ANALYSIS: How changes at Holyrood will shape Parliament’s climate agenda

Anyone who has endured the shadow of redundancy hanging over them with only a cruel glimmer of hope they may somehow be spared will know full well the crushing, debilitating void that follows when they are finally shown the door.

Imagine then how that bewilderment must be amplified as an MSP. Day after day in the public eye, quite literally helping to run the country with the power to change lives, being rewarded with a very liveable salary and perks.

Then, nothing. Only platitudes and a pension.

Politicians, we often forget, are humans too with all the emotions, failings or vulnerabilities of others. The pedestals they stand upon may elevate them in our conscious or make them a target of collective ire.

It doesn’t make them immune to change.

It is a shift that will continue to impact those who care about the climate agenda profoundly as the new session of the Scottish Parliament resumes with the swearing in of its sixth intake on Thursday, May 13.

Take Claudia Beamish, Scottish Labour’s now former MSP for South Scotland (Regional) having held the role since 2011 until May this year.

Part of the Scottish Labour co-operative movement and active campaigner on equal opportunities, she has been her party’s voice on environment, climate change and land reform since 2016.

Her committee memberships included those dealing with the issues above. Add to this she was also the deputy party spokesperson for the upcoming COP26.

Very much a friend of the environmental lobby, her counsel, drive and experience is just one to be lost to Holyrood.

Across the aisle and even the governing SNP has conceded key players from the environment conversation.

Roseanna Cunningham, their former MSP for Perthshire South and Kinross-shire (full disclosure, making her my former representative) retired from her role at the end of the last session.

A long career in politics behind her already, she was charged with being Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform since 2016.

As such she can be recognised as both the politician who helped set out Scotland’s net-zero targets and climate change plans, but she will also be demonised by those who consider that she did not go far enough.

With COP26 in Glasgow now just months away, it makes her successor’s role one that will face considerable scrutiny not least with regards to pace of delivery.

With 64 MSPs elected, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is not short of options.

The tough call might be whether she consider moving Kate Forbes from her position as Finance Secretary to the climate brief or potentially elsewhere.

Forbes, who previously worked as an accountant with Barclays for two years, acquitted herself well having been parachuted in suddenly to replace shamed Derek Mackay who resigned on the day he was due to deliver their Budget in January this year.

Her new gravitas has seen her hailed as a potential future successor to Sturgeon herself but some fear being trapped by numbers and budgets may do her few favours in terms of her personal profile is she stays there too long.

She has good environmental credentials of her own, having brought a real focus to the Final Straw campaign to ban plastic straws and understanding how her current brief on finance can play its part in targeting carbon net zero.   

Leading the Scottish Government’s presence through COP26 could benefit her profile and bring a renewed vigour to the portfolio too.

Parliament will also be without another influential figure in the climate agenda after Paul Wheelhouse failed to win a seat in the new session.

Elected back in 2011, he became Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands in 2018 as Scotland’s renewable energy sector in particular began to gather pace.

The peculiarities of the Regional List system meant as the SNP dominated in constituencies they were unable to pick up enough votes elsewhere and he was edged out, something that had weighed on campaigners as a likely scenario for some time.

Such was his influence both heads of Scottish Renewables and Oil & Gas UK were generous in their praise for the outgoing minister hailing his “deep understanding” of the issues they face in a world wrestling with the climate challenge.

Whoever replaces him now does so at a pivotal time.

There is much growing pressure on Scottish and UK Governments to ban new exploration in the North Sea as a first sign of a real commitment to turning off the taps and accelerating efforts to meet the 2045 and 2050 net zero targets respectively.

It has been hinted that a temporary pause on exploration licences followed by a 2040 ban is already being considered by Downing Street. Environmental campaigners say that is too late, those against suggest 270,000 related jobs could be impacted.

Regardless, UK Ministers agreed in March to allow drilling to continue as long as operations passed what they terms “climate compatibility” test. Effectively if such exploration would impact the UK climate goals, licenses would not be granted.

At the same time Crown Estate Scotland are due to release details of its ScotWind leasing applications seabeds around Scotland as companies look to a renewables future.

That is expected to be followed by major announcements with regards to investment and direction for the industry, including pioneering new ventures.

BP shocked the industry by paying handsomely for a similar auction in England and Wales.

Among those with an interest in this portfolio and the climate brief in particular will be the Scottish Greens who bring a record eight MSPs to Holyrood and are the only party to have more women MSPs than men.

That includes new Lothians MSP and co-leader Lorna Slater, an electro-mechanical engineer working as an engineering project manager for Orbital Marine Power meaning her understanding of the industry compared to fellow MSPs may be second to none.

Her election drew praise from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who tweeted how she was “genuinely pleased to see @lornaslater elected to @ScotParl”.

The Scottish Greens have already made it clear they want to see Scotland source at least 70% of the onshore wind supply chain domestically, investment in marine renewables and financial support for innovation and to support early stage tidal turbines.

Their greater presence and influence could potentially be what makes this the most climate friendly session of Parliament to be seen in Scotland, especially if the new look government itself decides to intensify and accelerate its own climate action.

Such collaboration could be potent.

Patrick Harvie, Mark Ruskell, Ross Greer and Alison Johnstone are now veterans at negotiating their case across in negotiations with Scottish Ministers, free travel for under 21 year old an example of their people and planet politics.

The fact that former co-convenor Maggie Chapman was elected in the Lion’s den North East region – oil and gas heartland – suggests a story of its own but will not be overlooked by decision makers considering their options.

Arianne Burgess too, the new MSP for Highlands and Islands, finds herself representing an area leading in onshore wind power and peatland restoration while Gillian Mackay in Central finds herself with Liberty Steel – who supply renewable projects – on her patch.

Not among them, of course, is former MSP Andy Wightman.

Having left the party before the election he failed in his bid to win a seat as an independent voice in the Highlands. Whether he looks again under a land reform banner remains to be seen but he is unlikely to be short of offers meantime.

Another MSP’s re-election of note to consider in the context of climate is Fergus Ewing, MSP for Inverness and Nairn since 1999.

He has been Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism since 2016 which includes forestry and agriculture and crofting among other responsibilities including food and drink and tourism itself.

There are some who wonder if this brief needs to be narrowed in the wake of the global pandemic, with tourism more suited to an arts and economy brief with forestry and agriculture a natural bedfellow for the climate agenda.

However the next session shakes down, it should be clear that with the pandemic recovery, COP26, carbon net zero targets to meet and a just transition for the oil and gas industry to oversee, this can be the most climate focused Scottish Parliament to make history.

And it has to be.

Main Image Credit: Michaela Wenzler 

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