Are some places more obviously adaptable and amenable to new environmental measures and regimes, and what are the economics and politics of some of the new necessities? Guest Editor for our Climate theme, Dominic Hinde, surfs the local modern to sample the global drift.
Carbon and the dreamscapes of Scottish modernity.
Up early, the electric heaters on the MV Shapinsay suck the oxygen from the air and threaten to send the first few passengers back to sleep as it chugs toward its namesake.
Built in the late eighties like so much of Scotland’s ageing fleet, it is a throwback to a time when diesel ran the Highlands and Islands. The order has just gone out for a replacement, to be run on locally produced Hydrogen, replacing the Shapinsay as it ferries people across the sound from Kirkwall to the small Orkney island.
At the pier on Shapinsay I am met by the island’s electric minivan, charged using local renewable electricity and providing a local transport service to the local. Despite the reputation as a renewable mecca EVs are still the exception rather than the norm in Orkney, but this one has been bought with money generated from the community wind turbine at the other end of the island. The driver, Adrian, ferries me along Shapinsay’s ribbon of tarmac to see it.
On site there is not much to see. Cows peer over the fence and the turbine is not working, though nobody can work out exactly why. There is a community engineer on the island but big problems have to be solved by the manufacturers and phone calls are being made to try and get it moving again.
Next to the turbine and encased by a concrete blast wall are a series of green metal containers that hold the island’s electrolysers, a machine that converts wind power into Hydrogen gas that will eventually power the new boat. The island school is already heated using the gas, and across Orkney there is an attempt to construct a smart grid that provides an enticing glimpse of a decentralised energy network run for the benefit of local people.
Orkney is Scotland’s energy dreamscape, a vision based partly in reality and partly in aspiration of an archipelago of post-carbon modernity. Journalists flock to the north of Scotland to write about local ingenuity and the technologies that Orkney provides a testbed for, a public laboratory where a post-carbon future is being bolted together from the wind and sea.
Back on the mainland the energy landscape continues, but this is a different dream. Outside of Thurso the wind farms tower over the main A9 road south as it winds its way between the 300-foot high cash crops. Together with the Beatrice windfield off the east coast of Caithness they are big business for their owners, and to a lesser extent for the people who live around them.
The wind farms are all privately owned, one in a deal with Tesco to make their stores carbon neutral. The wide open moorland of Caithness is an attractive prospect to the wind investor, who more often than not will have to negotiate with a single landowner rather than a community. Selling land for turbines can be profitable, but even more lucrative in the long term is the renewable rentier economy. Unlike power stations, wind turbines have a design life of just a few decades. Once they are life expired they need to be taken down or replaced with new models.
From the open rolling hills of what has come to be known as the Flow Country, Magnus Davidson points to the remnants of human habitation that pockmark the landscape. Davidson is a Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands and a rural development obsessive.
“Over there, that’s an old schoolhouse” he says, pointing at a ruined one room building in the middle of the shallow valley. The area of nominal wilderness that stretches from Caithness back into Sutherland is hot property due to its ability to store carbon in its peatlands, critical to the Scottish Government’s statistical gymnastics to achieve a zero carbon economy. The irony of Caithness and Sutherland’s abandoned homes is that the region has a chronic housing shortage. Even far from the central belt, the rentier economy and the strength of the asset class is visible.
As the UN circus rolls into Glasgow for COP 26 the much-vaunted Victorian workshop of the world is trying to recast itself as a global leader again, this time in sustainable clothing. Whatever the problem, Scotland’s creativity has the answer. In this narrative modern Scotland has existed since 1997, its history as a coal and oil giant and its role fossil capitalism scattered to the wind as it is replaced by the good news story of the Scottish renewable powerhouse.
This dream of a nation reborn as a progressive environmental beacon is everywhere in the run up to the COP, and it is notable that it is Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and not Boris Johnson who has been a regular face at environmental round tables in the run up to Glasgow’s time on the world stage.
Scotland’s carbon emissions are just a fraction of the global total – with around 47 million tonnes of C02 a year it sits alongside Hong Kong and Singapore, dwarfed by the global top five of China, the US, Russia, Canada, India and Japan. That three of the top global emitters have Scottish colonial legacies is no coincidence, but as the desperate search for a model of living beyond fossil modernity continues Scotland has tried to cast itself as an example for the rest of the world to follow.
Scotland’s decarbonisation success to date, and the statistics which it clutches like a cue card on the international stage, is built largely on this policy of opening up the country to commercial and large-scale investment. All the Scottish Government has had to do is sign off the planning applications and make it clear the country is open for business. The headline-grabbing cuts to carbon from electricity have meant that elsewhere it has been business as usual with more roads, more sprawl, and government-facilitated private investment.
“When you open this up to the private sector there is very much the risk of exploitation here, as we’ve seen with lots of other Highland resources before, so this needs to be managed well and for communities, but the lack of access to land, the lack of land ownership, means we see a lot of money going to a few landowner”, Magnus laments as he kicks at the peat dust in the shadow of the Bad á Cheò wind turbines. It was once an industrial peat extraction site and the localised summer drought has left the exposed earth to crumble in the wind. However many turbines Scotland can put up, its landscape is increasingly at the mercy of climate change, abnormal weather patterns and the need to adapt to the very real threats they bring. The north of Scotland is an energy powerhouse, but that energy needs to be used for social adaption as well as shareholder value.
Tellingly, the Highlands have been here before. When the government undertook huge hydroelectric projects from the mid 1940s it built a network of publicly owned power stations that turned the Highlands into one huge interconnected power system. The hydro as it came to be known was privatised under the Thatcher energy reforms and mutated into the private energy company SSE, a multinational that its supporters claim, like the Royal Bank of Scotland, puts the country on the map. The Scottish Government recently scrapped an election pledge for its own publicly energy company to break the monopoly of the private market and provide cheap renewables to the population.
