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The Green in the White Paper

What does the Independence White Paper tell us about how the environment would be protected in an independent Scotland? In one sense, not very much. The SNP’s document is a manifesto for a future election to run a state that does not yet exist. A lot of the contents is old news, and of what is new we can rightfully question the SNP’s resolve to deliver it.

However this document does bring together, for the first time, a complete vision of what the Scottish Government would do with the powers afforded to it by independence: what it would change, and what it would not.

Naturally the document focuses on areas of policy which are currently reserved, that is to say they are not currently within the power of the Scottish Government. This had led some environmentalists, who note the devolved nature of environmental regulation, transport policy and climate change legislation, to consider the referendum debate largely irrelevant. The White Paper shows this false. In fact sustainability is at the heart of the debate on Scotland’s future and this document shows us how.

Oil

The White Paper is screaming about oil, to be specific offshore oil and gas. This is neither novel or surprising given that including oil and gas revenue from Scotland’s GDP adds £5,853 per person and according to the White Paper “in excess of 90 per cent” of UK oil and gas revenues derive from Scottish waters (p.31).

The Scottish Government makes no case for reining in the industry offering “no plans to increase the overall tax burden on the oil industry” (p.18). Instead it says its tax regime will “support and incentivise production” and offer future reforms “that encourage exploration and help maximise economic recovery rates” (p.303).

An example is later given of a Norwegian policy to “reimburse the tax value of exploration costs for companies not in a tax-paying position” (p.304).

The purpose of this fresh production and exploration drive? The White Paper says it will raise revenue for a sovereign wealth fund which is invested in when prices are high, cushioning the blow of dwindling reserves and price volatility.

The document asks “is continued oil and gas production consistent with Scotland’s commitments on climate change?” “Yes.” it says. Science disagrees. On first principals we can say that as the world has five times more fossil-fuels than we can afford to burn and therefore any additional extraction is incompatible with halting global climate change. As Stuart Rodger points out in the Herald we must also wake up to Scotland’s numbers: “if 12 billion barrels of North Sea oil were to be burned this would emit 5.2 billion tonnes of CO2, dwarfing domestic efforts [to cut CO2]”. In other words, Scotland’s climate change legislation is pretty meaningless when you add in the impact of our oil.

The Scottish Government says it wants to “steward our oil and gas assets for the benefit of the nation, as well as supporting the growth of [the] industry” (p.301). It also wants to be a world leader on climate change. The problem with this approach is that sustainability and stewardship, require a sovereign wealth fund and a gradual winding down of the industry. Yet these tasks are directly at odds with the policies which seek to maximise output and create a new drive for exploration.

There is no other mention of other kinds of energy extraction in the body of the document. The word “coal” is not mentioned and onshore oil and gas is only discussed in the appendices.

What the document does say of onshore gas and fracking simply reinforces the Scottish Government current policy position: it is neither welcomed or rejected, and the updated planning policy (which includes proposed “buffer zones”) is referenced (p.513-514). Anti-extreme energy campaigners fighting new extraction from coal bed methane and fracking may be reassured that at least the Scottish Government hasn’t attempted to sideline the issue.

Electricity generation

Renewable generation of electricity, a headline SNP policy for some years, gets a lot of air time in the White Paper.

The document reaffirms the target of 100 per cent of electricity demand to be met by renewables by 2020, and a “2030 electricity decarbonisation target to achieve a carbon intensity of 50g CO2/kWh of electricity generation in Scotland.” (p.518) The caveat here of course being that you can meet domestic demand with renewables without turning off your coal-fired power stations: you just sell the high-carbon electricity to England. This is the SNP’s plan and they have gone some way to achieving it under their current devolution settlement.

The same big energy companies that are hoovering up our rising domestic bills are also the primary beneficiaries of this policy, something that local anti-wind farm campaigners have not been slow to pick up on.

As a response the Scottish Government makes its case that it is supporting community ownership by helping them to acquire assets and land (p.290) and by “developing new models of community ownership” for energy generation” (p.295).

Unfortunately any detail is lacking. Wind and tidal get a mention (p.57) but solar power, touted as an excellent solution for water heating in Scotland, appears nowhere, and district heating is also not discussed.

What of our coal and nuclear stations?

The White Paper reminds us that the “Scottish Government is opposed to the building of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland and will phase out existing stations in Scotland over time” (p.514).

As for coal and gas: “it is likely there will be a need to maintain and build new power stations run on traditional fossil fuels. The scheduled closure of existing power plants, and the construction of a minimum of 2.5 GW of new or replacement efficient fossil fuel electricity generation plants progressively fitted with carbon capture and storage , will satisfy security of supply concerns and, together with renewable energy, deliver large amounts of electricity exports” (p.515-516). Good news for the energy industry. Not so great for our environment.

Problems associated with this approach are apologised for with a proposal to roll out “carbon capture and storage” (CCS). Although they state that “only independence provides Scotland with the autonomy to make the necessary strategic investments that will support the growth of CCS” (p.302) we should be sceptical, since CCS trials have failed in Scotland in very recent memory and many criticisms of the technology remain unanswered regarding emissions from coal mining and CO2 storage.

