We must accelerate climate action

Speaking the Scottish Greens Spring Conference Patrick Harvie called for a rapid accelration of climate action.


We are now well into the second half of our first ever term in Government, with just over two years until the next Scottish Parliament election. It’s right that we take time to refocus on why we entered Government, looking at what we’ve achieved, at the work we’ve still got to do on our shared government programme, but also on the challenges that are emerging, which demand new action from Government. 

When we were first approached about joining the Government, almost three years ago, we asked you, our party members, what the priorities should be. Among the broad range of Green policies, it was clear that one of the most important was the need to address unfair rents. 

We listened, and we committed to delivering a New Deal for Tenants, to address the imbalance of power in private renting. A deal that was grounded in the principle that housing is a human right. A deal which means people who rent can feel secure, and a deal that turns a rented flat or house into a home. 

It’s a priority I feel strongly about. I know what it’s like to be harassed out of a flat by an abusive landlord, or to be left with debts when a joint tenancy goes wrong, or to be forced to move from a home I liked because of a choice someone else imposed, without justification. So I’m really proud that as a party of Government we can deliver that New Deal for Tenants.

But as the cost of living crisis began to bite, we knew that we needed to act urgently as well as working on that long term reform. And so I was proud that the first piece of legislation the Scottish Greens delivered in Government brought in the emergency rent freeze. 

It has helped many thousands of people in the last 18 months, protecting them against unendurable rent hikes. Critically, it was legislation that, despite some of the criticisms at the time, withstood the legal challenge brought against it in the Court of Session - if we had failed that test, we would have done more harm than good.

And the claims that the emergency rent cap would also lead to a reduction in available property have also proved to be false, with the number of registered rented properties in Scotland actually increasing during the period of the cap. 

But, here in Scotland, rents have continued to rise in between tenancies, just as they have in other parts of the UK where tenants have had no protection against annual rises, and this is just one aspect of a system that isn’t delivering that human right to housing as it should.

So I am so proud that last month, I was able to press on with the next step in our journey to deliver a New Deal for Tenants, and published the Housing Bill, which will finally bring in a permanent system of rent controls for Scotland. 

We should never accept that rents can simply spiral out of control, satisfying only those who hold the power in our broken housing market. 

And because people who rent should have just as much right as everyone else to make their house into a home, the new bill will give tenants a lot of other rights. The right to keep pets and to decorate. These are not luxuries or add ons, these are fundamental issues which contribute to people’s daily wellbeing and happiness. 

We’re also reclaiming millions of pounds of unclaimed deposits, and using it to fund services to support tenants. And we’re making changes which strengthen the power to challenge evictions, protect people in tenancies who have experienced domestic abuse, and give people rights when a joint tenancy ends. 

This bill will help to make renting a long term, secure option the way it is in many other European countries, and as we take the bill through parliament I’ll be working with our Scottish Green colleague Ariane Burgess in her role as Convenor of the Holyrood committee which leads on scrutinising housing.

I’ve been advocating change like this in Parliament for well over a decade. And the case has been built by housing campaigners across the country too.

But make no mistake - it’s happening now because you made the choice - you made tenants’ rights a priority, you gave us the chance to do more than just make speeches about it - you gave us the chance to make this overdue change a reality.  

We all know that this has been a tough year, with the UK imposing deep cuts as they continue their brutal austerity agenda. But even against that backdrop, we have been determined to continue progress on Green priorities.

Not only did we achieve record funding for climate action, nature restoration and decarbonising our homes, but we continued the work on transformational policies like the Scottish Child Payment, lifting 100,000 children out of poverty, and scrapping school meal debt across the whole of Scotland.

On that last issue I want to pay tribute to our colleague Ross Greer. It was his investigation which first revealed how many children in this country were going hungry in school and how many families were being chased for debts they simply couldn’t afford to pay.

No parent should be kept awake at night, worried about how they will pay for their children to eat. And with Scottish Greens in Government we’ve been able to act, wiping out over £1m of debt to councils.  A constant source of anxiety hanging over people’s heads, one that we have been able to remove. 

And we are continuing to invest in school kitchens and working to ensure that soon every child in Scotland’s primary schools will receive free school meals. 

We have funded this kind of work, and much more, with the most progressive income tax system anywhere in the UK. Greens have been leading the case for using Scotland’s powers to delvop progressive income tax policies over the last decade, and once again this year we have gone further. 