The hydro schemes were not uncontroversial, but today they are embedded in the landscape and attract tourists for their chunky modernist outlines and artificial lochs. At Dundreggan on the north side of the Great Glen the dam sits in a gorge off the main road flanked by Scots pines, funelling off water to underground power stations and reducing the natural flow to a picturesque trickle.
Glenmoriston is also home to one of the last relics of the Great Caledonian Forest, made up not just of the Scots Pines that flank the dam but a whole ecosystem of temperate rainforest. The forest reached its high point around seven thousand years ago, but it is the last two thousand years of human activity that have seen it beaten back to its refuges in isolated parts of Scotland. Farming, fuel and ultimately, the clearance of the land for sporting estates.
The Dundreggan estate used to be owned by an Italian business magnate, who in his twilight years reportedly sat on the porch of his hunting lodge and coax deer onto the lawn with feed before shooting them from the comfort of his garden chair. When Trees for Life, the reforesting charity that now runs it, took it over in 2009 it was a bare hillside with a tiny survivor of native forest at one corner. The estate is still only a tiny spec in satellite photos of Scotland’s landscape, surrounded by the washed-out yellows of bare hillside and the deep greens of the pine plantations that sprung up across Scotland after the second world war. The Dundreggan trees are thinly spread dots inching ever outward and upward with the encouragement of the estate workers.
A project which was set up to preserve the native forest has found itself thrust to the forefront of climate action just by pushing for land restoration. Businesses and individuals with a guilty conscience can pay to offset their emissions and come to Glenmoriston to see the results.
“We think that is a good way of increasing the sellability of the rewilding offer and increasing native forest range” Doug Gilbert, the operations manager at Dundreggan says.
“If you plant spruce, it will soak up some carbon but there’s a carbon debt to start with because of the planting process, and then you cut those trees down so it all depends on what happens to that timber at the end of its life, and that might be a hundred years away but you still have to think about it.”
The science is on the side of the reforestation activists. Where large plantations of spruce are planted there are issues with erosion, water quality and flooding. The mixed native forest slowly rebuilds the soil and provides better protection against climate shocks.
“ As the climate starts to swing around and we get more of this weather, native forests with a good mix of species stand the test of time.” says Doug.
Dundreggan will soon be the home Scotland’s first rewilding centre, put up in the vernacular style that has developed in Scotland and which characterises everything from village halls to luxury retreats. The irony is that the centre will not be built from sustainable wood because doing so in Scotland is too expensive. The plantations that make up much of Scotland’s modern forests often produce poor-quality timber, so quality projects need expensive imports.
Rewilding is also a divisive concept. So-called super-rich green lairds with have parachuted in and bought up land with the aim of recreating the landscape as they think it should be. Rewilding on its own is of scant comfort to highlanders suffering from overtourism, housing shortages and a lack of quality jobs.
The Highlands and Islands are the canvas for Scotland’s dreams of a green modern, a fusion of technology and landscape that appeals to the dire need for action and the mythification of the rural alike, yet 50 per cent of Scotland’s population live within ten miles of the M8 motorway corridor. That figure is rising as the central belt sucks on people from around Scotland.
On Glasgow’s southside a landmark housing project to retrofit crumbling tenements as exemplars of low carbon living is underway. An empty housing association block has been completely internally gutted and rebuilt from the bare essentials to make it more energy efficient than the average Scottish newbuild. 107 Niddrie Road is on an unassuming side street in Govanhill, a laboratory in a part of town where property is cheap and owners and tenants are not a problem. The refit of the tenement block is a taste of what is needed and what might be, with complete re-insulation of the walls and roof, heat reclamation systems on baths and showers, and heat exchangers.
The project is due to cost around 250,000 pounds. That burden might well come down slightly at scale, but there are 184,000 tenement flats in Scotland built before 1920, with almost half a million homes of the same vintage nationwide. That figure does not include public buildings, nor does the mixed housing stock built since come into the equation. Scotland has some of the worst housing in Europe, and it continues to build more poor quality homes whilst giving itself a mounting bill to fix the problems of the past. Every look forward is a glance away from the problems of the present. Delegates need only wander over the bridge from the COP venue to see the network of slip roads and crumbling housing that characterise much of urban and suburban Scotland.
At the COP the money is on clear display. SSE, spun off from the highlands hydro, is one of the major sponsors of the event. The Glasgow COP is a cornucopia of technological solutions and supposedly sustainable fixes. Delegates can ride on the UK’s first commercial battery train, British Airways are using lower carbon aviation fuel to ferry visitors in and out of Glasgow airport, and on the ruins of Glasgow’s industrial docklands delegates are treated to a trade show that echoes the limp neo-imperial posturing of the United Kingdom. In the run-up to the conference Alok Sharma, the COP President and former business secretary had urged business to join the race to net zero. The government know full well the importance of mobilising capital to fight climate change, but the question is whether that is capital in the hands of governments or Capital with a big C.
If the world is to meet its emissions reduction targets and peak emissions in the next few years before a swift decline, a mobilisation of technology and finance similar in scale and global scope to the Second World War would be needed by the late 2020s. Every day that passes without that happening makes it harder to achieve, and with it the project of modernity itself. The paradox of the climate crisis is that we must kill the modernity we have built in order to save it.
Back in the far north there is wind in the air, and the weather is closing in.
“This is a place with a history of energy.” says Magnus as the car engine rumbles and the rain begins to spatter the windscreen. “We need to make sure that we don’t repeat what has happened in the past, because the future is there for the taking.”
The dreamscape of the Scottish modern offers tantalising glimpses of what might be. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented, the need undeniable, and the prize invaluable.