Scotland’s green transition: a necessary struggle for the future

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Credit: Vattenfall

Lucia Posteraro
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Disclaimer: This article was authored by a University of Glasgow student as part of a data journalism traineeship offered by ClimateTracker.org. This organisation is not affiliated with the Glasgow Guardian, and the paper received no remuneration for this article’s publication.

What forms of intervention can the Scottish government engage in as part of its response to the Climate Crisis?

Autumn has been a season of revolution for the UK’s energy policy, with two major decisions dooming the future of fracking activities in the United Kingdom. At the beginning of October, the Scottish Government once again extended its moratorium on fracking, which was first enacted in 2015 by the Scottish National Party (SNP). Although it is not the fully-fledged legal ban advocated for by environmental activists and prominent members of the Scottish Greens, the persistent renewal of the suspension is a de facto step forward for a country whose formal commitment to decarbonisation contrasts with rising trends in oil and gas extraction since 2011. Within the month, fracking in England was halted with immediate effect following the publication of a damning report by the Oil and Gas Authority.

The independent regulator marked the Cuadrilla Group’s fracking operations as the cause of repeated quakes in excess of 2.9-magnitude in Lancashire last August. Moreover, the practice was thought to be unsustainable until carbon storage technology is developed to minimise its environmental impact. Both moves are a slap to Conservative leaders’ optimism in the past seven years. Both Prime Minister’s David Cameron and Boris Johnson dreamed of a “shale gas revolution”, a statement driven by an increased reliance on natural gas to heat 85% of households. While it is believed that by 2030 the UK will have to import 72% of its needed supply, political considerations on promoting energy self-reliance through fracking have often ignored geological evidence. Crucially, the overpopulation of territories most suited for fracking operations in the UK prevents safe exploration, let alone the continued exploitation of the resource.

Science trumps the politics of fracking:

The shale wealth fund that was established under the Cameron government in 2017, was designed to facilitate the transfer of £100,000 to residents living within 1.5km of the Cuadrilla site at New Preston Road. These funds were insufficient to cover the risks of potential water and air contamination in the targeted areas, particularly because firms could ultimately have focused on regions with uncertain reserves. The British Geological Survey’s models have also stressed the physical obstacles to estimating the amount of reserves and their recovery for commercial purposes, due to immature shales in the Wessex Basin. In situations where the presence of gas has been recognised, such as in the Bowland-Hodder central belt, the Society warns about the impossibility to extract enough gas due to geological conditions facing each operation. In the case of Scotland’s Midland Valley between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where 80.3 Tcf of shale gas (approx. 3.2 to 11.2 billion barrels) may be present, the geological complexity and faults of the region make it a risky drilling experiment, in one of the most densely inhabited parts of Scotland.

Credit: Oil and Gas Authority Map Service

Map of the UK showing the shale study areas (red) and shale prospective areas (grey) where fracking attempts were focused before this year’s de facto bans.

Fracking might afford a break from oil, but it does not solve the need for a green transition. Considering that in the third quarter of 2019 electricity from renewable sources took over the one from fossil fuel production for the first time in history, there is space for cautious optimism in Britain. However, for an economy the size of Scotland, fossil fuels still play a huge role: in fact, 2017 saw oil and gas revenue rise to £9.2 billion, with 135,000 jobs linked to the industry. Nevertheless, the Scottish Parliament outlined in the 2018 Climate Change Bill an ambition to cut 90% of greenhouse emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2050. It is difficult to think of fracking as a way to achieve such an ambitious goal, much like a continuing dependence on conventional extraction methods risks being legitimised for the sake of employment statistics. The fracking moratorium is a positive and coherent move, but its value is diluted in the overall picture. After all, whilst the UK is set to meet targets for its third carbon budget period (2018 to 2022), it is not on track to meet the fourth (2023 to 2027).

The Scottish puzzle of compromises

With companies like INEOS challenging the decision on the grounds of previous concessions and contracts, the Scottish Government will also have to fight firms and services which it has until recently sheltered owing to their contribution to 7% of the country’s GDP. And yet, some good news could be in store for Scotland, which may equally guide the way for the rest of the UK, as well as member states of the EU. In a public consultation involving 60,000 people from citizens and experts, through to representatives from NGOs, the question of Scotland’s standing in Europe in regard to renewables was put forward. With 25% of Europe’s tidal power potential, 25% of wind potential and 10% of wave potential, the country stands on firm grounds for renewable energy. It should strive to accelerate the transition through consistent funding in green energy infrastructure through its Energy Investment Fund. Back in June, renewable energy accounted for 88% of the energy used in Scottish households. A net 4,543 GWh was also exported, demonstrating Scotland’s competitive edge in the sector.

Scottish partnerships with other government agencies in the field have been reaping innovation gains and spilling over into the rest of the country, if not the continent. The state-owned Swedish group Vattenfall has been heavily involved in the creation of wind energy projects on the coast and shore of Aberdeenshire. The European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre now hosts eleven of the most powerful wind turbines in the world, while wind farms in Banffshire and on the Isle of Skye provide another example of the transformation in a region once completely dominated by the oil sector. If Vattenfall operates in other areas of the UK, the extent to which the project has been implemented in Scotland shows the sustainable potential for a lasting change – and how it can be of inspiration to the rest of the world. Two-thirds of Scottish renewable energy came from wind in 2017, and the rise of renewables has not declined since 2008.

One can hope that the moratorium is just the symbol of a far larger attempt at accelerating change, all the while old systemic challengers prepare to fight back.