Fuel poverty and energy efficiency

Heating and electric supply is couched in terms of keeping prices down in the document, which is not surprising given the current political climate and rising domestic bills.

The document outlines an intention to eradicate fuel poverty although the only measures proposed is that currently being discussed at Westminster to fund green levies such as the Energy Company Obligation and Warm Homes Discount from central government funds (p.18 , p.298). Other programmes such as the much criticised “Green Deal” are to be supported, as is the Renewable Heat Incentive (p.519).

There is little ambition shown about how the Scottish Government would use its new powers to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.

Climate change targets

Where does all of this leave Scotland’s climate change targets? The Scottish Government is confident that “the world-leading climate change legislation”, with its target of a 42% reduction by 2020, “demonstrates Scotland’s progressive approach to the protection of the environment” and “ground-breaking work championing Climate Justice, including setting up the world’s first Climate Justice Fund” (p.291) which will allow it to “champion tackling climate change in international forums including the UN and the EU” (p.17).

There is a strong argument that an independent Scotland would have a louder voice on the world stage but this may be more important than is immediately apparent. A returning delegate from last week’s disastrous UN climate talks in Warsaw told me that Climate Minister Paul Wheelhouse’s attempts to showcase Scotland’s efforts were significantly hampered by the UK Government delegation who resisted giving the Scottish Government air time.

Transport

Reducing the price of air travel features throughout the White Paper. The policy, to “reduce APD [air passenger duty] by 50 per cent in the first term of the independent parliament, with a view to abolishing it when public finances allow” (p.98), is designed to increase tourism and international trade. The document complains that “APD in the UK is now the highest tax of its type anywhere in the world” (p.98) and that cutting it will allow more direct routes from Scottish airports (p.119).

The Government fails to mention the role of APD tax in reducing carbon emissions. This is ironic given the Scottish Government’s progressive approach in including aviation emissions in its aforementioned “ground-breaking” carbon targets.

For rail travel, the document is open minded. Stating opportunities for “ different ownership models for the rail network” (p.25) including “public-supported and not-for-profit models” (p.127). Possibilities for renationalisation should be welcomed by campaigners seeking to see private car use replaced by the use of public transport.

There is also some talk of high speed rail in Scotland, although nothing in the way of a specific proposal, other than re-emphasising the Scottish Governments frustration that High Speed 2 is not planned to reach Scottish cities (p.128).

For road travel no fuel duty change is proposed but the document does suggests introducing a “Fuel Duty Regulator” to stabilise petrol prices, something which by itself would be expected to increase car use (p.129).

Currently devolved elements such as road building and so called “active travel” (cycling and walking) are not covered in the document, which is perhaps surprising given the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for the former and enthusiasm for talking about the later. There is also no discussion of the reform of local public transport.

Despite a planned increase in air travel the document is optimistic that carbon cuts can be achieved with rail electrification, electric vehicles, expansion of renewable energy generation, and smart grid technology “achiev[ing] the almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050” (p.127). This target has been singled out as an exciting new pro-environmental policy, but it should be noted that although it sounds ambitious it is in fact necessitated by Scotland’s pre-existing 80%+ carbon cut target for 2050.

Industry and business

The Scottish Government wants to cut tax and regulation on business, outlining “a clear timetable for reducing corporation tax by up to three percentage points” (p.06) and a simplified tax system “to reduce compliance costs” (p.08). There is also talk of “expanding our manufacturing base” (p.98).

We shouldn’t be under any illusions about the impact of current Scottish consumption, which currently exports most of our environmental impact. In this light an increase in manufacturing could contribute to a more sustainable economy: but we should take a sceptical view of the ability of already devolved Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to control the impact of any new manufacturing boom, especially if the invitation to foreign investment is to come to a low tax and low regulation Scotland.

Nuclear weapons

“We would make early agreement on the speediest safe removal of nuclear weapons a priority.” (p.14)

The White Paper proudly references at almost all opportunities the pledge to remove Trident from Scotland post-independence. This is great news not as a sanctimonious stance but because, according to very convincing research by CND, there is a very high chance this force the UK to unilaterally disarm.

However critical questions remain over the SNP’s dedication to this cause including an apparent “softening” of their stance regarding admitting ships carrying nuclear weapons into Scottish territorial waters (this is excellently reviewed by Nicholas Watt and Severin Carrell in today’s Guardian.

Sea life

Wildlife protection is currently devolved, but fisheries negotiation, which takes place at an EU level, is not. The document pledges to “keep the Scottish quota in Scotland” (p.17) and to “safeguard the future of Scotland’s fishing communities and seafood sectors” by preventing any reduction in quotas (p.282).

This approach may go down well in fishing communities but is considerably at odds with the ecological reality of ailing fish stocks and devastated marine life in Scotland’s waters.

Harmonisation

As well as making commitments on specific policy areas the White Paper has a number of provisions for improving policy harmonisation and governance.

Most conspicuous is a pledge to “seek to enshrine environmental protection in the constitution” (p.293) which could provide a myriad of opportunities for campaigners, for example those seeking to enforce the Aarhus Convention in Scotland to give communities better access to environmental justice, sorely lacking in the infamous Trump vs. Menie saga.

