Climate change: Why the SNP must accept economic realities of Rishi Sunak's climate plans - Brian Whittle

Climate change is real, humanity is making it happen, and we have a responsibility to deal with it before it destroys the planet.

I begin with that statement because given some of the comments coming from the SNPGovernment and others about Rishi Sunak’s new plans to reach net zero, you’d think these pragmatic changes to reduce financial pressures on the public were going to bring about the end of the world, tomorrow.

While it might catch people’s attention, the increasingly apocalyptic language in the climate debate, and the constant need for greater urgency that it brings, isn’t the basis for good, practical green policy. When ministers talk about climate change being this generation’s nuclear war and tell young people that fear of it should be a dominant feature in every decision they make, it isn’t just excessive, it’s counterproductive.

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As the language of the debate becomes more extreme, burdening the public with responsibility for the end of civilisation, there’s a risk they simply tune out or worse, conclude we are already doomed. Can a politician be a “climate leader” when no-one’s willing to follow?

As the Prime Minister rightly pointed out, the UK has already slashed its emissions, as has Scotland, and there’s no doubt that we should keep going. This isn’t about abandoning the destination; it’s about trying to take a better-balanced path to it.

One of the biggest question marks that hangs over the SNP Government’s plans for net zero is the question of money. How much will these measures cost? Who will pay? What will the impact be on our economy?

Economic growth can be the engine of our transition, but our climate policy is being steered by a party that doesn’t believe in it. We must be honest about the potential economic effects of climate policies and be willing to compromise accordingly. Unfortunately, the SNP and Greens have never been fans of compromise or accepting economic realities.

Scots have just gone through a pandemic, are now in a cost-of-living crisis and pay the highest taxes in the UK. We need to move to net zero and there are costs to that, but can it be done at a more practical pace? Are the SNP Government really saying we all must pay up right now, this very second, and to the tune of, in many cases, thousands of pounds each?

We can achieve a net zero that strengthens our economy, creates new skilled jobs, offers energy independence, develops world-leading technologies that can be manufactured and exported round the world, and funds better, more resilient public services. If we approach it in the wrong way, it’s possible to end up with greater costs, fewer benefits and potentially not even achieve net zero.

Scotland has tremendous potential to become a leader in green technologies, whether that’s replacing oil and gas with offshore wind and hydrogen or creating entirely new industries like heat pump maintenance and vertical farming. What’s vital though, is that we build these new industries up, well before we phase out the old ones. Today’s gas boiler engineers need access to training on heat pumps, and hydrogen and carbon capture companies need to have scaled up to a size where they can take on workers from a shrinking oil and gas industry.

Not understanding this balance between “out with the old” and “in with the new” is causing much of the frustration with net zero today and it’s storing up problems for tomorrow. A new report by the Fraser of Allander Institute into the impact of the transition on low-paid workers is quick to warn that if we don’t properly manage the transition, then we not only put jobs at risk, but miss out on a valuable opportunity to grow incomes and give people the skills to rise into higher paying careers.

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They also say a lack of detail in the SNP Government’s plans makes it difficult to predict what the current approach will lead to. To me, this is a sure sign of the need to take a breath and get a grip of the detail. In their blind drive to move further and faster than everyone else in their pursuit of net zero, the SNP and Greens risk moving so quickly that they ignore the mess they leave in their wake, and in the end still don’t achieve what they set out to.

When I was a professional athlete, I always had an urge to go faster, to keep pushing myself harder, to shave that next fraction of a second off that time. It’s easy to see that same mentality in some of those who talk about the race to net zero, and it’s why I understand the instinct to reject any suggestion that sounds like slowing down.

Getting faster isn’t always about just pushing yourself harder and harder as you run around the track though. You have to train and prepare your body for more effort, you have to understand your movements and where technique can be improved. Just going hell for leather without all that, you might be faster, but there’s also a good chance of picking up a serious injury in the process. I’ll never say winning a race is a bad thing, but if you end up with an injury that stops you from running for months or even years, then it becomes harder to say it was worth coming first.

For me, achieving net zero is a race where a real win isn’t about finishing first, it’s about finishing well.

- Brian Whittle is deputy spokesperson on business, economic growth and tourism for the Scottish Conservatives



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