Sturgeon may pay lip service to the green agenda but her only priority is breaking up the UK

THE Cop26 summit is a politically risk-free zone until the negotiations begin — a chance to emote about saving the planet.

There’s a lot of rhetoric and hand-wringing, and elbow-bumping, but for the most part yesterday at least was all about public relations.

Nicola Sturgeon got the chance to meet Greta Thunberg, the spiritual leader of the world’s eco-activists, to show off her green credentials.

But Cop26 raises some difficult questions for Miss Sturgeon about where her priorities really lie — the push towards net zero, or Scottish independence?

That’s a tricky one: if not the latter, then her days as head of the SNP are numbered, and if not the former then she risks accusations of gross hypocrisy.

The problem is that achieving net zero is an expensive business — and even pricier without the support of the United Kingdom, which of course Miss Sturgeon wants to tear apart.

Earlier this year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) spelt out the potential cost of the decarbonisation crusade currently being discussed by Cop26 delegates.

The UK has targeted 2050 to reach net zero on greenhouse gas emissions and in Scotland environmental policy is devolved, while energy policy comes under the remit of the UK Government — apart from the awarding of fracking licences.

The Scottish Government has set a target of 2045 for Scotland to achieve net zero, and the cost of getting the UK there is estimated at £1.4trillion in real terms.

The OBR estimates that the UK taxpayer will pick up a quarter of that cost, which gives a net bill for the state of £344billion over the next 30 years.

So tens of billions of pounds will be required to be spent by the government in Scotland over the next three decades if there’s to be any hope of realising the net zero ambition.

These costs have not been factored into any SNP prospectus for independence, you won’t be shocked to learn, but then it was always a little short on detail.

And back in 2014 it was underpinned by a reliance on the oil industry that would bring dividends to an independent Scotland for decades to come.

Now Miss Sturgeon has said it would be ‘wrong’ to go on exploring for and extracting oil — it’s hard to imagine a more screeching U-turn, and there have been quite a few under this government.

We’re all supposed to swallow all of these inconsistencies and pretend that nothing has changed.

The 2018 Sustainable Growth Commission report, masterminded by former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson, has no decarbonisation analysis and only mentions the ‘transition to a low carbon economy’ once in passing.

In its infrastructure section, there is a discussion of an independent Scotland’s economic strategy framed in terms of ‘if renewable energy continued to be a priority’.

It all seems a bit conditional, equivocal — frankly an optional add-on — whereas now Miss Sturgeon, as we know, is a convert, in a power-sharing pact with the Greens.

Sturgeon and Greta: but independence outranks green agenda as Sturgeon’s priority

Mind you, the Greens campaigned for separatism and propped up the SNP even when oil was the centrepiece of its economic vision, such as it was — so where do their true priorities lie?

Politicians don’t much like to talk about green costs, naturally, and you can be sure that it will take second place to soaring rhetoric about shrinking icebergs in coming days.

Heat pumps are expensive and inefficient, so too are electric vehicles for the most part, and functioning charging points for them can be hard to find.

That’s not to say net zero isn’t a laudable objective, or one that we should pursue, but there should be a frank conversation about the costs.

And there should be an acknowledgement that net zero will be unattainable for Scotland without the back-up and more crucially, the funding of the UK Government — and Miss Sturgeon knows it, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.

After all, look at the SNP’s eco-record so far — the Scottish Government has missed its renewable heat target by nearly half, and the amount generated declined in 2020.

Meanwhile, Miss Sturgeon’s target of cutting Scotland’s carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 may have been ‘over-cooked’, according to the UK’s independent climate watchdog.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), believes the goal was a ‘huge challenge’ and questions how this would be achieved faster than the rest of the UK.

Indeed, he says ‘we haven’t seen’ the type of policies from the SNP-Green coalition required to meet the deadline and more radical measures to decarbonise homes and industry may be needed.

Between 28 and 29 million houses across the UK will need heating and insulation conversions and upgrades in the coming years, If they are to be net-zero compatible.

Estimates of the average cost of upgrading and retro-fitting an existing single home range from £10,000 to £19,000.

Would the government of an independent Scotland pick up the bill for this, or some of it, in conditions of hyper-austerity?

The costs even for the UK will be sky-high — so for Scotland alone they would be stratospheric.

It’s more likely that decarbonising would be nowhere on the agenda in an independent Scotland — the first and only priority would be economic viability.

After all, our deficit is forecast to be around 10 per cent of GDP in 2025–26 and after independence there would be no quantitative easing — allowing us to print our own money, effectively — by the SNP’s own admission.

The switch to net zero would be unaffordable — and oil would be more important than ever as a source of income, and a way of keeping the lights on.

Another referendum on independence, if it happens, and it’s hard to see how, would present the starkest of choices to the electorate.

Doubtless there would be a lot of flannel from the SNP about eco matters and plenty of empty promises about a green revolution, and you can expect some fence-sitting as well.

Miss Sturgeon has voiced concern about ploughing ahead with the Cambo oil field, near Shetland, even in the midst of a burgeoning energy crisis.

But she hasn’t expressed outright opposition to it either, and nor can she, knowing that more than 100,000 jobs rely on oil and gas — and there’s no way all of those can be transferred to renewables.

To anyone paying attention, it’s obvious that Miss Sturgeon, while paying lip service to the green agenda, cares far more about independence.

How it’s achieved — and whether her grand decarbonisation goals can be met if it is — are secondary matters.

Anyone who genuinely cares about net zero should stop reaching for the soundbites and come clean about the vast costs involved.

And Miss Sturgeon should — but won’t — admit that it’s simply not compatible with her true mission — ripping apart the Union that would help to pay the enormous bill.

  • This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 2, 2021.
  • Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant