COP26 climate change summit: Boris Johnson's new environmental hair-shirt risks alienating core Conservative voters – John McLellan

Despite being dumped as a Scotland Office junior minister, Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid loyally applauded Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s knockabout at the Manchester party conference’s Scottish reception this month, and was rewarded with a warm clap on the shoulder and a word of reassurance from the boss on the way out.

Next morning, he was in pole position to ask questions at a Fringe event on renewable energy and climate change with a panel on which he had been due to sit before his defenestration.

The session was titled “Green Great Britain: The Environmental Case for the Union” and included a presentation about Scotland’s potential as a centre for carbon-capture-and-storage (CCS) from Storegga, one of the companies involved in the Acorn CCS industrial cluster project at the St Fergus gas terminal near Peterhead.

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I imagine Mr Duguid was as stunned as everyone else in Scotland with an interest in the future of North East industry when the UK government’s Net-Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener strategy published on Tuesday revealed that the environmental case for the Union had been overlooked by the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), putting Acorn on the subs bench as first reserve behind the Hynet cluster centred on the Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port and the Teeside/Humberside East Coast Cluster to qualify for investment from a new £1bn CCS infrastructure fund.

With some understatement, Liam Kerr MSP, the shadow Net Zero, Energy & Transport minister who was on that Manchester panel, said the decision was “disappointing”, but North East industrialist Sir Ian Wood did not hold back.

“This makes little economic or environmental sense and is a real blow to Scotland,” he said. I wouldn’t put it quite as strongly as Alex Salmond, who wrote in the Herald that Scotland had been “humiliated, stabbed in the back yet again by perfidious Westminster”, but it’s glaringly obvious that the decision provided an open goal at which nationalists could shoot.

The furious reaction did not come as a surprise in the Scotland Office, with officials having tried to engage with BEIS civil servants to make sure such an opportunity was not served on a plate, but to no avail.

Unlike his party conference speech, Boris Johnson's new zeal for heat pumps and compulsory insulation may not go down well with Conservative members (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)Unlike his party conference speech, Boris Johnson's new zeal for heat pumps and compulsory insulation may not go down well with Conservative members (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Unlike his party conference speech, Boris Johnson's new zeal for heat pumps and compulsory insulation may not go down well with Conservative members (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Concerns about value for money at Peterhead, however that was calculated, were apparently uppermost in their thoughts with a perception that the lack of surrounding infrastructure was a problem, compared to acre upon acre of pipework which spreads across Cheshire’s Mersey estuary, Immingham and around Middlesbrough. If anything, the relative lack of industrialised sprawl at St Fergus could have been seen as an advantage.

It’s not that BEIS officials were snubbing the Scottish bid, but they were demonstrably unaware of the political impact of its omission. In discussing the programme with Scottish government officials, they made the mistake of thinking they were just engaging with fellow civil servants when the reality, as anyone with even a passing understanding of Scottish politics would realise, was effectively passing intelligence to the opposition, teeing up the SNP’s Westminster energy spokesman Stephen Flynn MP to describe the decision as “an utterly devastating blow”.

It turns out it has not been decided how the £1bn fund will be spent, so it would have made net-zero difference to have announced three projects because without specific detail the programme is flexible.

So instead of being able to trumpet a step forward for the whole UK in innovative climate-friendly energy policies, Scotland Office officials have spent the week fire-fighting, desperately pointing out that Acorn has already received £31m of investment and is not being abandoned.

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But if anything that just begs more pointed questions about the level of political nous in BEIS when the levelling-up agenda is a key component of the new approach to strengthening the Union. The polite answer is not nearly enough.

David Duguid’s replacement as junior Scotland Office minister, the newly-enobled businessman Malcolm Offord, in March published an eight-point plan to boost Scottish economic growth which included an expanded Scottish National Investment Bank to manage investment in strategic industries. There aren’t many of those in Scotland but, of six identified by the Scottish government, energy is one which was also identified in an Oxford Economics paper for the Hunter Foundation as having the strongest potential.

The UK government strongly believes clusters are the way forward, so getting Acorn onto the priority list for CCS clusters provides an early opportunity for Lord Offord to demonstrate his skills of persuasion. The same can be said for the Scotland Office’s new lead non-executive director, ex-Labour MP Tom Harris, who is charged with challenging and monitoring implementation of strategic direction.

If there is a sliver of silver lining in the cloud of this decision, it’s the potential split created in the SNP-Green coalition, with the SNP’s condemnation contrasting with the Green’s view that CCS is unwelcome because it enables fossil-fuel consumption to continue, but with their U-turn on opposition to waste incineration, the Greens have already proved their principles are expendable.

For once I agree with Alex Salmond, writing that “a justification for carbon capture is that it makes feasible new field consents in the North Sea and to place an enforceable zero-carbon obligation on these consents. It makes continuing North Sea production compatible with the future of the planet”.

In the increasing eco-frenzy surrounding COP26, it’s more important than ever for the UK government to deliver tangible economic benefits by priming growth across the UK.

Otherwise, the risk is the Prime Minister’s new zeal for the hair-shirt of environmental impositions, like expensive heat pumps and compulsory insulation contained in the Heat and Buildings Strategy, could drive a hitherto unimaginable wedge between the party and core Conservative voters nurtured on low taxes and a home-owning democracy.

The environmental case for the Union isn’t just about wrong-footing the Greens, and for all the shoulder-clapping boosterism in the world, that’s not what we signed up for.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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