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Scotland leads on environment - for now

Dave KeatingAugust 2, 2016

Scotland is second only to Sweden for greenhouse gas reductions in Europe. Would it still be top-ranked if it left the UK or the EU?

Energie aus dem Meer
Image: DW/I.Quaile-Kersken

Yesterday, the government of Scotland unveiled figures showing that, were it an independent country, it would have achieved the second-highest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Western Europe over the past quarter century. The only country to beat it was Sweden.

Of course, Scotland is not an independent country, and the actual country to come in second was the United Kingdom as a whole. But Scotland's emissions reductions were far higher than the rest of the country. While England, Wales and Northern Ireland reduced emissions by 33% between 1990 and 2014, Scotland saw reductions of almost 40%.

The Scottish government, controlled by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), was keen to trumpet the impressive figures. "Scotland is a world leader in tackling climate change, and these figures reaffirm that Scotland continues to outperform the rest of the UK as a whole and punch above its weight in international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions," declared Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham in a statement.

This year Scotland's emissions reduction reached 42%, meaning it has met its 2020 target four years early. The government is now preparing to raise its 2020 target to 50%.

Brave new world

Schottland Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh. Copyright: picture alliance/Photoshot
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised to keep the country in the EU even if it means leaving the UK.Image: picture alliance/Photoshot

But there is uncertainty hanging over the future of climate and environment action in Scotland as a result of the UK's European Union referendum in June, in which a slim majority of UK citizens voted to leave the bloc. A large majority of Scottish residents voted to remain.

As a result, Scottish First Minsiter Nicola Sturgeon is likely to call another independence referendum for Scotland, after a failed first attempt in 2014, to keep Scotland in the EU as an independent country if the rest of the UK leaves.

Much of the UK's environment and climate policy is the result of EU legislation, and there are questions over whether the national government in London will water down emissions reduction and environmental protection measures if it leaves the bloc.

However much of the country's climate legislation is enshrined in the national Climate Change Act and a Scotland-specific climate change act, and would remain after a Brexit.

Climate and the environment may become central issues in the looming battle over Brexit and Scottish independence, as the SNP warns that remaining in a United Kingdom outside the EU will make it difficult to maintain Scotland's leading environmental role. But others argue that without subsidies from England, Scotland will be unable to fund its ambitious climate and environment projects.

The figures released this week demonstrate that Scotland would still be top-ranked in emissions reductions were it independent today. But after independence, would it still be top-ranked in the future?

Dänemark Offshore Windpark Windenergie (ddp images/AP Photo/Heribert Proepper)
Scotland provides 43% of the UK's wind power.Image: AP

The windy North

Both Scotland and Sweden have achieved their impressive emissions reductions because of one key policy that is largely a blessing of geography - generating renewable electricity.

"The last two Scottish governments have shown great leadership in embracing renewable power for generating electricity," Lang Banks, director of campaign group WWF Scotland, told DW. "Scotland has had renewable targets for over a decade now, and there is cross-party support for renewables."

Scotland generates over a third of the UK's renewable energy in total, providing 43 percent of the UK's wind capacity and 92 percent of its hydroelectric power in 2014, according to climate data provider Carbon Brief. 46 percent of Scotland's electricity demand can be met by renewables today, up from just 14 percent a decade ago. The government aims to meet 100 percent of Scotland's electricity demand from renewables by 2020.

Sweden, with its plentiful hydropower, meets 52% of its electricty needs with renewables.

But Scotland's impressive development comes with a caveat - it was subsidised by the entire United Kingdom. UK government statistics say that £1.8 billion (€2.1 billion) of investment is needed to meet the 2020 renewables goal. Ed Davey, the former British minister for energy and climate change, said ahead of the 2014 referendum that the UK would not continue to support an independent Scottish state's energy costs.

In other words, an independent Scotland would have the natural resources to continue its renewables growth, but perhaps not the financial resources.

However analysts have pointed out that Scotland and England would likely remain a single energy market in any event, much like Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland now. In that case, England and Wales would have an interest in continuing to subsidise Scottish renewables development if that power continues to flow freely throughout the island of Great Britain.

Schottland Proteste in Edinburgh Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/G. Stuart
Support for Scottish independence has risen since the Brexit referendum.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/EPA/G. Stuart

More environmental protection in the EU and out of the UK

Sturgeon has said that she is exploring all possible means of keeping Scotland in the EU, including by finding a way to prevent the UK from leaving. A spokesperson for the SNP told DW that, "Protecting Scotland's place in the EU is vital for giving Scotland a voice where it can influence and work with partners across Europe on climate issues."

Should Scotland choose the path of independence in order to remain in the EU, the SNP has made the case that there would be environmental benefits to doing so. In its manifesto published ahead of the 2014 referendum, the SNP promised that they would give Scottish citizens their first constitutionally-protected right to a clean environment and natural resource protection.

The United Kingdom has no written constitution, and therefore there is currently no such constitutional guarantee in the country. In 1976 Portugal became the first country to include a provision guaranteeing a healthy environment in their constitution, and since then over 90 countries have followed suit. The draft constitution prepared by the SNP would require all future Scottish governments to promote the conservation of biodiversity, use natural resources sustainably and reduce emissions.

Being an independent country within the EU would also mean that all future Scottish governments will be required to meet the emissions reduction and renewables targets now being set by the SNP. Without such EU obligations, any future government could renege on the commitments being made now.

Der einjährige Tyler testet eine große Bass-Trommel Calgary Highland Gathering Edmonton (AP Photo/Edmonton Sun, Tim Smith)
A baby tests out a base drum in the Scottish highlands.Image: AP

More EU funds to fight climate change

The SNP also points out that being an independent EU member state will mean Scotland gets more money to invest in renewing and protecting natural resources. Scotland could expect to receive four times as much rural development funding from the EU if it became independent, the SNP argues, because that is how much Ireland receives. That additional money would be used to "restore natural ecosystems, strengthen ecological networks, enhance water quality and...increase the pace in delivering our climate change targets through new woodland planning, protecting and enhancing our forests".

For his part, Banks says it is unclear at this point what effect a UK or EU exit will have on Scotland's environmental ambition.

"There's no doubt about it that in the leadup to the last independence referendum there was a push by civil society that should Scotland become independent, environment and climate ambition should be increased," he says.

"But there's no doubt in my mind that Scotland has all the resources it needs currently, irrespective of the outcome of Brexit," he adds.