Finally the International Development chapter (p.231) outlines a “Do No Harm” policy which will “ensure that other Scottish Government policies do no harm to developing countries, do not undermine international development aims and ideally contribute to international development success”. Such a rigorous approach, if taken seriously, would open doors for people to challenge Government activity which promotes unsustainable Scottish industry abroad; the impact of Government-owned assets and investments (e.g. RBS); and would provide an additional policy lever for action on climate change.

Verdict

The White Paper’s greatest value is not to answer all possible questions: the outcome of any election is uncertain and a referendum is no different. What it does do is highlight the kinds of choices open to Scots which are currently out of their reach reserved by Westminster.

It also tells us the SNP’s priorities. For example we should infer something from the fact that the phrase “sustainable economic growth” appears 15 times in the document. In it’s “Referendum Challenge” the umbrella body of Scotland’s environmental organisations told the Yes and No campaigns it’s first priority for securing Scotland’s future was to ensure “we measure the success of our society intelligently”. The White Paper is clearly far off this. Economic growth, foreign direct investment and North Sea oil run through the whole document.

On the other hand their anti-nuclear intentions, albeit incomplete, alongside their renewables investment drive and new focuses on policy coherence are to be welcomed.

Aside from specific policy commitments the most encouraging thing about this document is the evidence, peppered throughout, of the impact on the document of democratic campaigning. Already on OurKingdom we have heard about Jubilee Scotland‘s impact on the document. We can also see the stamp of extreme energy campaigners not to mention the constant re-emphasis of the 42% carbon cut target, the great success of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition. Many things which we might feel are lacking, such as reining in of North Sea oil, are simply not things civil society has been talking about.

Ultimately the credibility of this White Paper would be best judged if we had anything to compare it to. Of course we will not receive manifestos for governing an independent Scotland from Labour until after a Yes vote, but what is the Better Together plan for environmental protection? So far the only other substantial contribution to the discussion has come from the Scottish Greens.

In both its failings and its strength the White Paper shows where the battlegrounds would be for making an independent Scotland a sustainable country. There are still many challenges to the Yes campaign to see the SNP meet their ambitions for a greener Scotland. The question is now to discover if a continuing United Kingdom can respond to these same challenges and show a better path for a green society in these islands.

This post was a commission for Open Democracy.

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Is Britain becoming Gasland?

fracking_bannerIt’s not every day that you see images of farmland turned to wasteland, normally healthy people describing their unnatural diseases, and the killer: people’s tap water catching on fire.

Welcome to Gasland, Josh Fox’s excellent 2010 flick about hydraulic gas fracturing, or “fracking”, in the US which has picked up laurels from numerous festivals not to mention being nominated for the Academy Award. Yet although cinemas showings have met critical acclaim, like most activist-documentaries the film’s enduring appeal is its ability to shock, compelling the viewer to organise the next screening in scratch living room viewings or student union events.

The film gives us a dystopian picture of a world where energy supply takes complete precedence over almost ever other human need. Of course, this is isn’t an image of the future, it’s the world we live in today, and that’s why in February People & Planet voted overwhelmingly to start campaigning on fracking and other methods of unconventional fossil fuel extraction.

The resource under the spotlight is natural gas and with conventional supplies dwindling, the price of gas riding historically high, and plenty of gas-fired power stations to feed, the UK Government is keen to see new sources developed. Gas companies are after two unconventional forms in Britain: shale gas and coal-bed methane. Reservoirs are trapped in seams of rock, and by pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into the seam at explosive pressures the gas can be tapped – this is fracking, and although it is not always used, when it has been there are many records of natural gas and fracking chemicals polluting ground and surface-water and large-scale earth tremors.

British politicians have sought to reassure us that the problems shown in Gasland are a result of poor regulation: an American problem. But research as to the true local impacts in the is not yet conclusive giving campaigners little to be confident about. The global impact though, it clear: a 2011 report by the respected Tyndall Centre condemned exploitation of these resources as being incompatible with cutting carbon emissions.

Fracking and unconventional gas is not the fight for our movement, but the scale and pace of this risky technology’s development is symptomatic of the state of our world in the early 21st century: a society desperate to cling on to failing systems, at almost any cost. If we’re to move towards a greener society, we must stop feeding our addiction to fossil fuels.

This article was written as a contribution to the People & Planet magazine ‘The Activist, Winter 2012 edition.

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Durban, and how we stopped climate change

Panel at COP 17
photo courtesy of UNFCCC

Durban could yet be a chapter in the story of how we stopped climate change

If a successful campaign needs a story, then since 2009 the global climate movement has been in deep trouble.

We certainly started off with a great story. I love to tell it to people all the time. Gather round kids, I say to fresh-faced activists and strangers in pubs, listen up – here’s how we changed the world. In the early noughties the UK and Scottish Governments were somewhat interested in climate change, but they were pretty convinced that we didn’t need new legislation to tackle it. “Leave it to me”, said Tony Blair, “the climate is safe as long as we’re in charge”. We didn’t agree, and after a monumental protest, lobby, and direct action campaign the Climate Change Change Act and Climate Change (Scotland) Act were passed with cross-party support in both legislatures. Onwards and upwards. Gordon Brown then created a cabinet level position for Climate Change, a move which remains somewhat unique internationally. With our climate bills in hand, the then minister for Energy & Climate Change Ed Milliband, went to the UN Climate Change Summit at Copenhagen. We’d set the course for the UK, and now we were going to lead the world!