Due to changes that we secured, the top 5% of earners be contributing more to maintaining our public services. The newest changes come into effect today, and I believe it’s right and fair that here in Scotland we are asking the wealthiest people to pay their share to fund things like a Scottish Child Payment that is lifting families out of poverty, delivering a real living wage for all public sector contracts and to support the services that we all rely on daily.

But this year as every year, we live with the stark reminder of what Scotland is missing out on - the basic powers of a normal, independent country, to raise money, to invest in public services and a green economy, and to rebalance wealth. 

Austerity has been the choice of this Tory Westminster Government for the past 14 years. It has been imposed on Scotland for all those years to the detriment of our communities and our public services, both nationally and locally. 

Like many people, come election night I’ll enjoy watching those little blue dots on the map disappear one by one, but it will only really be worth celebrating in the morning if an incoming Government ditches the Tory fiscal rules and ditches the spending limits and ditches the Tory austerity that are harming the lives of so many.

We need to see the back of this toxic Tory Government, but if Labour continue their current determination to offer status quo politics, and status quo austerity, it would be a betrayal of everyone voting for change.

Our party grew out of the ecological movements of the 20th century, and we have been defined more than anything by the cause of environmental and social justice, going hand in hand. 

The climate and nature emergency is the reason many of us in this room became active in Green politics. It is no longer merely an imminent threat. It is here and it is now. It is a clear and present danger to us all, and to the living world around us. It is the defining issue not just for this generation - it will be so for every generation - yet the coherent emergency response it demands is still lacking. 

We have had a political system largely unwilling or unable to take the radical action that is necessary to halt catastrophic global heating, and it has been our duty as the Green movement to be the political voice for climate action. 

Last month, the UK’s Climate Change Committee concluded that Scotland is almost certainly going to miss the 2030 emissions reduction target. 

Scotland has had legally binding climate targets for a decade and a half now. Back at the start of that process I had the privilege of chairing the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the first Climate Change Act.

At first I was taken aback by the ease with which consensus seemed to be emerging

  •  A strong, united civil society demand, from environmental campaigners of course, but also from trade unions, religious communities, industry and anti-poverty organisations.
  • But there was also political consensus in Parliament, with every single party actively seeking to make the Bill stronger, and the handful of climate deniers left marginalised.

But by the time the final debates were taking place to pass that Bill, the reason for this easy consensus was clear to me, and it was nothing to celebrate.

In the final debate on the bill I said “Targets alone are not enough. They are necessary, but not sufficient. They will not be achieved without a radical shift in policy on transport, housing, land use, food and energy.”

And a few months later as we were debating the Copenhagen COP, I told Parliament that we had achieved only “consensus of intent” - we had taken the easy path of agreeing the targets we wanted to reach, but not agreeing how we were going to reach them - in fact Scottish politics had a complete lack of consensus on the actions that would be necessary. 

Scotland has done well in decarbonising our energy supply - but that was already happening before the Climate Change Act, and it was not accelerated by it. In other sectors - transport, land use, heating, we have seen 15 years of largely flatline emissions.

Now, if successive Scottish and UK Governments had taken the actions needed, I have no doubt that we would be on track for that 2030 target.

Instead, too many politicians - in every other political party - engaged in mutual backslapping about “world leading targets”, while at the same time demanding ever more money for roadbuilding, supporting relentless aviation growth, lobbying for status quo rural policies to the benefit of big landowners, and cheering to the rafters every time a new oil and gas licence was announced.

That failure to unite on the action is the reason why now, it’s clear that we should be decades ahead of where we are now - and we would have been, if Scotland had implemented the policies that we as Scottish Greens have been advocating for years now. 

Well the warnings now about the 2030 target must be a wake up call for everyone.

Scotland needs a reset on climate policy. We will need to make fundamental changes as a result of this report, not just to stay within the law, but to shift the emphasis from targets to accelerated action. Targets do matter - they matter if we use them to focus our minds on action - they must never be treated as substitutes for action.

The 2030 target was set back in 2019, in the midst of global climate strikes by young people around the world, and across the political divide we once again saw the emergence of the consensus of intent.

All political parties rushing to declare a climate emergency. But that was the easy part. 

The hard part of deciding how we actually achieve these targets and how we rapidly deliver changes to the way we travel, the way we heat our homes, use our land and power our industries, that is the task still facing us.

And as Scottish Greens, we have a responsibility not just to advocate for accelerated action, but to make it happen.

