17 wind turbines on Whitelee moor in Scotland at sunset. They are stationary. Their blades don't turn.

Since 2007, Scotland has built a strong international reputation for its efforts in addressing climate change. Colin Imrie charts some of the key factors in this process and illuminates how shifting patterns in Scottish-UK relations have both hindered and helped Scotland’s efforts.


The first SNP government (2007-2011) sought to build on the ambitious Climate Change (Scotland) Act, which was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in 2009. The aim was to deliver international economic development opportunities, especially in the field of renewables, as well as reputational benefits to Scotland. Scotland’s initial position was that of an outsider to the actual United Nations (UN) negotiations, although it had some influence on non-governmental organisation (NGO) discussions. The situation developed in 2010-11 with a general policy alignment between SNP Ministers in Edinburgh and Liberal Democrat Ministers in London. Subsequently, Scotland became a contributing part of the UK delegation to the UN talks.

Most recently, Scottish negotiators took part in the 2016 Marrakech Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Kyoto Protocol, the follow up to the critical Paris COP of 2015. This role has come at a price in that Scotland has had to accept being bound to the UK position in the talks. This has proven politically acceptable to date. The stakes have been high; the Paris meeting in December 2015 was widely seen as the final chance to deliver the worldwide agreement which had proven elusive at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009. The likely departure of the UK from the EU negotiation block as Brexit takes place from 2019, however, will clearly have implications for Scotland in the future.


Poster for the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, in the style of the famous Barack Obama 'Hope' poster.
Poster for the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen. [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The aim of the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen was to deliver agreement on ambitious mid-term emission reductions by developed countries and bring clarity to mitigation actions by the major developing countries. In preparation for the Summit, Scottish-based NGOs (notably Stop Climate Chaos) actively drew attention to the Scottish Parliament’s highly ambitious climate change legislation as a means of pressuring other participants to pursue ambitious positions at the talks. The key thrust of the NGO argument was that the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 demonstrated that a developed country, itself responsible for climate change, was genuinely willing to reduce its emissions in line with science without bowing to political expediency. The argument also highlighted that Scotland’s targets were unilaterally set and not linked to the targets of others, in contrast to the position of many other developed countries at the time. The challenge Stop Climate Chaos set for other developed countries at Copenhagen was to match Scotland’s ambition in order to break the deadlock that was gripping the UN negotiations at that point.


The challenge Stop Climate Chaos set for other developed countries at Copenhagen was to match Scotland’s ambition in order to break the deadlock that was gripping the UN negotiations at that point.

The NGOs themselves planned to lobby support in the vast NGO village attached to the Copenhagen Summit where the real international negotiations were taking place between the various national delegations. There was close coordination between the NGOs and the Scottish government which, under the leadership of First Minister Alex Salmond, was seeking to use Scotland’s progressive energy ambitions as a platform for securing economic development opportunities overseas. Progress had already been made on this front. In 2008 during a visit to Scotland, Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) announced a collaboration through the IDB’s Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Initiative (SECCI). The initiative would transfer new technology developed in Scotland’s renewable energy industry to Chile. Specifically, Scottish Enterprise would work with Chilean institutions on a pilot project to test the feasibility of marine or wave-based energy. Additionally, the University of Strathclyde would be involved in support of the climate change programs that the IDB was then formulating with countries such as Mexico and Colombia. These ambitions were followed up with the secondment of a Scottish renewables expert to work in the IDB during the 2012-13 period.

SCOTTISH-UK FRICTIONS AROUND COPENHAGEN

Alex Salmond was keen to build upon international collaborations such as this but he was also eager to make his own mark on the Copenhagen Summit. His efforts provided some friction with the political centre in London. From early on in its first term in power, the SNP-led Scottish government’s relations with the UK government (which formally represented the UK as a whole in relation to the UN Climate Change Framework Convention) were wary and competitive. The UK side was emphatic that the UK Climate Change Secretary alone would lead on international climate negotiations, with little or no input from the Scottish side. There were a number of reasons for this, including the straightforward legal responsibility of the UK government in the negotiations. Beyond this, there was a strong political reason: the UK government had not itself adopted the ambitious non-conditional targets set by the Scottish Parliament. In line with other EU states – but in stark contrast to the Scottish approach – the UK was committed to the strategy of raising its climate change ambitions only if other parties did so.