That’s where I tail off a bit. Time for another drink. Because we don’t have a story for what happened next. We made our ministers be bold: they had to be, because if the world didn’t join us in the fight against climate change, then UK industry would have been at a disadvantage. So since 2009 British delegations to UN climate negotiations have tugged and dragged and hauled the efforts of the rest of the world along, but apparently to little avail: what have we ended up with? What do we have to show for our leadership?

In 2009 a maelstrom of campaigning was whirling towards Copenhagen. We put all our hopes in a legally biding agreement, and the climate movement was left bewildered when it failed. NGOs pulled their money out of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, so crucial to getting our climate legislation in place, and as a weathervane for the movement as a whole, activist-film maker Franny Armstrong redirected her organisation’s considerable efforts from political action to behaviour change with the 10:10 campaign. Friends of mine who were at Copenhagen said its failure made them reconsider their efforts: the UN process was always doomed to failure, they said, and we should have put our efforts into other things. It was in this haze that the transition movement took centre stage. Franny was right, they said: we need local-scale change first.

I do not agree with this version of the story. It says that Copenhagen taught us that we were wrong to bother with the UN. That international cooperation was never going to work, and that taking control locally is more effective. This is false. If it was true, we didn’t need a failure at Copenhagen to make us see it. There are greens who’ve been doing this work on the ground for decades. It has never led to successes on the scale of the climate change acts, or a global deal at the UN, and it won’t in the future either, without being linked to wider scale action. Copenhagen hurt because we needed it to succeed, not because we were wrong to focus on it in the first place.

At the talks in Durban last week, delegates pushed exhaustion to new heights to agree a loosely worded set of agreements:

  • The “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”: an agreement that all UN members will sign a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” in 2015 that will begin cutting emissions in 2020.
  • An extension of the Kyoto protocol, due to expire next year, to 2020, with those countries that are still signatories (this includes the EU, Australia, Japan, Russia, and not many others of significance) making new legally binding carbon cut commitments in this time.
  • A new adaptation fund worth $100 billion a year from 2010.
  • Some other small agreements, listed here (For more discussion of the outcomes of the talks, try Richard Black on the BBC, the Economist, and this guy. It may well be a symptom of our lack of focus that the BBC and the Guardian only had three journalists writing from the conference at its conclusion. In a world of 24-hour news, Durban was given a level of attention akin to a community fete. Alas.)

Clearly these agreements are entirely insufficient to deal with the problem at hand. But when questioning our efforts we must ask: how would things have been different if we hadn’t made the UK pro-active in these talks? Would anything have been agreed at all in 2009? With no previous agreement that we needed to keep warming to under 1.5oC or 2oC, we would have had yet another obstacle to climb over at Durban, and perhaps the wording would have been weaker, the numbers just too loose.

At the very least, there is now a crack of light through the door: we need to claw it open with everything we’ve got. By pushing coordinated Government-level action in the UK we can keep pressure on the UK, and the UK in the EU, to get other countries to step up. To ensure other countries stay with the Kyoto protocol; to get Governments to up their commitments in the Copenhagen Accord; and to make sure that when everyone is tired beyond humour, the UK Minister for Climate Change is still there, nagging, disputing, and refusing to give up.

This does not mean giving up on local action – but it does mean putting it in context. If we’re creating local food networks, we should be asking our leaders to stop subsidising big supermarkets. If we’re fitting insulation in people’s homes we should be getting the government to pay for it. If we’re asking people to take the train rather than fly, we should be telling Government how many more would do if they could afford to. If we want to rebuild our entire towns and cities to make them sustainable, then we should be sharing this struggle with our decision makers, and asking them why they’re not making it easier. In the fight against climate change there never was a place for isolated change, and we mustn’t allow our frustration with the pace of international agreements to convince us of otherwise.

There is still a chance that in 10 years time, I’ll be able to drunkenly tell a new generation of plucky activists and random strangers the full story. That we passed a climate change act, that we took local action, and that we used both to keep our leaders totally sure that there were a lot of people waiting to vote them out if they slipped up. In doing so, the UK led the EU and the world, helped sign into international law agreements which safe-guarded our climate. It’s an unlikely tale perhaps: but as of last weekend, it’s not impossible – and just like at Copenhagen, we don’t have any other option – so we better try our damndest.

——-

For another explanation of why we need internationally coordinated action on climate change, read the post below:

The world’s scariest news? Methane bubbles from the arctic ocean

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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Machiavelli: power, transition and institutional change

In 1513 Machiavelli provided a seminal analysis of the flow of power in Europe. The ideas defined in “The Prince” have inspired political thinkers ever since. At the time his acute, perhaps cynical, understanding of power, made him notorious, and his works were added to the Vatican’s list of banned literature. Today his name has become a byword for manipulating, perhaps evil, genius.

Yet his ideas may help you with local grass roots campaign strategy.

