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Scotland’s money trees are making us poorer

Robin McAlpine

Is there no aspect of Scotland which isn’t there mainly to make the very rich richer? Is there no limit to how much the Scottish Government will bust a gut to increase the pace at which Scotland is asset-stripped by the wealthy?

I ask because last week the Scottish Government announced that we were going to be force-fed ‘PFI For Trees’. I shall only give you a quick explanation of the scheme here – if you want more detail on how its meant to work and why it isn’t the right approach for nature this piece by Andy Wightman will help you out and if you want to know about the economics and the finance networks involved this piece by Nick Kemp will give you the basics.

Lorna Slater has signed off on a deal to run a private finance project to secure what she claims will be an investment of up to £20 billion for nature restoration. Please do not get the impression that this is selfless act of generosity. It is not philanthropy, it is just another opportunity for Big Finance profit-gouging based on Scotland’s natural assets.

The Memorandum of Understanding signed by Slater creates enhanced routes for big equity funds to funnel money to rich landowners so they can harvest the complex system of grants which are in place to ‘incentivise’ the transition to Net Zero. That grant system was designed by the private equity sector which is now profiting from it.

In reality this whole system isn’t anything much to do with the climate crisis. This is just what the incredibly powerful big-finance sector does – it looks at anything that is happening and tries to work out the best way to repurpose it for their primary purpose. That primary purpose is funnelling more wealth towards existing wealth. They are, after all, wealth managers.

The result of this has been depressingly predictable. If you want to ‘lever in’ private finance you need to convert the thing you’re seeking investment for into a financialised asset (step one). Then you need to incentivise private finance to invest by increasing the profitability of the asset (if it was currently suitably profitable private equity would already be investing). 

The fastest way to increase profitability is by giving government subsidy to the investor. All of this has a simple economic consequences which is to inflate the value of the asset concerned – if it generates more profit it is worth more to its owner. 

This is precisely the philosophical approach taken to public infrastructure which resulted in the abysmal Private Finance Initiative (PFI) whereby new schools and hospitals were privatised and rented back to the public sector at extortionate rates (there were examples of hospitals where paying the rent cost five times as much as just building the hospital in the public sector).

But because this is PFI For Trees we’re not renting them back, we’re just handing the money over to the landowners – and that’s the ‘Carbon Credits’. The asset isn’t the tree but the land, so it is the land value which rises as a result.

This happened almost straight away. What that did was to price communities out of land, consolidate both the power and wealth of massive landowners and increase inequality as even more public money went to the super-rich and not public services. 

Actually, this is not quite right because communities were already priced out of land – Lorna Slater is pricing their children and their children’s children out of land. These might as well be the new clearances given their long-term impact.

For the last eight years the Scottish Government has been talking about land reform, but to all intents and purposes it has done a sum-total of nothing. Which means that because land wasn’t reformed but the price of (and so the affordability and so access to) land has been inflated, the Scottish Government’s track record is almost total anti-land reform.

That the power and wealth of the Duke of Buccleuch (and his ilk) is not only being increased at public expense, public money is being used to embed his hereditary right to keep the people of Scotland locked out of large portions it Scotland’s land forever.

It’s not just that this is all a catastrophe for Scotland’s long-term economic and social health, it’s that Scotland is becoming a global case study for exactly how elites are manipulating climate change to make the world a worse place. Seriously, Scotland’s ‘green lairds’ are being held up around the world as a dreadful warning to others.

That all of this is being done by one of the Scottish Green Party politicians who were complicit in forcing Scotland’s leading land reform expert out of the party because he did not entirely agree with their view on gender identity tells you pretty well everything you need to know about the current state of the Scottish Green Party.

What’s the solution to all this? I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but Scotland doesn’t really have one right now. This is part of the reality check which is coming as it dawns on people that Scotland’s climate targets were effective a sham from the beginning.

Common Weal has done more work than almost anyone on how to get Scotland not only to Net Zero but well beyond. There is absolutely no question that Scotland can do this – with bells on. We could easily be the world leaders. That is what we showed in our Common Home Plan project, in substantial detail.

But when we launched that piece of work I said something very specific in my summary speech. I said that climate change is not an issue that can be ‘owned’ by any one nation never mind any one side of a political or constitutional debate in one nation. What we described in our work was how to do it on a technical basis. How to do it on a political basis was something which I said was for each side in the constitutional debate to explain.

Which is to say I know how all of this can be done (with substantial public profit) if Scotland is independent. But as a team we have tried to work out and to model what could be done under devolution. The answer is ‘not nearly enough – not nearly’. It’s not the environmental powers, its the tax and borrowing powers. You can do it under devolution but you can’t pay for it and you can’t recover your investment (which all goes to London in tax receipts).