From this springboard, Scotland and other leading sub-national governments – like those of Quebec and California – were able to demonstrate with hard illustrations how they were leading the way on climate change policy even if their national level governments were less ambitious.

Whilst Scotland was not a formal part of the UK negotiating team in 2009, it was briefed on developments behind the scenes through interdepartmental coordination machinery. And whilst Salmond was not invited to be part of the formal UK delegation to Copenhagen, he used the accreditation of the Climate Group to the NGO forum (the grouping of sub-state actors) to gain access to the main debating and media centres, if not to the main conference itself. Salmond’s main role was to speak, along with California Governor Schwarzenegger and other leaders, at a Climate Group event promoting ambition in the final Summit agreement. From this springboard, Scotland and other leading sub-national governments – like those of Quebec and California – were able to demonstrate with hard illustrations how they were leading the way on climate change policy even if their national level governments were less ambitious. Salmond made further media capital by offering a bottle of specially commissioned Scottish whisky to ‘deserving recipients’ in Copenhagen; namely, those countries who made emissions control pledges similar to Scotland’s own.

The 2009 Copenhagen Summit saw some progress on governance and finance. But there was no breakthrough either on emissions reductions by developed countries, or mitigation actions by developing countries. It was a disappointing outcome which prompted widespread concerns that the opportunity to hold climate growth at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels was going to be lost. The situation also created very specific political problems for Scotland. The mitigation framework established by the 2009 Climate Change (Scotland) Act depends not only on domestic action in Scotland and the UK but also on a major contribution from a new international framework. This contribution now looked seriously in doubt. With its bold ambitions now under pressure, the Scottish government faced the question of what it could do to maintain its status as a beacon of good practice.

A WARMER FRONT: GROWING SCOTTISH-UK COOPERATION

An opportunity to increase Scotland’s political leverage came with the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK coalition government in May 2010. Both the Secretaries of State for Energy and Climate Change between 2010 and 2015 were Liberal Democrats (Chris Huhne and Ed Davey). Both had maintained good relations with Scottish backbench MPs at Westminster over the years and they knew Alex Salmond well. Chris Huhne in particular saw the advantage of having broad political backing in his regular tussles with the Treasury on financial support for renewables and decarbonization.

This accumulation of factors created a permissive environment for progress. A number of joint initiatives between the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Scottish government were launched, including seconding Scottish governement officials to the DECC team preparing the operation of the new Energy Company Obligation (ECO), a scheme providing householders with financial support to invest in energy efficiency. A further initiative at the time which aimed to provide a degree of involvement and openness was a commitment to the close involvement of Scottish Ministers and officials in preparing plans for energy market reform, especially in relation to wind energy. Unfortunately this early openness soon turned to obstruction as the Conservative-led Treasury grew increasingly concerned that Scotland might use this leverage to seek to block the growing focus of the UK Government’s efforts on investment in new nuclear energy (specifically at Hinckley Point).

SCOTTISH-UK COLLABORATION: A POSITIVE INFLUENCE ON EU POLICY

Prior to this Treasury obstructivism, the early ‘honeymoon’ period of the UK coalition government saw a number of initiatives launched where DECC and Scottish government officials worked together to influence international developments on energy and climate change. One key strand of this cooperation was the promotion of a greater emphasis on renewables in European Union programmes. Following on from a 2007 SNP manifesto commitment, the Scottish government, working with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish industry, had established the Scottish European Green Energy Centre tasked with promoting direct Scottish engagement in EU-supported technology and deployment programmes. Working with key partners such as the newly established Energy Technology Partnership, bringing together the key engineering strengths of Scottish universities and key companies, early successes were made in securing funding commitments for areas such as offshore grid development and the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Deployment Centre.