In Chapter IV of The Prince we are told about the fates of the Kingdom of France, and the Turkish empire. France is a feudal country, led by a king, but also by noblemen who have their own authority. The king has some lands he controls directly, but the majority of the country is owned, taxed, and defended by his nobles. These lands even pass in and out of the nation as allegiance with the king ebbs and flows. So while France is described as one country, the nobles in fact hold much of the characteristics of a king and power is highly decentralised.

Turkey is very different. Having seen a process of total centralisation, all land is controlled and taxed by the emperor. There is one military force, and although power is administered by many, it is done so on behalf of their despotic leader. There are no feudal lords to stand up to the despot, and a single bureaucracy and national identity provide a stronger sense of cultural and political unity.

Machiavelli tells us that France is easy to invade. Small, less powerful lordships are easily defeated and with them a part of the country falls. Alternatively, the favour of local lords can be bought.

Turkey is very much more difficult to invade. A centralised army is an effective defence, and there are no significant powers other than the despot with whom one can buy favour.

However, France is a lesser prize: if you fight or bribe your way through France and succeed the king, you do not hold power easily. Local lords must be kept happy and regions may easily fall under the sway of neighbouring powers.

On the other hand, if the emperor of Turkey is toppled, his power can be held. A centralised state provides the same power that made it so difficult to invade.

Between the Springs of 2009 and 11 I spent two years working for Transition Edinburgh University, a community group striving to, through behaviour change and campaigning, make Edinburgh sustainable.

The University of Edinburgh is France in 1513. Colleges, departments and faculties are independent and proud. They have considerable control over their own spending, staffing, use of space, and policy. Many have a strong sense of identity, particularly those which have been more recently incorporated into the University, such as Moray House, who rarely use the name of their parent.

Queen Margaret University is Turkey in 1513. Power flows from the central management and departmental independence is minimal. Budgets and policy are decided by the core and the sense of identity is with the University, not departments.

Hence, when I visited QMU’s Sustainability Committee as a guest, I was knocked back by the speed and ease at which they were able to affect changes within the university. There were no departments to convince, no toes to tread on: policy agreed here was policy everywhere.

Back in Edinburgh, we spent years trying to effect such changes. Policy may be agreed centrally, but it had little effect unless colleges and departments were convinced of the benefits of implementing it. We had to talk to many staff, at many offices and campuses, to make changes.

As such, I often found myself wishing we could have it like QMU – like Turkey. Sometimes it might be harder to convince those in power, but once we had, the job would be done.

But perhaps, this is where Machiavelli got it wrong.

Through might you may have taken power in Turkey, but power without consent does not endure. Lasting governments are connected to the people, and here the Turkish empire fell short. Local nobles force you to do what you should regardless: build authority with a wide base.

In the same way, social change is poorly achieved by a centralised power base. The need to go department by department at Edinburgh University required us to set in motion a much wider and more significant cultural change in our community. We need structural changes put in place by a central power, but they will not affect the true lasting change we seek without a contact with the community. We need people to change the way they think, and that is not done by a passing decrees, but by holding discussion.

You may spot these pattens in the institutions you are trying to change – businesses, local councils, national Governments. Understand the distribution of power and you will be close to affecting policy and physical changes. But beware – there are no short-cuts to changing hearts and minds.

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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What the environment needs is sustainability

What the environment needs is sustainability – our current governments seem incapable of delivering it

This week, some talented researchers and policy professionals packed up their desks, and left Osborne House in Edinburgh, marking the end of the Sustainable Development Commission Scotland. No more assessments on the Government’s progress on sustainability. No more independent policy recommendations. No more scrutiny.

(now former) SCD staff on budget day – photo, Ruth Bush

An automated email message told me if I had a query I should get in contact with the Scottish Government directly.

It’s requires quite a leap of the imagination to think that poor sod civil servant #56 in the Government is going to be able to self-audit their own progress and that of their bosses, when they’re having their own budgets cut as it is.

At the other end of the scale, community workers at Climate Challenge Funded projects which weren’t given continued funding (including PIPER, Portobello Transition Town, Aberdeen Students Association, and my own project, Transition Edinburgh University) were packing up too. We will set up forwarding emails and do our best, but the professionals won’t be there. They’re job hunting, and getting ready to join the dole queue too.

In 2010, the Scottish Government announced they would replenish the Climate Challenge Fund – for one additional year. My project didn’t even get that. Sustainable development doesn’t happen in such short bursts.

How can our Governments make commitments to cut carbon on time-spans of half-centuries, and at the same time put projects in place which don’t even last a few years?

This is not what sustainable development was meant to look like. It’s short-term thinking, simplistic application of (neoclassical) economic theory. Building a sustainable society: one whose economy doesn’t depend on boom and bust, whose environment is clean, and whose people are happy and healthy, is just about the best thing a government could ever do. They won’t do it like this.

Dear Scottish Parliament, the carbon targets are great guys – tell me how you’re going to deliver them.

It’s election time, and I want some answers.

For more about the SDC axe, read this from Left Foot Forward.

____________

As of writing, the latest YouGov Poll was putting the Scottish Greens on 6%, 2pts up from their 2007 result of 4%.

