More Than Just an Energy Transition: The construction of a new Scottish identity

Gabrielle is a 3rd year International Relations student from Houston, Texas. Her interests include geopolitical risk, the energy transition, and the link between environmental policy and human rights. She is passionate about writing approachable content on current global affairs.

Scotland’s laudable shift to renewable energy is one that environmental research scientist Shana Lee Hirsch describes as “uncommonly successful and bold,” and one that will no doubt inspire exciting international climate action during this year’s COP26 in Glasgow [1]. The country has undergone remarkable changes in transforming its energy identity from one rooted in oil to one at the forefront of the global energy transition. Indeed, despite Scotland’s vast resource of offshore oil in the North Sea, 90% of the country’s energy needs were met by renewables in 2019 [3]. Even the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t slowing down this incredible momentum as the country’s Climate Change Plan was recently updated to incorporate “more than 100 new policies and proposals to support Scotland’s green recovery and a just transition to net-zero,” as Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse describes [4]. In this article, I will examine where Scotland stands within the context of UK-wide climate action plans, and moreover the remaining obstacles for Scotland to overcome in becoming a leader in the global energy transition.

Scotland’s climate action plans surpass the UK’s in that they are notably more ambitious and boast deeper decarbonisation.In fact, the Scottish Government aims to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2045 (with interim reduction targets of 56% by 2020, 75% by 2030, 90% by 2040) which is five years ahead of the UK-wide target [5].The freedom which Scotland has to reach its solo targets is, however, incredibly limited. The Scottish Government’s 2013 major environmental policy plan, RPP2, explicitly acknowledged the county’s “limited powers” and lack of a “direct voice” in key areas of climate action policy [6]. Since 1999, the UK has indeed maintained control over matters of energy, trade and industry, while Scotland was granted powers to legislate on transport, education, some taxation, and the environment [7]. 

Nevertheless, Gabriel Anandarajah and Will McDowall from the UCL Energy Institute contend that “although the Scottish government has limited jurisdiction over energy policy, Scottish ministers have been keen to set out a vision of Scotland’s clean energy future” [8]. Scotland’s abounding renewable energy resources are certainly its most powerful climate action tool, and the government appears determined to fully harness this potential. For example, the Scottish Government supports the renewable energy sector through infrastructure development and market investment. It has set up a scheme of ‘Renewables Obligation’ that is pushing the energy market to incentivise further investment in green energy. As proof of renewable electricity production, retail electricity suppliers must have a green certificate known as a Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC), which is sold by the producers to the retail suppliers for profit [9]. As environmental management scholar Sandy Kerr points out, however, this scheme favours the most cost-effective technologies, particularly onshore wind, and is disadvantageous to the development of other renewable technologies [10]. Here, Hirsch posits that one of the most creative actions the government has taken is in fact “strategizing and implementing science and innovation policy for renewable energy” [11]. Scotland has invested particularly in the development of marine energy technology, as shown by the government’s £10 million Saltire Tidal Energy Challenge Fund [12]. With remarkable renewable energy potential and impactful innovation schemes, Scotland is quickly becoming a trailblazer in the global energy transition. 

The greatest obstacle to overcome in the Scottish decarbonisation path, however, is unfortunately yet to come. Scotland has been successful in picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’, acting on the most cost-effective or most publicly acceptable measures [13]. WWF Scotland similarly notes that the country’s progress to date rests primarily on changes implemented in the electricity and waste sectors and that it will soon have to take other courses of action in order to keep up with its own climate change goals and to remain “a world leader in climate action” [14]. Still to be addressed are the transportation industry, farming and land use, business and the heavy industries, and household heating [15]. These sectors are indeed much more stubborn and resistant to change and will ultimately need to be resolutely addressed in Scotland’s future climate change and energy policy.

But from a broader perspective, we can see that this is more than just an energy transition, it is the building of a new identity. Much is on the line for Glasgow 2021, and the dream of a ‘Glasgow Agreement’ is one that encompasses the national desire for a more powerful and influential Scottish voice. It is about the construction of something uniquely Scottish, something new, and perhaps something to set it apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, a key finding of a 2020 survey of Scottish citizens’ views on the country’s decarbonization plans was strong public support for the nationalization of Scottish energy resources [16]. This sentiment has been fervently supported by Scottish nationalists, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) [17].Many hopes and desires for the evolving Scottish identity are forming around COP26, with Scotland stepping into the spotlight as an international leader in the fight against climate change. Susan Aitken, Leader of Glasgow City Council, referred directly to this idea of leadership and involvement in COP26: “I am determined that an event of this scale and importance will not simply happen to the people of Glasgow. It must happen with us” [18]. 


[1] Hirsch, Shana Lee. “Governing Technological Zones, Making National Renewable Energy Futures.” Futures 124(2020): 4.

[2] Diamond, Claire. “Could Scotland ever be ‘the Saudi Arabia of renewables’?” (November 10, 2020)

[3]Cassidy, Jane. “Scotland’s renewable energy meets 90 percent of power needs.” The National

[4]The National,“Scotland’s renewable energy meets 90 percent of power needs.”

[5]The Scottish Government. “Climate Change Policy: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

[6] The Scottish Government. “Low Carbon Scotland – meeting our emissions reduction targets 2013-[7]Ostfeld, Rosemary and Reiner, David M. “Public views of Scotland’s path to decarbonization: Evidence from citizens’ juries and focus groups.” Energy Policy140, (2020): 2

[8] Anandarajah, Gabriel and Mcdowall, Will. “What are the costs of Scotland’s climate and renewable policies?” Energy Policy 50, (2012): 774. 

[9] Kerr, Sandy. “Winds of Change: The Planning Response to Renewable Energy in Scotland.” The Town Planning Review 77, no. 4 (2006): 380.

[10]Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands. “Policy: Renewable and low carbon energy.” Scottish Government. 

[11] Hirsch, Shana Lee(2020): 2.

[12] Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands. “Policy: Renewable and low carbon energy.” Scottish Government.

[13] Diamond, Claire.

[14] WWF Scotland. “Scotland’s Climate Action Plan: A Plan to Match Scotland’s Climate Ambitions.” (November 2016)

[15] WWF Scotland.

[16] Ostfeld, Rosemary and Reiner, David M. (2020): 9.

[17] Ostfeld, Rosemary and Reiner, David M. (2020): 2.

[18] Aitken, Susan. “Susan Aitken: Here’s how we can unite to build a cleaner and greener future for Glasgow.” (November 4, 2020)

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