Michael Keating, Sarah Boyack are posing for a picture
Prof Cameron FRSE, Prof Michael Keating FRSE and Sarah Boyack MSP at the Scottish Parliament – picture by Ian Georgeson

The RSE held an event at Scottish Parliament on 6 December for MSPs and their research staff, focusing on the causes behind the ongoing energy crisis and how Scotland can develop long-term solutions.

Scotland needs a parachute plan for the oil and gas industry and to think more seriously about the trade-offs between net zero and nature, writes Professor Peter Cameron FRSE.

Following the end of the COP28 climate summit, here at home we need to think very seriously about what a “just transition” actually means in practice. I was honoured to be invited by Sarah Boyack MSP to speak to the Scottish Parliament recently, as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an expert in energy law, about long-term solutions to the energy crisis.

For years now, the public at large has been well aware of the requirements for green energy and to be carbon neutral. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year should have given us all the reminding we would ever need that our reliance on fossil fuels is untenable in the long term. While Scotland does not rely directly on gas from Russia, the point was made that we need to get our house in order with regards to energy security.

What does this actually mean? As we attempt to move in the direction of net-zero carbon emissions, we need to think about what needs to be done to ensure we don’t upset the apple cart too violently. Like it or not, the oil and gas industry in Scotland employs plenty of people, and as we wind that down, there must be a parachute plan for all those businesses and workers who are in with the bricks in that industry.

…the expansion of renewable energy is not the magic bullet that everyone seems to think it is.

Well, as yet there is no such sign. More and more governments are developing an industrial policy to develop their clean energy sector. A Transition Agency perhaps. Some thought would be needed on how to fund it. So far there is no example, no model, of a successful transition to a low-carbon economy at the national level.

These developments raise important questions. What can a government do to make sure a transition is a just one? Net zero as a concept is limited in the sense that it does not necessarily take justice into account due to its cost-benefit approach to the carbon emission problem.

If Scotland has no oil and gas production, what plans need to be put in place to re-tool citizens who lose their jobs as a result? If legal measures are taken to require citizens to modify their domestic heating, what support will be given to those with existing or future cost-of-living challenges?

Which brings me to the next point, which is that the expansion of renewable energy is not the magic bullet that everyone seems to think it is. It will require trade-offs and some of those trade-offs will need to be argued, and not everybody is going to walk away happy.

In July this year the Scottish Government announced that over 16 million trees had so far been cut down, on publicly owned land, to make way for wind farm projects. This is a trade-off. A trade-off between renewable energy expansion and the environment we are trying to protect by expanding it.

Make no mistake, Scotland has it all to lose if decisions on these kinds of trade-offs are not done in the right way. No one knows yet if Scotland can build vast numbers of wind farms without damaging the ecology of the area.

For several years, the dominant long-term policy goal has been saving the planet, the source of many an inspiring slogan. There is now, however, a sense that other shorter-term priorities need to be addressed urgently and that the path to net zero involves trade-offs that will polarise public opinion.

These are just a few of the issues that raise questions about ‘trade-offs’. There are many more appearing and not just on the horizon. If you increase the siting of new clean energy infrastructure, how will this affect existing rules on planning and the environment? There will be a cost in terms of biodiversity and quality of life.

Make no mistake, Scotland has it all to lose if decisions on these kinds of trade-offs are not done in the right way.

We also need to be thinking beyond just simply renewable energy. Expanding renewable energy projects come with issues of their own, so we need to find other tools to add to our kit and wean ourselves successfully off fossil fuel.

The ultimate goal is to reduce harmful emissions, and this is the justification for the expansion of renewables projects. Many governments now are exploring and supporting the development of new technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture as a form of abatement of emissions, and small-scale nuclear reactors. None of these ideas, while noble and potentially successful, are commercially viable at the moment. At least none have a record in that respect.

Another issue that we face is how to maximize the benefits to people of this energy transition. One way is to invest more in giving consumers choice over their energy use so that they can find ways of reducing their bills. Accompanying that must be an effective public engagement strategy. We have moved so quickly on net zero that we haven’t invested enough time in explaining to the citizens the benefits and opportunities of this transition. This will be key.

Finally, we must not forget that a clean energy economy is going to be a minerals-intensive one. Lithium, zinc and copper are needed on a massive scale for batteries and new electric grids. We need to ensure their supplies are stable and come through a supply chain that reflects our values, avoiding exploitation of people in other countries to bring us what we need.

The new energy landscape requires us to weigh up our options very carefully and make choices about the energy transition that are – as much as possible – fair for everyone. We have to, and we can.

Professor Peter Cameron FRSE is a professor of international energy law and policy at the University of Dundee