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SNP’s lack of enthusiasm for climate intervention means workers need more convincing

If Brexit was the trigger for a renewed debate over a second independence referendum and a major democraticand economic challenge for those on both sides of the argument, climate change and just transition is the most important future issue that Scotland faces over the next two decades.

All eyes were on Scotland during the recent COP26. Inside the conference the outputs were largely disappointing, the best possible take being that the possibility of achieving the limit of 1.5 degrees global warming by 2050 was kept alive, but only just.

Outside the conference, however, trade unionists, environmental groups and community campaigners united in massive numbers to support striking cleansing workers and came together to march for real action on climate justice.

Whilst both the UK and Scottish governments declared the conference as something of a triumph, they also came under sustained pressure over the Cambo oilfield and the failure to deliver decent alternative jobs in the low carbon economy.

Since production began in the early 1970s, offshore oil and gas has been one of the most central issues for independence, and definitely its most iconic. North Sea oil was used by successive Tory governments to stuff the pockets of the rich while Scotland’s industry was decimated. Meanwhile, Norway was creating the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world to secure a future for workers and now, to invest in low carbon energy.

The oil and gas industry was also central to the debate in 2014. Following a couple of years of high prices and production, Yes campaigners were able to present a relatively healthy snapshot of Scotland’s current and historical position so long as a geographical share of oil production was included in calculations. Even with prices having rebounded over the past few months, both market and political conditions during a future referendum are not going to present such a rosy picture.

Offshore oil and gas is not an easy issue for trade unionists. In 2019 the industry employed half as many people as it did in 2014, but this is still over five times as many as are employed in the whole low carbon economy in Scotland. There is no Saudi Arabia of renewables.

Surveys show that a majority of offshore oil and gas workers would gladly embrace alternative employment if anything meaningful were on offer, but we are currently a million miles away from being in that position. Scotland has achieved next to nothing in terms of reducing energy consumption in travel and buildings, our two highest emission sectors. Regrettably, there is no prospect of the current Scottish Government creating new nuclear power sources in Scotland. We therefore face in future years the prospect of higher levels of energy imports from less environmentally or worker friendly industries overseas, while tens of thousands of jobs are lost.

It is hardly a surprise that support among workers for ending oil production more quickly is weak to say the least.

We desperately need an alternative industrial strategy in Scotland with renewable energy and green manufacturing at its core.

It could be done. STUC commissioned research from Transition Economics identifies the potential to create 140,000 good quality jobs over two years through investment in infrastructure and new technologies, public ownership of transport and retrofitting. This contrasts with policies continuing the status quo, which would create just 30,000.

The Scottish Government can make a strong case that the current constitutional settlement limits its capacity to deliver. The UK Government’s levels of investment in green recovery are dwarfed by that of the US and comparable European countries. The Contracts for Difference scheme that subsidises offshore wind development, if devolved to Scotland, could be used to generate far more local content in the manufacture of wind turbines and the fabrication of jackets for towers. Having pulled the rug from underneath the development of carbon capture at Peterhead in 2015, the Government has again de-prioritised its development in favour of other projects in the UK.

Then there are Green/Freeports. Despite its attempt to place a green gloss on freeports, it is unlikely the Scottish Government would ever have wished to pursue this discredited form of economic development had it not been for the pressure of competition from their creation in other parts of the UK.

So in this context it seems the vision of an alternative economic strategy founded on public intervention and strict supply chain conditionality along with the investment of remaining offshore oil and gas receipts in government-led decarbonisation programmes could become a key plank in the SNP’s case for independence.

Unfortunately, as things stand, there does not seem to be much of a vision. The government interventions we have seen, such as at that at Ferguson’s shipyard and BiFab, essential though these were, were reactive efforts to shore up private sector failure. What they were not, was an alternative strategy backed by public ownership. The recent decision to abandon a publicly owned energy company deepens that trend.

Meanwhile, for most of the past 10 years ScotRail was run by Netherlands state-owned Abellio, we have lost out on offshore wind fabrication contracts to Spanish state supported Navantia, and 85 per cent French Government owned EDF is a major player in our energy industry.

The Scottish Government and other proponents of independence argue, with some validity, that within current economic and fiscal arrangements, it lacks the power to raise the very considerable sums required for these levels of public investment.

However, its adoption of the Growth Commission’s prescription for independence (with the fiscal restrictions this entails) and its apparent lack of enthusiasm for public interventions to tackle climate change and Just Transition, means it has some way to go before it can convince many workers that independence is the preferable path.

 

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