Affordable and accessible public transport for all; warmer greener homes; a just transition in the North Sea; and a rapid restoration of nature to help mitigate the effects of climate change. 

The communities most reliant on the industries of the past can and must be on the frontline of our shift to a fairer, greener and more sustainable future. They can be the engine that powers our shift from dirty fossil fuels towards a clean, green renewable energy.

One of the biggest areas of policy that the Scottish Greens are responsible for in Government is decarbonising our homes.

And even while issuing the stark warning on the 2030 target, the UK Climate Change Committee held up our action on this agenda as a template for the rest of the UK, showing how we can urgently shift away from our dependence on gas to heat our homes, and instead use the plentiful renewable energy supplies we have here in Scotland. 

We consulted on those plans earlier in the year, and the challenge now is to get the legislation over the line, in the face of co-ordinated and concerted opposition we know we’ll face from those who benefit from the status quo. 

We also now need to see increased and accelerated ambition in the other areas of policy highlighted in the report, which remain our biggest emitters - agriculture, transport and industry. This needs to be a shared mission right across the Scottish Government if we are to hold on to the hope of delivering the change that is needed.

And complete political consensus for action may well be impossible. As the Tories here in Scotland drag climate policy into their toxic “culture war” space, just as Rishi Sunak has done, we cannot afford to dilute or delay climate action in the hope of achieving consensus with those who will always prioritise the free market extremism of the Tufton Street junktanks.

We will never use the limits of devolution as an excuse not to act, but we do need to recognise that reserved powers are being exercised by a Government that is as irresponsible and dangerous on climate as they are on every other aspect of our society. As a result of their anti-climate agenda, we’re seeing green investment put at risk, and we're seeing rising hostility to climate action in UK politics and media.

This is a Tory government that is trying to drill its way out of a crisis, that is delaying the action that will make a difference and that is even in the process of opening a new coal mine. We can’t leave our future in their hands.

They are a Government that knows that Scotland’s abundant, clean Green energy is the cheapest electricity we can generate, but they are still failing to pass on the benefit of those low prices of generation on to consumers, to cut the cost of living and create real incentives to shift away from fossil fuels for heat and transport.

But neither can we sit back and wait for Labour to take the climate crisis seriously, not when Keir Starmer has already given us 28 billion reasons not to trust him.

Even with the most important powers to make a difference, both the main Westminster parties are trying to sell-off even more of our North Sea to the highest bidder. 

The Scottish Greens will never support drilling in Rosebank. Not now, not ever, and Labour must not be allowed to nod it through if they form a Government

The world around us is changing, but some are happy to treat even the most basic proposals as though they represent a form of extremism - while they themselves continue to back a failed economic model that has brought the crisis about. Time and time again, climate policies are being obstructed and opposed by those who just want to draw a political dividing line, no matter the cost to people and planet.

That is why we still need Greens more than ever, not just making the case for climate action, but making it happen.

And this was the fundamental reason why we chose to enter Government in 2021. Because we can’t demand climate action, only to recoil when asked to actually deliver it. 

Even at the start of this journey, we knew we were starting far too late on so many of these issues. Like the rest of the world, Scotland had been held back by decades of propaganda and climate denial conspiracies from the fossil fuel industry, and by the politicians who did their bidding. And it takes decades to fundamentally change how we produce our food, to see native forests replanted and re-grow, to make sure every home in Scotland is well insulated and heated by renewable electricity. 

So we are indeed far behind where we should be. But the only response to that reality is to accelerate action now.

And let’s be clear - the Climate Change Committee itself has been clear that Scotland’s ultimate goal of reaching net-zero by 2045 is absolutely still achievable. But only if we accelerate action now. 

There will be some difficult decisions - some immediate as the Government responds to the CCC report, and others lie further ahead of us.

This is a pivotal moment in our climate journey. It requires a reset of climate policy from the Scottish Government, and as Scottish Greens we have a responsibility to insist that happens.

Scotland’s climate targets are important - but only an ambitious acceleration of action can make them meaningful.

We need that acceleration of action which goes far beyond what has been done before . 

We know that if we get this right, we’re not just ensuring our planet is habitable for future generations. We’re giving people here and now the warmer homes that are cheaper to heat. We’re creating well paid, skilled and unionised jobs that will still be here for decades to come.  We’ll be getting commuters out of the traffic jams and onto affordable and reliable public transport.

We all benefit from climate action. And now is the time to accelerate it.