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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France v Mexico: 600,000 pesos is a lot for a pastry shop

who-should-i-cheer-for

In 1838 in a period of unrest during the fledgling years of the Mexican Republic, a French pastry chef living in Mexico City had his shop destroyed by looting soldiers. Receiving no sympathy from the Mexican Government, he turned to his native France for assistance. Paris responded by demanding 600,000 Pesos from Mexico in compensation – a ludicous amount for a pastry shop – but along with claims of unpaid debts, a good excuse to start a war. That they did and with 30,000 troops in tow, France had its money within the year.

24 years later, the French returned to the shores of Mexico asking for more money and with designs on empire building. The outnumbered Mexican republicans scored a famous victory at the Battle of Puebla on the 5th of May 1862, now celebrated every year as Cinco de Mayo. The republic went on to lose control of the country, regaining it only after three years, with assistance from their northern neigbour, the United States, and a decline of French interest in the teritory.

Intervention in the affairs of a nation dressed up as “settling unpaid debts” was a popular pastime of the French republics and monarchies in the colonial era. Upon Haiti’s independence, the former occupier demanded payments to the French to compensate for lost revenues and slaves which were now part of an independent Haiti.

These are dark tales of a past age where European powers sailed the world, stuck flags on islands, grabbed what they wanted, and left what remained in tatters. Much of this age is mercifully over. Yet the practice of using national debt as an excuse for intervention is not.

Mexico is a poor country, with annual income per person at £6,988. It borrows money from rich countries to help lift its people out of poverty.

France is a rich country, with annual incoming per person at £19,750. It lends money to countries like Mexico both independently and through international organisations like the World Bank.

When poor countries can’t afford to service their borrowings anymore, often because of rising interest rates, rich countries like France, just as in 1862, don’t demand just their money back. Whilst before western lenders would turn up with a flotilla of ships, now they come with bankers and advisers, explaining how if they want to ever be able to borrow again they will do what they’re told: privatise public services, deregulate markets, and lower taxes – a process delicately termed “structural adjustment”. After two centuries of debt disputes, Mexico suffered perhaps its greatest defeat when, addled by debt given by western lenders, it signed up to a structural adjustment package in the 1980s.

Inequality has grown and provision of services has declined, yet, structural adjustment isn’t dead. Countries like France have marched in line behind this modern interventionalist banner both when Haiti required relief after its hurricane in 2009, and in the wake of the Greece’s recent budget crisis.

Mexico and France had the honour of playing the first two matches in the tournament on Friday. Mexico played firmly to draw 1-1 with a South African side that showed occasional, but unsustained vigour. France held a goalless draw with Uruguay which has been described by others as one of the dullest matches they have ever played. For their opening performances alone, Mexico deserve a victory at Polokwane this Thursday.

I urge you to support Mexico for another reason.

We don’t know much about what became of the pastry chef “Monsieur Remontel”, but it seems likely that any compensation he receieved for his flattened shop wouldn’t have made up for the devistation inflicted upon his neighborhood by the full scale French invasion force. Another victim of France imposing its will using debt collection as an excuse. Until countries like France stop using debt of a way to keep the world in check, poorer countries like Mexico will always suffer.

So let us hearltily support Mexico, in eager anticipation of a reenactment of its victory over its unscrupulous lender on Cinco de Mayo, and to many more such victories beyond!

This post was originally published on the World Development Movements World Cup website, ‘Who Should I Cheer For?’

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From Facebook to the Streets: The Humble Spray Can Still Holds its Charm

Don’t just vote with a cross (seen in Hereford).

The internet is a wonderful place to share ideas. It’s an even better place for sharing inane crap. Sometimes the two crash together to create something quite brilliant, like wikipedia and last month’s hilarious tory-advert meddling at Mydavidcameron.com. The net’s utterly anarchic structure, having something of Somalia’s law and order and the rest of Singapore’s economic controls, make it open to virtually anyone to build their own spaces. More recently, social networking tools like facebook have actively invited people to create new spaces.

There are virtually no rules and limitless space. Messages travel fast and uncontrollably through these spaces as humans flit and float between them, carrying and copying bits and pieces about the place so those who create quickly lose track of their creations.

This is not an environment becoming to ramming ideas down people’s throats. Instead they are shaped, packaged and carried away by anyone and everyone as they see fit.

This is bad news for wealthy organisations who want to control their message. Compare the e-universe with the cold and rainy real world – a place of of limited space and tight controls on how and who can use it. Walls and doors and owned and space is a valuable commodity.

Enter the political billboard, a 6m+ diameter slab of brash, exuberant, eyes-staring and eye-catching propaganda only affordable by the most hefty political machines. Where a Youtube video becomes parody within hours, and that which doesn’t is lost down the bottom of the news feed, the billboard remains, every morning, every evening, every time you nip out to the shop.

As well as being a more controllable space it is reaches more broadly. Working class swing voters won’t be posting Cameron’s latest blog post on each others Facebook walls, but for a few thousand quid Conservative HQ can write their chants in towering black letters on the main road into town.

The good news is – so can you. Like all follies, billboards are intended to be a sign of power, yet are ripe for being undermined. All it takes is a pen.

