22 September 2011

S4M-00902 Low-carbon Economy

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00902, in the name of Fergus Ewing, on the low-carbon economy.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

We often say that climate change is one of the most important challenges facing our country, and many contributors to today’s debate have made that very point. The other side of the matter is how we respond to making the transition to a low-carbon economy, which is clearly one of the greatest opportunities that is currently before us. We are fortunate in Scotland to have the natural resources and expertise to enable us to be at the forefront of a new global economic condition. We have tremendous potential in our renewable resource, our capacity to develop carbon capture and storage, our high-tech research and our business acumen. As the Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism said, we aim to meet the equivalent of 100 per cent of our electricity demand from renewable sources. I note that some commented that that seems overambitious. In response, I would say that many of the conversations that have been had with the power industry suggest that it is eminently achievable.

What we do not need, and what the Government will absolutely not promote, is new nuclear facilities. Therefore, when we come to decision time, the Tories should not look for support for their amendment, because of its inclusion of that subject. Nuclear power is a hugely expensive technology of the last century and it need play no part in Scotland’s long-term energy future.

Alex Johnstone: Will the minister accept that the statistics on which he bases his ambition to achieve 100 per cent of our electricity requirement from renewable sources involve the transfer of power back and forward across the border, which means that he has conceded that Scotland needs and will have a new nuclear power station, but it will be built in England and we will buy its electricity across the grid?

Stewart Stevenson: I do not accept that. I accept that there will be transfers of energy across the border—going south, because we are already a significant exporter of electricity and will become even more so. I note that over the extended period—I think that it was two years—when Hunterston was not delivering to the network, we did not miss that nuclear capacity.

I will deal with comments that were made during the debate. Lewis Macdonald made an effective contribution, much of which I agreed with. He said that transition is possible but not certain. That is, of course, correct. It will not happen without our driving it forward; it will not happen through passivity. He talked about the need to join up different levels of government. That is a perfectly proper point to make. With Alison Hay of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I jointly chair a group that is working with local authorities to take steps to improve the contributions at that level by engaging officials rather than just politicians and related decision makers. Our relationship with the UK Government—previous and present—on this agenda has been effective. I have been at the environment council with Chris Huhne, Caroline Spelman and Ed Milliband. Although we disagree on matters of detail, we are completely aligned in our central purpose, and we have worked well together.

The challenge is to take many of the countries of Europe along with us. At the most recent environment council meeting, we moved to a substantially better position than existed before, as 26 of 27 countries were able to sign up to a motion that recognised the need for higher targets. We must now translate that into higher targets throughout Europe, as that is important. We will continue to work with other administrations—at local government, UK and European level—to seek to deliver on that.

Members have expressed support for carbon capture, and I introduced some of the relevant issues when I intervened on Lewis Macdonald. In many ways, there has been some timidity on the part of officials in various jurisdictions—that is perhaps a greater issue than ministers’ enthusiasm, or not. We are now behind the curve, but we do not have to be there.

Alex Johnstone mentioned Tory overenthusiasm, which is a novel concept that I look forward to hearing more of. I will give members a little sense of some of the opportunities. The Scottish Wildlife Trust yesterday gave me a report that suggested that restoration of our peatlands alone could contribute 2.4 million tonnes of abatement per annum. As Scotland’s emissions as a whole currently amount to 50 million tonnes, one could almost persuade oneself that peatland restoration could do the job on its own. Of course, it is a bit more complex than that, but we certainly want to continue to make progress in that area.

Kevin Stewart mentioned the success of combined heat and power in Aberdeen—indeed, Lewis Macdonald has made similar contributions on previous occasions in the chamber—which is an important demonstration of what can be done. Malcolm Chisholm understands that I will not comment on specific proposals on which the Government may need to make decisions, but I highlight that we have supported more than 50 small-scale biomass projects in small and medium-sized enterprises, which represents around 12MW of energy. There is certainly a place for biomass.

I hope that Malcolm Chisholm recognises the value of the objective analyses that SEPA—which is, of course, a Government agency—brings to bear on applications. He—like other members—stressed the importance of good heat distribution. In my previous ministerial role, I visited the Michelin plant in Dundee and noted the difficulties that it was experiencing in obtaining an appropriate heritable right of way—known in England as a wayleave—for getting heat to adjacent houses and businesses. There are some issues in that regard that we must revisit.

John Wilson mentioned the climate challenge fund, which has supported more than 400 projects in communities throughout Scotland. That is a substantial contribution to empowering people in Scotland and ensuring that we are all moving together on this agenda.

Jackson Carlaw wished us to genuflect before the Government’s achievements. We will certainly consider that, although some of our knees are getting a little creaky, which may make genuflection a bit more difficult than it might have been in the past. However, when it is at the altar of SNP achievement, I am prepared to sacrifice my knees.

There are significant difficulties with nuclear as much as with anything else. We in Scotland cannot make as much of it in terms of new jobs and new opportunities as we can by putting our efforts into renewable technologies. That is where we must be in Scotland.

The Labour amendment is fine as far as it goes, but it is flawed in the sense that it asks for more money—this is the wrong time and the wrong place. We look forward to engaging with the Labour Party and others on a number of issues.

I will reflect the position at the end of my speech as I did at the beginning. We have a challenge and an opportunity. The global economy has experienced much uncertainty in the past four years. Our important way forward is through low-carbon growth, which gives us energy security and new jobs. We as a Government wish to encourage demand for low-carbon goods and services. I hope that the Parliament will support those aims at decision time and vote for the Government’s motion.

Stewart Stevenson
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