Prior to this Treasury obstructivism, the early ‘honeymoon’ period of the UK coalition government saw a number of initiatives launched where DECC and Scottish government officials worked together to influence international developments on energy and climate change.

An early strategic priority was to persuade the European Commission and EU institutions to reverse the 2007 decision to exclude ocean energy from the EU-wide Strategic Energy Technology Plan (marine energy, both wave and tidal, is a top priority for renewables in Scotland, with the European Marine Energy Centre based in Orkney). DECC and Scottish government officials led the work of an eight-country member state interest group which had a secretariat provided by the Scottish government in Brussels. This group presented its joint recommendations to Commissioner Oettinger at the Winter 2011 Energy Council. Charles Hendry (DECC Minister) and Fergus Ewing (Scottish Energy Minister) were both prominent at the event. Oetttinger visited Scotland in 2013 and the Commission agreed to strengthen its support for offshore renewable. This was an undoubted success for Scottish-UK efforts. The most recent significant example of this support is the award, in 2017, of €20.3 million from the European Commission for the DEMOTIDE project, which will design, build and operate a 6MW turbine array, MeyGen Phase 1B, in the Inner Sound of the Pentland Firth in northern Scotland. This is planned to be operational by 2018.

MORE INCLUSIVE UK CLIMATE CHANGE DELEGATIONS

In relation to the UN climate change talks, there was also a distinct shift in working relationships with Chris Huhne inviting Scotland and Wales (and Northern Ireland, if it wished) to participate in the official UK delegations to subsequent Conferences of the Parties (COP). This new approach began with the Cancun COP in late 2010 and continued at the subsequent COPs in Durban, Doha, Lima, Paris and most recently Marrakech in 2016. DECC officials were sceptical of the extent to which Scottish (and Welsh) officials would actually engage sufficiently with the substance of the negotiations. However, through careful joint endeavours and clear transparency, roles were formulated which enabled the Scottish Minister to play an active role in discussions with stakeholders and to participate in EU coordination sessions. Scottish Ministers also worked with Scottish and international NGOs and the Climate Group present at the COPs to promote diverse issues such as Carbon Capture and Storage, heat decarbonisation and green growth.

At the next COP following Copenhagen (Cancun in December 2010), Jim Mather, the Scottish Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism met the Malawi Natural Resources Minister to discuss building on work already under way at the University of Strathclyde on rural off-grid renewables as part of the Malawi Development Programme. Then in 2012, during a meeting in the Gulf, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asked First Minister Alex Salmond to contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL), a scheme aimed at providing efficient energy services globally and doubling the share of renewable energy into the energy mix by 2030. Mr Salmond’s positive response to this request saw Scotland host – at the request of the UN – the European Launch of SE4ALL, during the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. At the launch event, Dr Kandeh Yumkella, chief executive officer of SE4ALL and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, commended Scotland for its clear commitment to renewables, both domestically and internationally.

Scotland’s engagement with the SE4LL programme spurred the Scottish government’s development of a more ambitious Malawi renewables initiative, based on the key principles of Sustainable Energy for All. This involved:
• policy support through the secondment of a Scottish renewables policy expert to Malawi’s Department of Energy;
• on-the-ground capacity-building, particularly in decentralised energy access at community level;
• supporting small-scale innovative projects which aim to test replicable sustainable models for off-grid community-level renewable energy.

SCOTTISH IMPACT?

Has Scottish external activity had an impact on the international climate change agenda? It is clear that in some areas – notably securing EU and other foreign investment and developing an international reputation as a leader on climate change and renewables – Scottish initiatives have delivered tangible results. The early work also provided a platform for Alex Salmond’s successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to play an international role demonstrating the environmental and economic value of Scotland’s commitment to a decarbonized future. This was particularly valuable when she went as part of the official UK delegation to Paris for the 2105 COP which finally agreed potentially effective emissions-reduction commitments. Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary (Minister) for Environment and Climate Change, took forward this approach in her visit to the Marrakech COP in November 2016. All in all, despite the many disappointments about the slow pace and limited ambition of the eventual outcome, Scotland was able to launch its revised Climate Change Plan, covering 2017-2032.


