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Getting Energy Right

Craig Dalzell

This week, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote speech to the Just Transition Partnership’s Reclaiming Our Energy conference where I gave a (not completely impartial, but at least honest) appraisal of the Scottish Government’s draft energy statement. As of the time of writing, the recording of the full conference isn’t yet online (I’ll link to it here when it is) however I included the audio of my presentation in this week’s Policy Podcast.

The very short version of my assessment is to acknowledge that this strategy does indeed make a level of progress towards a Net Zero Scotland and some of the suggested policies have the potential to be quite transformative. However as many have said, including the UK Climate Change Committee, having ambitious or even “world-leading” targets on climate change isn’t enough. In too many cases, the policies being enacted towards those targets will be late or will underperform. Even if all of them to reach their own metrics, then all of the current promises made by the Scottish Government will not take Scotland to the target they want to achieve. And even if they do reach those targets on time, the impact of that will not result in Scotland meeting its climate obligations under the demands of the climate emergency. A good case in point on all this is the recent news of Scotland delivering on its promise to start paying loss and damage restitution to countries affected by our share of global pollution. Scotland was, to our great credit, the first mover on this at COP27 and the influence we had in creating a global agreement at that meeting should be one of Nicola Sturgeon’s top achievements as an international statesperson. The news this week that Scotland has started delivering on those promises with projects being funded in Malawi is similarly excellent – many countries have not yet delivered on their international climate promises from several COPs ago. However, the amount both promised and delivered is woefully short of what is needed. The £2 million committed and £5 million further promised is a fraction of a climate change bill that, if Scotland pays its historic fair share, would amount to around £2.5 billion every year until the climate emergency is halted. This funding is progress, it’s worthy, it’s world-leading and it’s completely inadequate while Scotland continues to make the climate emergency worse faster than we’re fixing it. What could Scotland’s energy strategy look like if it was trying to reach the targets set by the climate emergency instead?

Electricity

Scotland has a wealth of renewable capacity – far more than we’ll reasonably need for even extremely ambitious demand targets. The challenge will be less about generating enough electricity but about making sure we can deliver enough of it where it is needed and when it is needed. Political failures such as ScotWind aside, much of this area is a reserved power and so if Scotland keeps trying to ramp up electrical supply and demand, then we’ll hit a ceiling of what can be done – at least if we want to move faster than the UK’s glacial pace or if we want to significantly diverge from the UK Government’s policies.

Heat and Insulation

Where electricity is largely reserved, heat is almost entirely devolved. The Scottish Government’s strategy in heat is mostly based on electrifying buildings currently heating with oil and gas – mostly through air source heat pumps. In the absence of efficiency savings, this policy alone could double electricity demand in Scotland. It is also based almost entirely on you paying for the work. They estimate that it will cost around £33 billion to decarbonise Scotland’s heating – an average of £13,000 per house, but have pledged only £1.8 billion in public money to support it. We cannot afford this – especially not while paying inflated heating bills caused by the failure to prevent profiteering by energy companies.
We need a collective solution. For essentially the same amount of money as buying heat pumps, or roughly the same cost as replacing natural gas with hydrogen in our piped network, we could and should build – wherever it is feasible to do so – a district heating network. This goes too for energy efficiency and insulation in buildings – as someone who recently insulated our loft and turned it into a home office, I have some awareness of the time, cost and effort that we had to go through to do that and how much faster and more efficiently it could have gone if we were, for example, part of a street-by-street retrofitting plan such as those now being done in the Netherlands.

Transport

This is one area of the energy strategy that they get absolutely right in terms of rhetoric at least. The Scottish Government has come out firmly against the idea that to decarbonise transport all we need to do is let the market swap every private petrol and diesel vehicle for an electric one on a one-to-one basis. Instead, we need to reduce private vehicle use entirely and move to other forms of transport.

However, the actual policy line up in this section is fairly sparse. There’s certainly no commitment, as there has been in Wales, to presume against new road infrastructure. I would have liked to see a commitment here for a plan to actively disrupt the market for private vehicles by rolling out support schemes so that communities can collectively own a pool of vehicles (cars, vans and bikes etc) for rent whenever they are needed. As I mentioned in a recent column, even this isn’t necessarily enough as a review of existing transport routes must be undertaken and many roads will need to be retrofitted to make them easier to use and more suitable for this new, preferred transport hierarchy

Public ownership

If the transport hierarchy chart was an indication that the Scottish Government understands the problem in transport, then the next chart I’d like to highlight is the precise opposite. It is nothing less than a celebration of the privatisation of Scotland’s Green New Deal.

From ScotWind to virtually everything else, the Scottish Government is married to private investment and especially to one of its favourite catchphrases “Foreign Direct Investment”. This might be a fast and easy way of getting investment into Scotland but it will, by definition, demand a return on that investment that will see tens of billions of pounds extracted from Scotland and sent, in many cases, into the pockets of shareholders of the very oil barons who caused the climate emergency or into the coffers of foreign governments whose public-owned energy companies are seeking substantial stakes in Scotland’s resources. The Scottish government continues to weave excuse after excuse as to why Scotland cannot have its own public energy companies – even as Wales powers ahead with its own.

What you can do

A public consultation is taking place on the draft energy strategy so there is the opportunity for you to have your say on what Scotland should be doing to secure a green, sustainable future that works for all of us (not just a few shareholders). Please take the time to respond to it before the deadline on April 4th. Common Weal, as we so often do with this important avenues of engagement, shall publish our own response as soon as we’ve prepared it. It may provide inspiration or guidance but do make sure that your response is the one that’s right for you and your community (if only to avoid being dismissed as merely copying ours).


Images Crown Copyright 2023, Licenced under Open Government Licence.

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