Instead the Scottish Government has been pretending to meet its targets through magical means (mainly Carbon Capture and Storage, a technology which not only doesn’t work but which isn’t even being scoped as a serious possibility in Scotland just now). The rest is just administering schemes designed by the Westminster Tory Government in Scotland.

That’s what this is, Tory schemes being enthusiastically championed by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government will argue that it has no choice, but if you read the Andy Wightman piece I linked to above you will realise that actually the rush to plant trees (the particularly profitable bit) is a really small part of what needs to be done.

In fact there is increasing scepticism about whether planting trees is a particularly helpful priority in climate change. Sure they capture carbon, but then they die and, unless they are kept in structural wood form for the long term, they decompose and release most of the carbon again.

We’re very pro-forestry at Common Weal because wood crops are a brilliant option for displacing much more harmful materials from construction (among other things). But that’s not what this is. This is basically a scam for the rich to monetise their land holdings and to open up new profit opportunities for private equity. It is questionable how positive the environmental impact will be.

What isn’t questionable is the social and economic effect this will have – and that is dire. Sometimes when you can’t do the right thing your best bet is simply to not do the wrong thing. This is a concept the Scottish Government has bypassed in its desperate attempts to shore up its unrealistic (for now) climate change targets.

Had the Scottish Government not trapped itself by rolling in the glory of targets it couldn’t meet, this might have been an option. It could instead have set out coherent plans for Scotland’s climate change needs and then focussed on explaining why this is not possible under devolution.

As it stands the Scottish Government is implementing hardcore Tory policies which will lock many more generations of Scots out of their own land. At the heart of all of this is not concern for the planet, it is vanity. 

(And while, I was finishing this it was announced that Lorna Slater is now pulling all public funding for Tool Libraries having previously told a meeting Common Weal attended that she believed it was private finance that should drive the transition to a circular economy. So brace yourself for her next PFI stunt, coming to a asset-stripped nation near you. Soon.)

6 thoughts on “Scotland’s money trees are making us poorer”

  1. Campbell Anderson

    Hi Colin,
    A very informative but scary article. Thanks.
    Can I take the opportunity to ask about Ash Regan’s promotion of Carbon capture. I agree it doesn’t work but if I am understanding it correctly Ash is saying we should continue using oil and gas from the North Sea rather than importing (ok) but using Carbon capture to mitigate the use of the oil and gas, ie for blue Hydrogen production. Has she not listened to you about this?

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Hi Campbell, just thought I’d reply to say that we’ve fed policy ideas into more than one candidate and Ash’s position on oil is not ours or mine. I certainly don’t speak for her but no, it’s not a carbon capture point. One of the arguments the oil industry doesn’t really engage in is the fact that the vast majority of petrochemical use leaves no option for carbon capture. If it’s coming out your house or your car, it’s going into the atmosphere. Only electricity generation, industrial use and blue hydrogen production are really suitable in theory – it needs to be a single-site facility where the emissions can be channeled into a pipe. It still doesn’t work of course.

      On blue hydrogen, you don’t need to look at what the candidates are saying – it is already the Scottish Government’s energy strategy. The energy strategy has been utterly captured by the oil industry and they’re not only trying to make sure that these corporations own Scotland’s oil but that they will go on to own its hydrogen production as well. So they are offering cheap blue hydrogen to ‘bed block’ green hydrogen development. Once they own the hydrogen infrastructure and markets they’ll eventually shift to green – but only when they have a monopoly.

      What is true is that we’re a long way away from getting rid of all fossil fuels in Scotland and until then there is no point pretending otherwise. It is also true that we should have learned the lessons of rapid deindustrialisation by now – you can’t throw thousands of workers out of jobs without a proper transition plan or you will create massive social problems. There is a lot of talk about retraining the workforce for the green economy but not much action, not least because there has been woeful progress on generating jobs in a green economy.

      I think that was what Ash was trying to say – focus on retraining not setting arbitrary targets for ‘switching off’ oil before you have done the leg-work for decarbonising the economy. But politicians need to get their act together and start to understand the climate crisis properly. I don’t think there are many who do. They’ve all (really, almost all of them in all the parties) been hiding behind targets rather than producing workable plans. That is the reality I warn is about to hit them.

      Scotland’s politicians must get MUCH more informed about the realities of what is ahead.