 It is clear that in some areas – notably securing EU and other foreign investment and developing an international reputation as a leader on climate change and renewables – Scottish initiatives have delivered tangible results.

There have also been downsides. When the Liberal Democrats left the UK government in 2015, political tensions began to grow between UK Conservative and Scottish Ministers, especially over support for Scottish-based renewables such as onshore wind and grid extension. At the level of both Ministers and officials, relationships built up in previous years did allow a certain level of cooperation to continue, for example, in the preparations for the 2015 Paris summit. However, the lack of political consensus and growing tensions over wider Scottish-UK constitutional relations made the type of detailed cooperation we saw during the 2011-13 period a thing of the past. Individual Scottish initiatives such as that on climate justice also rankled both UK and EU negotiators. In setting up a Climate Justice Fund in 2012, Scottish government figures used much the same language (though with a clearly different purpose) as the loss and damage initiative pursued by the poorest and island states which sought direct compensation from developed countries for the impact of climate change – something the EU and its partners were determined to avoid.

PROGRESS WITH LIMITATIONS

As a nation with no direct powers over the major external affairs issues, and often operating at the discretion of the UK government, Scotland’s ability to exercise direct influence on international climate change talks depends largely on the willingness of the UK government to accept Scottish Ministers, and occasionally officials, acting on behalf of the UK as a whole. In fact, these instances are very rare. In practice, the main focus for Scottish Ministers and officials is to be present at meetings and to be briefed on developments in order to make a contribution to discussions behind the scenes, and then to reflect this in reports to the Scottish Parliament and Cabinet.


There was a clear progression of influence for Scotland from being outside the negotiation team in Copenhagen in 2009 to being firmly ‘in the tent’ in Paris in 2015.

The climate change and renewables example does, however, show that there are other channels which can make an impact. There was a clear progression of influence for Scotland from being outside the negotiation team in Copenhagen in 2009 to being firmly ‘in the tent’ in Paris in 2015. This was down to a number of factors. Ultimately it illustrates a growing Scottish reputation in this sphere, both domestically and internationally, one which has increasingly been recognised by the EU and the UN. Indeed, Scotland’s approach has the potential to be of great importance as the UN climate change process seeks to create and develop a worldwide framework for the implementation of ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. These efforts should include the key Scottish initiatives of promoting renewable development and providing finance for developing countries through key bodies such as the development banks.

2019 AND BEYOND

The UK’s 2016 Brexit vote creates practical difficulties for Scotland in maintaining its hard-won international voice in this area. Since the vote, which saw the Scottish result diverge sharply from that in England and Wales, tensions between Edinburgh and London have grown. Until now, the UK has maintained a leading position within an EU which is probably the most progressive negotiating bloc within the UN climate change talks. When the UK leaves the EU, it will need to find a new basis for its participation in this process. There are other issues to consider. It is possible that a future UK-US trade agreement might limit the level of British ambition in future climate change discussions.


It is possible that a future UK-US trade agreement might limit the level of British ambition in future climate change discussions.

Until now, Scottish interests have been best served by alignment with an ambitious UK position within the EU. It remains to be seen how far existing bureaucratic goodwill can maintain the focus on pragmatic action and solutions as political tensions and uncertainties rise around, and beyond, the Brexit negotiations. With Brexit negotiations now in their early stages, the Scottish government and parliament must review Scottish climate change ambitions and set a clear course for how Scotland can influence international discussions in future. If Scotland sticks closely to the UK line, its room for manoeuvre be limited. But if it seeks to maintain alignment with EU climate change policy – and the main investor in offshore renewables in Scotland is the EU through Horizon 2020 and European Investment Bank funding –  this may create a more confrontational stance between the Scottish and UK governements. Expect this to become one of the crunch points as the UK and Scotland seek to hammer out a way forward on Brexit in the coming months.


Colin Imrie is an independent policy analyst. He has worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Scottish Government, and the European Commission. He is on Twitter at: @ImrieColin


Featured photo: Whitelee wind farm at sunset. By: Ian Dick [CC BY 2.0