In what is probably the most important election since punk the form is still thriving. What is more, according to a recent survey* punters are 1000% times more likely to notice an amusingly styled community-added moustache than a corporate politics-designed airbrushed face. If that is a the case then there are a lot of canvases for us to go campaign the hell out of out there.

Subtle, and it undermines.

The jester, seen at Dalston (top) and Exter (bottom).

Funny, and it demeans.

This approach required more preparation. Seen on Kingsland Road, London.

Not neccesarily quoted off Mock the Week (seen in Exeter).

Eloquent, and it’ll make people question.

Anti-Trident campaigners have been well organised. Seen in Finchley, North London.

An unusual and thought provoking list. Location unknown.

Crass, it’ll make people stop

Blue Graffiti, Edinburgh

Palpable anger is just as effective. Seen in South West Edinburgh.

Plain frightening may be even more effective. Seen in Aldgate, London.

The internet is wonderful for organising, but the real world still can’t be beat for reaching people. Every billboard, be it advertising political parties, oil companies or the army, starts life as an way for someone with money to get their views across. But they also represent an opportunity to get your views across. So go grab a pen – there’s still plenty of time to vote before election day.

*no such survey

This post was originally published on Bright Green.

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Message to RBS: We’re Just Getting Started

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People & Planet joined by scores of others at the RBS Week of Action

In 2007 People & Planet and Platform launched a campaign for the Royal Bank of Scotland to stop funding fossil fuel extraction and “ditch dirty development”, with groups across the country putting on talks, asking difficult questions at careers fairs, protesting at branches. Various activists including those from the Rising Tide network held a day of action that autumn hitting local press, plastering cash machines, and shutting down several branches. Back then, climate denial was a still valid currency for the bank and that familiar green-wash sheen was only just being cooked up.

Within months they has closed their website “www.oilandgasbank.com”, changed their stance on global warming, signs went up in their branches proclaiming their sustainable policies, and careers fair staff were given lines to say to respond to criticism.

The campaign gathered steam at the 2008 RBS AGM, as Student Unions started changing bank accounts, removing RBS advertising from their premises, and calling for disinvestment.

When the Government bailed out the bank in late 2008 they asked no questions about their investments, and Westminster MPs, prompted by constituent People & Planet and World Development Movement members, started to ask why Government money was going into a bank that was directly eroding Government policies. The UK Treasury was now under the spotlight. A legal challenge was launched about their takeover with backing from Leigh Day & Co solicitors, and during the aftermath of the G20 meeting in London, Pandas made national news “cleaning up” the 2009 AGM, and later the Treasury during the London Climate Camp.

By then, the primarily public owned bank had poured billions into coal and tar sands exploitation, and the campaign was growing. The World Development Movement, Platform and People & Planet were still asking questions about front-line fossil fuel extraction, but Amnesty International was also was calling on the bank to own up to investing in companies causing human rights abuses, and Friends of the Earth Scotland wanted an explanation for its links with companies like Conoco Phillips, poisoning First Nation communities in Canada.

This week, standing together with indigenous people of Athabasca, that coalition has become a truly powerful force for change.

Everyone can be proud of their part in this campaign which has taken finance from being a disregarded industry into the spotlight as a true root cause of social and environmental injustice. We look to the summer, with a Climate Camp focused on the bank’s activities, with eager anticipation. This aint over yet.

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They Huffed and they Puffed…

Students are beginning to question arms-trade links beyond investments. Photo by Alex Green.

My last Activist Winds post told of the Edinburgh uni Occupation for Gaza. Well since then the hurricane has continued to spread like that hilarious super-storm in the Day After Tomorrow, with further occupations and protests in St. Andrews, York and Aberdeen.  So we can see which way the wind is blowing: a lot of students are p*ssed off and want militancy and corporate power off campus.  The interesting question then, considering that we’re about to choose a brand new campaign, is not which way the wind is blowing, but which things are most liable to wind-damage – which [campaign target] is the house made out of bricks, which one is made out of sticks, and which is made of straw.

Let’s start by considering what the occupations were trying to achieve. Many of the demands, like the clothing, hair-styles, and over-use of the words ‘comrade’ and ‘in solidarity’, were replicated across the occupied territories: scholarships for Gazans, scrapping contracts with Eden Springs, organising aid collection, and the cutting of ties to companies connected to Israel via investments, research programmes, and the careers service.

Keen readers will note that many of the occupations’ ‘campaign asks’ overlap with those of Corporate Power proposals – most prominently Reclaim Education, Ethical Investment, Reclaim and Regrow, and Total Ethical Procurement – the proposals which might crudely be groups as “the local campaign options.” Here’s what happened to some of the proposals’ ideas at the Edinburgh occupation:

On scholarships – as with several other Uni’s, scholarships were created and, although it didn’t go as far as the demands asked, they have set up a working group to find further funds and develop the admissions procedures. Perhaps they are open to something which promotes academia and diversity? Could suggest a way in for positive campaigning on research aims in Relclaim Education.

At the Forum 2009, we will choose which little piggy to go after.

At the Forum 2009, we will choose which little piggy to go after.