      Robin

  2. Campbell Anderson

    Hi Robin,
    Thanks for your prompt and comprehensive reply to my question.
    As a graduate Chemical Engineer, albeit over 50 years ago, I understand the chemistry, the economics and the need to transition jobs with technical changes.
    The Scottish government currently expects individual householders to finance their own improved insulation and changes away from using fossil fuels to heat homes. This automatically excludes those renting and all those who cannot afford it. My own house is heated by gas. To change to greener electricity, we would have to purchase an air source heat pump. Our quote was £16000 and for this we would have a more expensive and less efficient system. The Government are going to be very disappointed as few will change, even if like us, we would like to.
    I thought the Common Home plan and Sorted, offered excellent solutions but how do we get them to listen? I discussed Our Common Home with my MSP, Angus Robertson and had a running exchange with him arguing for green rather than blue Hydrogen production. Our exchange was escalated to Michael Matteson but you have stated their continued position. I offered to pay to supply Angus with a free copy of Sorted if he would undertake to read it. He politely declined saying he was too busy. II offered to give it to his staff but he has not replied. How can we break through their arrogance of thinking they know best. Maybe the big energy companies are lobbying with more than words? How can we get politicians to be MUCH more informed?
    Best wishes, I appreciate your efforts.
    Campbell

  3. i am no expert, merely a simple farmer so excuse me if this is not a well presented response but a jumble of random thoughts ..oh excuse the grammar and punctuation or lack of and spelling too …
    ..i do not own land , Im just a tenant , 4th generation who is becoming increasingly disillusioned by our current situation ..life as we know it is unsustainable we have too many people using too many of the planets limited resources irresponsibly. we must do better.we need a complete rethink of how we live our day to day lives ..
    the commute to work with all the transportation costs that has and fuel that uses..more folks ,but i accept not everyone ,could work from home
    Elementary biology seems to be getting ignored in the climate change debate … whilst 11 and 12 year olds at school explained to us about photosynthesis…if its a green plant as long as the sun comes up ,there is air around it and some moisture the mere act of it living is sequestering carbon .. if photosynthesis is wrong then why do we continue to teach it? grassland sequestration during carbon audits is ignored …it may be difficult to measure accurately and quantify but that doesnt mean it doesnt exist.
    we have to eat, that food has to come from somewhere …we eat a considerable quantity of meat much of which could be produced on the biologically diverse carbon sequestering pasture land of scotland turning something we cant eat into something we can. Yes we export meat so does that mean we produce too much of it ? possibly ? could we alter what we produce to satisfy a larger proportion of our diets ? with some sensible joined up thinking i can`t see why not but all sides need to be on the same page .

    locally produced seasonal food could contribute more to our national food security target whilst helping with our climate change mitigations if we allow it ..producing more food locally more of what we require ourselves that is , would also remove some of the exposure to external influences which affect our daily lives , exchange rate fluctuations , transportation costs and supply issues in the event of extreme weather events elsewhere in the world..this modified food “chain ” would require staff …that could provide jobs predominantly in the rural setting keeping the social side of the countryside alive , keeping smoke in the chimneys,small businesses going but there needs to be affordable housing.
    exporting produce should not be the default position and i am questioning the WTO position in the climate change debate…. wealth creation through trade….im no saying we shouldnt trade with each other but trading for the sake of it i consider to be a luxury we cant afford …..our fossil fuel reserves are finite. we are yet to have credible realistic replacement infrastructure in place …i dont think mining for the earths rare minerals with all the costs associated with that represent the answer .given it rains so much here hydro power and probably hydrogen might represent a credible alternative.

    carbon offsetting or greenwashing benefits no one , those trees, that green pasture , with tonnes of carbon locked in the soil was already there .one field of mine had over 200T of carbon per hectare when measured with the best technology we have available..some of the fields were half that depending on how they had been used .permanent pasture versus temporary grass with cropping and more intensive use which includes spreading fertiliser on them etc ..
    surely something can only be classed as an offset if it represented an increase in carbon sequestered or stored and a reduction in emissions.
    this leads me on to now thinking we have two “greens ” firstly a true green , where we all work together to do whats best for the planet and ultimately our long term survival and a second , a pseudo green if you like ..one where the folks prescribing the mitigation measures seem to stand to gain out of those ..this appears to be the route we are currently taking and one we may not yet fully understand the true cost of following ….
    Id liken it to journeying from here in dumfries and galloway in south west scotland..to inverness when we should be heading for london ..we will be at perth when its realised we are going the wrong way we will be turned around and sent the other way ..the three hours taken , the resources used to get to perth and the subsequent return journey would only get us back to where we started when if we had gone in the right direction to start with we would be well on our way to our eventual destination ….our resources are limited why expend so many of them doing the wrong thing to benefit the few when by doing the right things we can benefit the many

    1. Robin McAlpine

      John – I’m really flat out just now. I agree with everything you’ve written here but I wonder if you’ve seen the Common Home Plan? (You’ll find it with a search in the policy library). An awful lot of the things you’re raising here are addressed in that. If you get a chance, see what you think and feel free to drop me an email (robin@common.scot).

      Robin

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