WITH 50 days to go until COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and a newly struck deal between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, even more attention will turn to environmental issues and the huge potential of renewable energy.
The Programme for Government unveiled this week had laudable ambitions for a “just transition” to low carbon, with investment in the north-east, but ministers still face difficult choices and economic challenges. The news that CS Wind (UK), the South Korean-owned company that ran the sole facility for manufacturing wind towers, has gone into administration after a year in mothballs provides an example that announcing a green energy revolution does not, on its own, magically bring about economic and environmental results.
That rhetoric is, however, hardly confined to this administration. All the major UK political groups have accepted the necessity of low-emission goals, and trumpeted the opportunities of renewables. Even if the choices may be more difficult, and the costs higher, than their various programmes (which show, in fact, a remarkable degree of unanimity) admit, this seems to be, at least in the general direction of travel, a genuine political shift.
And despite CS Wind’s failure, the opportunities from getting this right are real enough. For Scotland, they are potentially immense; our natural resources for providing green power are as significant in their way as North Sea oilfields previously were, but endlessly renewable and environmentally sound.
Tidal, wind and hydro initiatives, community projects, world-leading research in our universities, industry expertise that could be transferred from existing energy technologies and our geographical advantages offer a foundation on which great things could be built. The challenge will be to ensure that the manufacturing skills, the jobs and the innovation in these schemes are solidly established here, and that we do not simply export an end product for the benefit of companies and support industries elsewhere.
We have had experience of this with both onshore and offshore wind, when the hardware, infrastructure and ownership that ought to have sprung up in Scotland failed to materialise. That is no petty nationalistic cry along the lines of “It’s Scotland’s wind”. Enterprises on this scale naturally require investment and co-operation with firms from elsewhere in the UK and internationally, and we should, and will have to, embrace them. But it would be folly not to use the new drive towards green energy to establish solid, long-term industries and jobs.
Teeside, with a net zero plant, significant solar and offshore and innovation in hydrogen technologies, has been making great strides; the Scottish Government should be looking closely to see what we can learn, and ensure that we compete even more effectively. Within a decade, £70 billion will be invested in UK offshore and we may see a 10-fold increase in green Scottish energy production (it has already tripled since 2009); those staggering figures must be translated into jobs, industrial regeneration, innovation in engineering and industrial opportunity to benefit our own communities.
That will require public acceptance of major changes. If, as the SNP/Green plan suggests, onshore wind might double, Holyrood must take local communities with them. As with the shifts in behaviour at domestic level with cars and boilers, these will not be cost-free or easy choices. There are still almost 100,000 jobs directly or indirectly linked to oil and gas in Scotland; the comparable figure for renewables is 23,000, of which only 6,500 are direct and full-time. Transferring and adapting those jobs and skills will not be a straightforward process. There is clearly a long distance to go, but the potential gains make it well worth undertaking.
There is huge cause for optimism, given the country’s natural resources, its industrial heritage, its scientific expertise and the avowed commitment of its politicians. But the opportunities cannot simply be paraded as if they were an achievement already brought about, nor the costs and difficulties waved away. The future is bright and green, and holds the promise of prosperity, but it will also require hard thought, bold choices and significant investment if Scotland is to benefit.