Ensuring Scotland’s economy can cope with the pace of technological change and the switch to a zero-carbon world may turn out to be a bigger issue than Brexit or independence.
The focus of yesterday’s row about the Scottish Government’s stance on climate change was understandably on its current policy to support a third runway at Heathrow.
That’s the natural instinct when any leading politician doesn’t quite answer the question.
At Holyrood, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie had asked Nicola Sturgeon whether she would now ditch her Government’s support for the runway and the First Minister responded that, following acceptance of expert advice that Scotland can reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, “we will be required to look at all our policies, across all areas of Scottish Government responsibility through that new lens – that’s the commitment we’re making”.
She may be secretly hoping that the SNP will not have to get involved in the Heathrow wrangle again – the Westminster parliament has already voted in favour of the expansion and the High Court recently rejected a legal challenge from environmentalists, the Mayor of London and others.
So, Sturgeon and co may well be able to avoid performing a U-turn – never a popular political manoeuvre – on this particular issue. Or at least there may be no need for one so soon after the scrapping of the long-mooted plan to cut air passenger duty.
However, Sturgeon’s answer suggests there could be many U-turns to come and it is unlikely to be long before there are calls for more. First in climate campaigners’ firing line could be Prestwick Airport, currently propped up by a multi-million-pound subsidy from the public purse.
There is an economic case to be made to expand Heathrow and that should be weighed against the environmental effects. In Prestwick’s case, there are both economic and environmental cases to be made to close it.
And even if it can be turned around financially, that would presumably only be possible if the number of flights – and therefore the level of emissions – was increased. Airports have a strategic importance beyond their balance sheet and closing Prestwick would be a huge, historic decision to make.
But, given the “climate emergency” facing the world and the transition to a radically different kind of economy, our elected leaders have no choice but to make such big decisions.
If they make the right ones, we will all benefit. Get it wrong and we could find ourselves in serious trouble.