Who is driving Scotland’s climate change debate?

by | 29 Oct 2021

Scotland is finally talking about proper climate action, but the influence of corporate lobbyists means that we're talking about entirely the wrong things

It is helpful to have a think about how Scotland’s conversation on climate change is being influenced and who benefits from it. While the debate about the seriousness of the problem is clearly driven by the climate scientists (and was long attacked by corporate-funded denial campaigns), the debate over what to do about it is more of a free-for-all.

To understand why the debate is the way it is it is worth looking at where the debate is and who benefits from it. Three examples here are worth noting to get a flavour of the picture.

The first is Air Source Heat Pumps. There are political reasons why these are popular because they are just about the only technology you can force on an urban population which is even feasible for decarbonisation but where you can force the cost directly on the householder.

But they are very expensive to fit, don’t work anything like as well as is claimed and will need to be replaced (they don’t last forever). A Glasgow’s leading seller and installer of Air Source Heat Pumps has spoke out against them on price terms. A Strathclyde University study suggests that in Scotland they may only produce 2kW of heat for each kW of energy it takes to run them.

So why do they dominate the discussion? Because big electricity providers know that this is basically diverting the heating market from gas producers to electricity producers. In Scotland you’ll find that many of the media mentions of Air Source Heat Pumps comes from ScottishPower which would benefit greatly from the business expansion.

A second example is Carbon Capture and Storage. It is hard to be too cynical about this ‘technology’ because, well, it doesn’t work, it has never worked and it is unlikely that it will ever work to an acceptable degree. This is a technology which saw $7.5bn invested in a major plant in the US which was abandoned three years ago because it didn’t work.

And yet the issue of Carbon Capture and Storage has been dominating the climate debate in Scotland in recent weeks. This is hardly surprising; it is one of the primary strategies being used by the powerful oil and gas lobby to prevent serious action on decarbonisation. (Despite their PR statements, oil and gas companies are trying to prevent decarbonisation from taking place.)

Carbon Capture and Storage will not extract any carbon from Scotland’s emissions in the next ten years and probably will never do so, but if we continue to pursue it what it will do is enable oil and gas companies to keep making a profit by producing enormous volumes of greenhouse gasses.

Scotland’s environmental debate is dominated not by the subjects environmental economists or energy or climate scientists would choose but by the subjects corporate lobbyists choose

The third example is ‘Blue Hydrogen’. This again is a child of the oil and gas industry. Scotland could produce hydrogen in two ways – running renewable electricity through water (Green Hydrogen) producing only hydrogen and oxygen or splitting natural gas (Blue Hydrogen) producing hydrogen and carbon dioxide (actually, the same amount of carbon dioxide as if we just burned the gas).

Scotland’s current hydrogen strategy (from Scottish Enterprise but produced jointly with a major oil and gas sector body) has thrown its lot in with Blue Hydrogen – against any rational assessment of where Scotland should be investing in the hydrogen economy. Not only does this very substantially delay the development of a Green Hydrogen industry in Scotland, it hands the whole industry to oil and gas companies.

It is hard to over state the power of oil and gas in politics. In the US we are pretty familiar with the influence of oil and gas lobbying. In Britain the number of legislators with direct interests in oil and gas is substantial. At the EU level a report published last week shows the endless networks of influence and revolving doors between oil and gas and the European Union.

In Scotland oil and gas is one of the very most powerful political lobby groups there is. ScottishPower is one of the most powerful corporations operating in Scotland and also has an enormous influence over policy.

This has all been dubbed the Green Goldrush – the corporate sector adjusting to the fact that climate action is now government policy around the world and seeking to find ways to subvert that process to create the maximum profits for the corporation.

It involves the kind of industry capture and industry prolonging strategies outlined above but it also involves a lot of DotCom-style start-up firms promising technological solutions in return for big venture capital investments and very generous overgarment support.

Scotland’s environmental debate is dominated not by the subjects environmental economists or energy or climate scientists would choose but by the subjects corporate lobbyists choose. This will continue through COP26 in Glasgow, much of which is effectively a big Expo for multinational corporations.

This will drain enormous amounts of money from the public purse which would otherwise have been spent on real solutions. But it will not deliver serious climate action, and by the time we realise this the corporate profits will have been banked.

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