On procurement – again similarly to other unis, Eden Springs’ contract is to be cut, but this is more to do with the phasing out of bottled water from campus and its replacement with taps. They also welcomed discussion of other contracts. The message here would be do your research and find the argument that works with your uni. Good news for Total Ethical Procurement and Reclaim and Regrow.

On investment – progress on this depended on building on previous success. In Edinburgh an ethical investment policy was in force and students were invited to ‘bring their case’ through its procedure. This might be a long campaign if you’re starting from scratch, but it has obviously made tangible changes locally, and opened the door for many occupations to succeed here. Sign of the pass successes of the Ethical Investment model, and thus future fertile ground?

On research – Edinburgh Uni was categorically uninterested in even discussing this. They don’t want to talk about potentially losing revenue. Interestingly, St. Andrews has taken a different view on this one: “The University has conceded that its position is inconsistent and will now regularly communicate its research proposals to the Students Association and the student body” (from SAUO). This suggests that University research programmes could be a big battle – if P&P wants to take it on, ala Reclaim Education.

On the careers service – again Edinburgh wasn’t interested, citing the age-old “we must offer our students choice.” However, there were signs that flipping this into a more positive approach, getting careers fairs to be more diverse rather than just big companies, might work, as Reclaim Education aims to do.

As previously mentioned, maximum success will benefit from a gradual wearing down (or building up!!) and a willingness to work with advocates in different parts of the uni (never think the University is one organisation with a single head – they wish). All in all, a successful campus Corporate Power campaign is likely to resemble a mixture of a good-cop bad-cop interrogation, and that thing when you’re a kid and your mum says no so you go ask your dad instead (once again we play the bad guys both times….).

There’s lots to think about here in both strategy and targets, with elements that will alter between campuses and over the months and years that the campaign runs. But don’t be daunted thinking this through carefully: last Tuesday Edinburgh had an occupation de-brief attended by 50-odd people, many of whom were new to activism, and all of whom vowed to keep up the pressure and see their campaign through. If you take on corporate power on campus, you will find your supporters.

This post was originally published on the People & Planet Blog.

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You don’t need a weatherman…

…to know which way the wind blows (so said Mr. Dylan).  That’s right, you don’t need a weatherman, you need me: this is my first post of Activist Winds, my point source emission-contribution to the activist babble.  And the title of this post (a reference to the militant off-shoot of the 60s US student peace movement) is apt, because we’re told that student unrest is back (The Times).

 

This 7 days I’m writing to you from the heart of what has been described as revival of the spirit of the 60s (The Scotsman).  In protest to what they see as the Universities support for Israeli violence against Gaza, Students have been occupying George Square Lecture Theatre at the University of Edinburgh since Wednesday, and after negotiations with the administration, have won considerable concessions including scholariships, the organisation of aid collections, a lecture series about the history of the conflict.

The protest has been both historic in its sucesses and the support it’s recieved with MPs, journalists, academics and peers paying their respects.  Other actions up and down the country have had similar victories.  And like everything that causes a splash, it has had its enemies, its internal wranglings, and its lessons to be learned.

Edinburgh has a specific context: in November the Israeli ambassador spoke (The Journal) on the University’s bahalf causing considerable anger in the student population.  This is the backlash, and the University has no right to be suprised.

Perhaps they made concessions from the start because from the very beginning of the occupation the University, through its Secretary, has been willing to meet with the students and offer concessions.  Their willingness to discuss things on a regular basis and invite students into their (if arduous) processes has to be comended – as does their genuine willingness to accomodate the protest by allowing freedom of movement and supplies.  In return, protestors have treated the space with respect and been reasonable and realistic with their demands.


The occupation was visited by members of the Universities and Colleges Union Exec.

The occupation has, of course, had its own backlash.  On Friday the Labour Students faction of the Students Association decided that the occupation was “intimidating.”  This is of course bullshit, but if you think Israel is awesome, then naturally you’re gonna find some way of arguing against freedom of protest.  Trouble is, people do consider it reasonable to say that occupying a lecture thatre is disruptive – and the likes of Labour Students are more than happy to hijack these reasonableists for their own ends.  So lesson one is: fight back.

Tip #1: Fight the PR war. Flyer everyone outside.  Send texts out to get your friends to visit, even if they don’t stay.  Write regular updates explaining your aims and inviting people in.  Get the media down and make sure they hear and sympathise with your side of the story.  Arguments are not won by doing nothing and controvosy can be a very powerful force for change – but you must meet the action with message.  The anti-protest crowd have been shown to be way to the right of most University administrations, let alone the average student.  With the right message they can easily be alienated.

Tip #2: Find a way to win. With the university sympathy and a willingness to cooperate on both sides, the protest could come to a positive conclusion, but this was not an accident.  Edinburgh uni is a political place and that makes things easier, but P&P has done a lot here to fertilise the ground by winning elections for the President and Rector.  With this in hand, the occupation has done well by being realistic about its position and willing to make concessions themselves.

Such an occupation can easily end up alienating those not involved, widening a gap between campaigners and the administration, and disempowering those inside.  But with the right thinking, the Edinburgh occupation managed to harness support, create positive outcomes, and galvanise a new group of activists – and all of these strengths can, of course, be very widely applied.

This post was originally published on the People & Planet Blog.

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