to energy bills from across the UK.

There has been no shortage of hubris from Sturgeon this week at COP26 as she’s tried to present her government as radically progressive on the environment. Scratch below the surface of the soundbites however and you find that her administration’s policies have, to date, only played a limited role in cutting Scotland’s emissions. That success has come down to nothing more radical than happening to be part of the UK.

Which brings us back to the Scottish Greens and their putting in a shift to earn their nationalist stripes. Their role now is to assist Sturgeon in her efforts to greenwash the SNP, to the extent even of taking up the cudgels against proper green activists.

Perhaps they would be better renaming themselves The Scottish Greenwashing Party.