When I worked with John Swinney on climate change, he championed bold measures. Does he still? – Dr Richard Dixon

John Swinney took a very hands-on interest in making Scotland’s 2009 climate act a world class piece of legislation, says Dr Richard Dixon

How will an SNP government led by John Swinney rise to the challenge of tackling the climate emergency? Swinney himself has some interesting history on the issue. There is no question that the Scottish Government had a strong incentive to focus on climate change while it contained two Scottish Green party ministers, had two Green special advisors, and was subject to an agreed programme of work on the issue in the Bute House Agreement.

Now that Swinney’s minority government will have to make deals on a case-by-case basis with whichever party is most amenable, it is hard to see there being so much attention on climate change. However, the urgent need to pass legislation to amend the failing targets and budgets in the 2019 climate act will have to be one of his early priorities.

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In the run-up to the 2009 climate act, I worked for WWF Scotland, based in Dunkeld. Our constituency MSP was John Swinney. He was also the Finance Secretary. I saw a lot of John as the bill was being developed and going through parliament, and it was obvious that he was taking a very hands-on interest in making the final act world class.

Activists protest outside Bute House last month after the scrapping of a key climate change target (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Activists protest outside Bute House last month after the scrapping of a key climate change target (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Activists protest outside Bute House last month after the scrapping of a key climate change target (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Worked for unanimous support

Like now, this was also a time of minority SNP government, which meant that deals had to be done all over the place to get sensible climate legislation passed. Swinney was determined to get this right and was resolute that, in the final vote, every single MSP would vote for the bill in front of them. He worked hard and succeeded in making this happen.

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Although the parliamentary passage of the bill was fronted by environment minister Stewart Stevenson, I remember Swinney being at key meetings with the environment groups talking about the level of targets. At another meeting, he was determined that a measure to assess the carbon implications of the annual Scottish budget would be done right, even if no one else in the world quite knew how to do this at the time.

We shared a platform at more than one SNP conference fringe meeting where he spoke strongly about the need to have a tough climate act with decent accountability for politicians. In the end, the 2009 climate act embodied many good measures and included what, at the time, were ambitious targets.

Slowing things down

In his pitch to be party leader, Swinney said: “The climate emergency is a real and present threat to our society, but we need to recognise that the pursuit of net zero has to take people and business with us.” Is this just a statement of the obvious? A nod to concerns from Kate Forbes’ camp? Or could it signal a slowing down of plans that need to go fast, like insulating people’s home and reducing car traffic?

The lack of action to meet the 2009 targets and the revised targets in the 2019 act have caught up with government and broken the deal with the Greens. Getting back on track on climate will be one of John Swinney’s definitive tests over the next two years.

Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant



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