Climate of change: Scottish independence and North Sea oil

Ahead of the SNP’s publication of the white paper on independence on the 26th November, and the recent news of the worst bush-fires in Australia in decades, allow me to bang the table for an issue which has been somewhat sidelined in the debate so far, including – and even especially – on the left: the climate crisis. With North Sea oil set to be a central debating point about the future economy of an independent Scotland, we need to break the taboo on environmental limits on its extraction.

Many on the left support Scottish independence because they believe it to be a chance to break with neoliberalism: this brand of capitalism we have lived under for the past 30 years, characterised by privatisation, deregulation, cuts in social spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, that they believe (rightly, in my view) has been a social andeconomic disaster. But it is inherently absurd to think we can break with that if we will simultaneously go on to worsen what the economist Nicholas Stern described as ‘the greatest market failure the world has seen’.

The climate crisis is a question of distributional justice like any other – but on a geographical and generational scale. We – in the current high-consuming, high-emitting west – are stealing from the global south and future generations on a truly epic scale. We are talking about ecological stability here.

To be clear about the scale and severity of the crisis: a recent major report from the World Bank – nobody’s idea of a bunch of hippy eco-warriors – stated that ‘present  emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4°C warming within the century.’ According to Mark Lynas, author of ‘Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet’, this would mean the complete disappearance of the Arctic ice sheet, the spreading of desert across southern Europe, and England experiencing summers in the mid 40s.

So how much can we extract, exploit, and burn? Such a calculation should be subject to serious analysis from economists and climate scientists working collaboratively. But here are some of the figures we need to bear in mind: according to Nasa climate scientist Professor James Hansen, the safe level of atmospheric CO2 concentration we need to keep below the crucial 2 degrees of warming tipping point is 350 parts per million. We currently stand at 400ppm. Scotland’s carbon emissions stand at 51 million tonnes. To meet our climate targets, we will need to reduce this to 40 million tonnes by 2020. If 12 billion barrels of North Sea oil were to be burned (the maximum estimate being 24 billion barrels) this would emit 5.2 billion tonnes of CO2: dwarfing those domestic efforts.

Of course, there is a perception that the Scottish economy relies heavily on oil. Indeed, this is a reason why some people are opposed to Scottish independence – some worry we are vulnerable to oil running out, or the vicissitudes in price. But here is the fact that the Yes campaign should be shouting from the rooftops: even if you exclude the entirety of North Sea oil, Scotland’s GDP per capita is (according to UK government statistics), $34,754. This puts us precisely between Italy and Japan, and they have always seemed rich enough to me. Indeed, books like The Spirit Level demonstrate empirically that once a country reaches a certain level of GDP – around $25,000 per capita – what matters is not gains in wealth but how equally that wealth is distributed. So making too much of oil is not only immoral and ecologically dangerous, it’s strategically foolish, too, giving the No camp a free kick.

In spite of this, I do believe Scottish independence offers the best opportunity to deal with environmental challenges. The vast bulk of the money required for developing the renewables industry comes from the private sector: public subsidies (important though they are), are a fraction of private funding. For investment, they need confidence that there is political support for the technology. Scotland – with its superior climate change legislation – provides a better environment for that investment than remaining with a Westminster where climate change denialism is rife. Indeed, George Osborne recently explicitly stated he does not want Britain to be a world-leader in tackling climate change, telling the Times: ‘I don’t want us to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.’

Only by putting such concerns at the heart of the debate can the campaign for Scottish independence legitimately claim to be a genuine break with the excesses of free-market capitalism.

Stuart Rodger is on twitter @stu_pot2

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