As bleary-eyed delegates pack up and depart COP27 in Egypt, I reflect on this time last year – on the energy and hope that filled Glasgow’s streets and buildings as we hosted this most important event.
At that time, emerging from the pandemic, I guess we all hoped to see the change our nation and planet needs.
Since then, however, we have witnessed an illegal invasion of Ukraine and started to feel the financial pain of a fossil fuel crisis. These events have highlighted the need for domestic energy security – especially within the supply chain – but it is also clear that that self-reliance and certainty must be achieved in a way that is not carbon intensive and provides long-term stability.
The Scottish Government’s delivery plan for the national strategy for economic transformation (NSET) puts the just transition at the heart of Scotland’s economic future. The need for a reliable and constant source of low carbon energy to supplement the intermittency of renewables is crucial if Scotland is to become the low-carbon energy capital of Europe, bringing with it the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that can set the nation on a track of sustained economic growth and prosperity.
The production of green hydrogen fuel – in which European neighbours such as Germany have already shown interest – is one great example. Yes, the fuel can and should be refined using other forms of low carbon energy. However, if wider net-zero aspirations are to be met, there must be an assured load of energy to mitigate the volatility of the market. In this context, there is a compelling case for nuclear energy to plug the gap.
The nuclear infrastructure landscape in Scotland can be easily overlooked when only one operational plant remains. However, it still produces a quarter of our energy. Over their life spans, modern nuclear power plants can have a comparable carbon intensity and cost to some forms of renewable energy generation. If we are to become fully free of fossil fuels, we need to utilise a diverse mix of sources and that must include nuclear.
Historically, the governing party of Scotland has taken a firm stance against nuclear energy, with the deputy first minister recently restating its opposition at the Scottish National Party (SNP) autumn conference. However, comparisons can be drawn here between its position on NATO, which has evolved since becoming a party of government, with the SNP now officially supporting membership of the alliance.
The SNP positions itself as a big tent containing broad and varied political opinions and it has noted on occasion that democracy does not stand still but is a fluid and continuous process. As a mass movement political party, it must find new ways of embracing and articulating the need for the constant challenge and development of policy, whether that is moving away from oil as the cornerstone of an independent Scotland’s economy, or reversing that long-held anti-NATO position.
In truth, the SNP listens intently to public opinion, which begs the question: why does the party maintain its opposition to nuclear energy? With current polling by YouGov showing that 55% of Scots support nuclear energy, why isn’t the government seizing the opportunity to align itself with voters obviously concerned about Scotland’s domestic energy resilience?
The policy wheels of political parties often move slowly, but there is an opportunity for politicians to be bolder in articulating and illustrating the benefits of nuclear energy to Scotland. It is by no means a straightforward debate, but it is one that deserves renewed consideration in the context of a just transition for our country and others.