Climate failure sparks SNP crisis

The future of the SNP government is in doubt following the demise of the coalition with the Green Party. Pete Cannell looks at how the gulf between the government’s rhetoric and climate policies that relied on partnership with the oil and gas industry sparked the crisis.

Energy infrastructure off Fife Coast. Image by Pete Cannell CC0

In 2019 the Scottish Government was quick to call a climate emergency in response to the school students’ movement that was taking to the streets. The same year they agreed to cut carbon emissions by 75% by 2030. SNP politicians have been prominent in claiming world leading status for these commitments and contrasting these aspirations with the position of the Westminster government. But in March the chair of the Climate Change Committee warned that there was no possibility of the 75% target being reached. On 18 April 2024 the Scottish Government announced that the 2030 target was being scrapped.

The announcement caused uproar and consternation among climate activists. The SNP were in coalition with the Scottish Green Party and the Greens announced that their continued participation in the coalition would be determined by a vote of the party membership.  Both of the party’s co-leaders, Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie argued publicly for staying in the coalition, staking their leadership positions on getting the result they wanted.  

The SNP are in the midst of a political crisis.  Former SNP chief executive, and former leader Nicola Sturgeon’s partner, Peter Murrell has been arrested for embezzlement. Among the party membership there is widespread dismay about the lack of a clear independence strategy.  And they are at odds with the Greens over both climate and the Cass report.

Unexpectedly, rather than waiting another three weeks for the decision of the Green Party membership, SNP leader Humza Yousaf, who only two days before had expressed confidence in the coalition,  kicked the Greens out after a coalition meeting on 25 April.  Both Green leaders described this precipitous move as a shift towards the most conservative and reactionary elements of the SNP.  It’s hard to disagree with this. Yousaf is aware that Alex Salmond’s breakaway Alba Party waits in the wings. To date it has only attracted a relatively  small number of disgruntled SNP members, albeit including an MSP and two members of the Westminster parliament.  The break with the Greens is a message to others on the right of the SNP.  The SNP has 63 seats at Holyrood, 3 less than all the other parties combined.  If they survive the vote of confidence tabled by the Tories for next week, they can carry on as a minority government.  They have been in that position before.  But the outcome is uncertain, survival may rest on gaining the support of the one Alba MSP and would lead to a period of instability with the likelihood that their active membership will continue to erode.  

Two days before the Greens were ejected from the government around two hundred climate activists protested outside Humza Yousaf’s official residence Bute House, calling for the reinstatement of the abandoned climate targets. In the media the discussion of why the Scottish Government failed has been superficial. The truth is that it has been clear for some time that the target was unachievable. Not because it was impossible, but because, as speakers at the rally made clear, there were targets but no plan. From the beginning the Scottish government bought into the idea that carbon emissions could be cut and targets achieved, through the operation of market forces. Despite setting up a Just Transition Commission, and despite rhetoric about social justice, the government remained in partnership with the oil and gas industry through Oil and Gas UK – now rebranded as Offshore Energies UK. The other partners of course being the UK government and the main energy sector trade unions. All the partners, including the Scottish Government, are signed up to the North Sea Transition Deal which – far from being about transition – is about enabling maximum economic extraction of hydrocarbons from the North Sea basin and extending that extraction beyond 2050.

The North Sea Transition Deal effectively sets the agenda for UK climate policy. And although the Scottish Government has voiced some criticism of the development of new gas and oilfields, the main outlines of its policy have been in lockstep with the Deal – focusing heavily on Hydrogen and Carbon Capture and Storage. 

Targets with no plan except relying on the market, mean that continued repetition of Just Transition and concern for workers is simply greenwashing. The number of jobs in renewables is about the same as it was a decade ago.  This gap between rhetoric and reality enables trade union leaders to argue that to save jobs there is no alternative to partnership with the industry. 

As for the climate campaign, it needs to regroup.  Climate Camp Scotland is returning to Aberdeen this summer from 10 – 15 July and will be a good opportunity to highlight the role of the oil and gas industry in promoting false solutions to the climate crisis.  In my view, it’s not enough to simply argue for the reinstatement of the 2030 targets. Targets without a road map for concrete actions are worse than useless. The goal is a worker-led just transition, but the key question is how to build a mass movement that can make that possible.  And an essential step in building that movement is to win the argument that partnership with the oil and gas industry enables greenwashing and stands in the way of a just transition.  


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