Jack Fawcett, Senior Parliamentary Reporter, compares the environmental commitments in the party manifestos. 

Green Thumbs – where the parties stand on environmental issues

From Glencoe to Skye, the Trossachs to the Borders and from Moray to Caithness, Scotland’s landscape is beautiful, and Scots want to keep it that way. Climate change has been a prevalent policy issue since Holyrood formed in 1999, with parties of all political stripes making continued promises in this area. In 2021, the endless guarantee of green jobs, new carbon capture and storage technologies and a renaissance of tree-planting, one would be forgiven for thinking we’ve got it all figured out. But, as with all countries around the world, Scotland needs to take radical action if it is to meet its ambitious net-zero targets. Each party makes the lofty claim to having the greenest thumbs, but who really has the guts to get down in the mud…

SNP set further targets

The SNP has spent its time in power setting ambitious climate goals, targeting net-zero emissions by 2045, five-year before the UK Government’s own targets and a 75% reduction by 2030. Aspirational this may be, but how does the party plan to reach such targets and convince voters they can do so? The SNP’s 2021 manifesto pledges an additional £500m to tackle biodiversity loss, £1.6bn to decarbonise homes, £100m for the Green Jobs Fund, to double the Climate Justice Fund to £24m and to implement the Deposit Return Scheme. Looking ahead, the party points to Scotland’s offshore wind sector as a driving force towards Scotland’s green ambitions and makes further commitments to explore new technologies such as hydrogen across the transport sector and Scotland’s heat networks. Each policy, in its own way, will contribute to the reduction in carbon emissions and the future sustainability of Scotland. The manifesto is, however, broad, and the pledges made don’t chart a clear enough path as to how they would help Scotland reach net-zero.

Greens have big ambitions

The Greens’ manifesto, Our Common Future, sets out the most radical (and expensive) vision for a greener, more sustainable Scotland. The party’s £895m pledge for a new countryside investment plan to develop national parks and to create 50,000 hectares of publicly owned woodland, is the most ambitious commitment to conservation of the 2021 campaign. A £2.5bn commitment for home investment, a £3.2bn public transport plan and a £1.5bn infrastructure investment plan seek to capitalise on the promise of green jobs across construction and environmental protection. Interestingly, carbon capture and storage technology – seen by many as the “holy grail” for meeting net-zero targets – is rejected by the party in line with organisations such as Friends of the Earth. Instead, the party commits to oppose public investment in such technologies due to cost, lack of trialling and association with increased oil recovery. Despite lofty ambitions, the Greens’ influence over policy in the last session remained modest, outside of some budget wins. Public discourse continues to favour more radical action to face the climate emergency head-on, but will the public be willing to pay up for their future?

Labour focus on infrastructure

Labour’s National Recovery Plan focuses on the recovery from COVID-19 above all else, and its environmental promises reflect this. An ambitious area of its proposals is a pledge to build 200,000 zero-carbon social homes by 2030 while carrying out a large-scale retrofitting scheme for existing homes. In addition, the party has pledged to provide interest-free loans to support the purchase of electric vehicles, increase active travel spending to 10% of the overall transport budget and to fully electrify Scotland’s railways within 15-years. Focused less on conservation and more on modernising Scotland’s infrastructure and housing stock, Labour is banking on voters wanting a forward-looking recovery, but this tactic could play poorly outside urban centres.

Conservatives pitch for rural votes

Scottish Conservatives have not shied away from flashing their green credentials in recent years, with Douglas Ross suggesting Scotland’s environment had “suffered from 14-years of SNP neglect”. Despite this, the party’s 2021 manifesto doesn’t have a lot to say on the matter beyond some  minimal proposals to protect Scottish wildlife, build new national parks and plant 18,000 hectares of new trees annually by 2024-25. Increased penalties for rural crime, including livestock worrying and fly-tipping are welcome, particularly in light of the evidence heard ahead of Emma Harper’s Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill passing in March. Indeed, the Conservatives are targeting rural voters directly with their manifesto, and new commitments to support agriculture through £10m in annual funding for R&D will play well in communities reorientating themselves following Brexit and in response to the pandemic. Despite this, the policies proposed are modest, emphasising conservation over sectoral transformation when both are sorely needed.

Liberals split the difference

As is often the case, the Liberal Democrats lie somewhere between Labour and the Conservatives, splitting the difference between promises for rural voters and an emphasis on housing and reducing inequalities. The party’s manifesto emphasises the need to retrofit existing homes, pledging to move one-million homes to zero-emission heating systems by 2030 and to continue to invest in low carbon heat networks and cutting fuel poverty. The Liberal Democrats also commit to restoring Scotland’s peatlands and develop new national parks and woodlands. To convince voters, the party touts its role in putting the 75% reduction by 2030 into Scots law, suggesting it has the ambition to follow through on its targets. A win for the Liberal Democrats is likely slim but these pledges will likely consolidate existing support and could possibly peel away some voters concerned with costs vs. ambition.

Who will implement their policies?

Polls show consistently high support for the SNP and, whether or not a pro-independence majority comes into power after the election, it is likely their manifesto will get to shine. The party has come under continued scrutiny over recent years due to its failure to meet carbon reduction targets and lack of detail on the delivery of its ambitious Climate Change Plan update. With the Greens projected to win up to 11 seats next week, their influence over environmental policy might increase, giving some well-needed checks on the SNP’s targets and a push for bolder action. However, with only the Greens highlighting how their plans would be paid for in full through a wealth tax, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggesting the SNP, Labour and Conservative manifestos lack “realism”, one could be forgiven for remaining sceptical as to whether Scotland can indeed reach net-zero by 2045. The question, in the end, is will voters be willing to fork out for their futures, and will the independence debate overshadow the threat of climate crisis.