Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Humza Yousaf could never realise Sturgeon’s fantasy climate plans

Humza Yousaf (Credit: Getty images)

It was Cop26 in Glasgow and Nicola Sturgeon was in her element, posing for selfies with Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and assorted world leaders. The then first minister was desperate to upstage Boris Johnson who had very much put his mark on the global climate shindig. ‘It’s one minute to midnight on the Doomsday clock,’ the prime minister warned the assembled green lobbyists and corporate CEOs, ‘and we need to act now’. He promised to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions by 68 per cent of 1990 levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2050.

Nicola Sturgeon just had to go one better. Scotland would cut emissions by 75 per cent she promised, and would make this ‘legally binding’ so there could be no backsliding on what she called ‘the most stretching climate targets in the world’. 

At every level, the SNP’s environmental policies are in ruins

It was a stretch too far however – an exercise in fantasy policy making of the kind this SNP has made its own. The Scottish government’s entire climate strategy, and its moral credibility, has come crashing to the ground today as it announces the abandonment of the 75 per cent target and, apparently, the whole idea of setting targets for reducing emissions. Only the SNP government’s promise to achieve overall net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the UK remains intact. But how long that will remain legally binding remains to be seen.

The net zero secretary, Mairi McAllan, has predictably blamed UK government ‘climate back-tracking’ for the decision, but environmental policy is devolved to Holyrood which was why the Scottish government was able to make the 75 per cent pledge in the first place. Friends of the Earth Scotland have called today’s announcement ‘the worst environmental decision in the history of the Scottish parliament’. The former SNP leader, Alex Salmond, who launched the party’s renewable energy strategy a decade ago, says it is ‘hugely embarrassing’ for First Minister Humza Yousaf, also under fire this week for the chaotic and unpopular Hate Crime Act.

The collision with reality was inevitable, however. The Scottish government had missed its annual carbon reduction targets eight times in the last 12 years and the independent Climate Change Committee had become fed up with censuring it. Humza Yousaf obviously had no credible plan for realising his predecessor’s ambitions and so the only option was to abandon them.

This has underlined the folly of trying to frame political ambitions in law. But this setback will have profound consequences, not least for the drive to eliminate fossil fuels. The SNP will simply not be trusted again by businesses and householders who believed its climate bromides and had been making investment decisions in accordance with it.

A key part of Scottish government planning for the 2030 target was the 2021 heat in buildings strategy. Under the guidance of the zero-carbon buildings minister, and Scottish Green party leader, Patrick Harvie, this sought to replace 1 million gas boilers by 2030 at an estimated cost of £33 billion. That was quietly scrapped at the end of last year. So was Nicola Sturgeon’s promise to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2032, eight years ahead of the UK. Humza Yousaf has now aligned with the UK government’s plans for decarbonising transport – plans which he used to criticise as wholly inadequate to the tasks.  

Measures to compel landlords and householder to insulate Scotland’s antiquated housing stock to EPC rating C by have also been trimmed so often that no one knows whether or not they still exist. Bold plans to instal a million heat pumps are also dead in the water. Only around 5,000 of these devices are being installed annually in Scotland, far short of the Scottish government’s target of 25,000. Home lenders are baulking at the reported cost of £10,000-15,000 to install the devices which one of the leading suppliers, the green entrepreneur, Lord Haughey, has said are not suitable for Scotland’s climate. Most experts insist that they are viable, but parsimonious Scots are understandably reluctant to part with large sums for untried technology.

It’s much the same story with electric vehicles. Sales have stalled because the charging infrastructure remains wholly inadequate for mass adoption of EVs . They are only really practicable for people with driveways. No way has been found a way to allow the people living in Scotland’s one million tenement flats to charge an electric car and public charging points are few and far between.    

The latest row has been over the announcement last week that wood-burning stoves are to be banned in new-build homes. This provoked a storm of protest, not least in the Highlands of Scotland where power cuts are common and where even many ecologists regard local wood as a sustainable heat source. The Highlands MSP and possible future SNP leader Kate Forbes had to step in to demand ‘urgent clarification’ that the north is not going to be left in the cold. A U-turn on the policy seems imminent.

At every level, the SNP’s environmental policies are in ruins. Even the much vaunted bottle return scheme collapsed in ignominy last year.  

There is every indication that Scottish voters take the threat from climate change seriously and want to do something about it. But they expect plans that are both credible and cost effective. Fantasy plans, often led by the coalition Green party, that are abandoned as regularly as night follows day only induce public apathy and mistrust. They further diminish respect for politics in general and for Humza Yousaf in particular. It is hardly surprising that in the most recent Norstat poll only 29 per cent of SNP voters believe he is doing a good job.

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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