Climate powers, policy and performance in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London

Green Union JackThe Labour Party came to power in 1997 committed to devolving powers to Scotland and Wales, and re-creating a London-wide government. It was also determined to improve the political situation in Northern Ireland and was willing to use devolution to achieve this. Therefore, the last 12 years have seen considerable change to the constitution of the UK. Climate change was not a driving force behind any of this, but, nevertheless, the new tiers of government have had significant impact on what the UK is doing.

All the devolved governments have an obligation to implement fully EU rules and they have a right to be consulted on what the UK line should be in negotiations. However, the relevant Acts that have changed the UK constitution make it explicit that ultimate authority lies with Westminster.

From 1997 to 2007, Labour was in office in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff (the latter two, in alliance with the Liberal Democrats), so there were no major policy divergences between the different regions. However, in 2007, the SNP won in Scotland and Labour switched coalition partners in Wales from Liberal Democrat to Plaid Cymru. The Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved in October 2002 and Northern Ireland was governed directly by the UK government. However, the Assembly was re-established in 2007, under the control of the Democratic Unionist Party. In 2008, Ken Livingstone (who, despite winning his first term as an independent, has always been essentially Labour) lost London to the Conservative, Boris Johnson. Therefore it is very likely that greater climate policy differences will emerge between the different parts of the United Kingdom.


The Scottish Parliament was given primary legislative powers over devolved matters and the power to raise or lower the basic income tax rate. The Northern Ireland Assembly was given primary legislative powers, but no tax varying powers. The Welsh Assembly has only secondary legislative powers and no tax varying powers. The Greater London Authority has no legislative or tax varying powers.

  • Scotland. Environmental powers are ‘shared’ (that is, neither fully devolved nor fully retained) between Westminster and Edinburgh. The Scottish Parliament has legislative powers over environmental protection, land use planning and transport. It also has the power to decide on energy applications over 50Mw and to operate the Renewables Obligation differently from the rest of the UK. It can also set Scottish building regulations. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 made Scottish road pricing schemes possible and laid down the condition that all proceeds from such schemes must be spent on transport. In 2005, the Scottish government gained control over future investment on rail infrastructure.
  • Northern Ireland. The Assembly has the power to give planning consent to energy projects over 50Mw, but cannot give different renewable technologies different levels of financial support. It also controls building regulations.
  • Wales. Environmental powers are ‘shared’. The Welsh Assembly has administrative powers over environmental protection and land use planning, but not the power to decide on energy applications over 50Mw. The 1999 establishing Act gave the Assembly a duty to specify how it will promote sustainable development and it used this to address transport issues, even before it was explicitly given transport powers under a 2006 UK Act (which does not extend to rail infrastructure). The Welsh Assembly Government does not have powers to set building regulations. However, it asked for these in 2007 and, in July 2009, the UK government agreed (although, at the time of writing – August 2009 – the necessary amendment has not yet passed through the Westminster parliament).
  • London. The Mayor and Assembly were given mainly executive and administrative powers, but also powers to impose road pricing, that is, the Congestion Charge. (However, these powers are already available to local authorities. The Durham City congestion charge was the first congestion charge to be introduced in the UK, in October 2002.) The Mayor was also given powers to overrule boroughs on specific planning applications. However, the London mayor can only set building regulations for a very small number of new buildings. Livingstone asked for powers to set London specific regulations in 2005 (80% of carbon emissions in London come from buildings), but he was not granted them.


Each of the devolved bodies has set targets for emissions reductions, as follows:

  • Scotland. Labour promised to deliver the Scottish share of the UK Kyoto target and the Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010. The SNP has passed a Scottish Climate Act, setting a target of 42% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. (The UK Climate Act only has a legally binding target for 2050, which is 80%.)
  • Northern Ireland. A reduction of 25% in GHG emissions and 30% CO2 emissions below 1990 levels by 2025.
  • Wales. The coalition agreement between Labour and Plaid commits the Welsh Assembly Government to set a target to cut carbon emissions by 3% year-on-year by 2011 in areas of devolved competence.
  • London: Livingstone first set a target to reduce CO2 by 20% (from 1990 levels) by 2010, which was the same as Labour’s UK target. This was later reduced to 15% by 2010, with a further 5% reduction each five years until 2025. He then increased the target to 60% by 2025. Boris Johnson has kept this target.

Each has also set its own renewables target as follows:

  • Scotland. Under Labour, 18% of electricity by 2010 and 40% by 2020. The SNP increased these to 31% by 2011 and 50% by 2020.
  • Northern Ireland. 12% by 2012.
  • Wales. 10% by 2010 and to be self-sustaining in renewable electricity by 2025. 800MW of installed onshore wind by 2010.
  • London. Livingstone set a target of generating enough green electricity for 100,000 homes and renewable heat for 10,000 homes.


  • Scotland. The Scottish government, both under Labour and under the SNP, has been enthusiastic about renewables. In 2009, it introduced different levels of financial support to renewable technologies under the Renewables Obligation, offering more support for wave and tidal stream technologies. The Scottish government is also strongly supportive of CCS. The SNP remains hostile to nuclear power and says that the existing Scottish nuclear stations, which generate around half of the electricity used in Scotland, will not be replaced. The SNP government also stopped charging drivers to cross the Forth and Tay bridges (tolls on the Skye Bridge were removed in 2004 and on the Erskine Bridge in 2006 by the Labour government).
  • Northern Ireland. The Assembly published a planning policy to promote renewables in August 2009. Launching it, environment minister Edwin Poots said:

Energy developments, such as wind farms, will not only benefit the environment, they can also help develop a local renewables industry“.

  • Wales. In 2005, the Labour/Liberal Democrat Welsh government, setting its 800Mw target for onshore wind, published eight maps illustrating strategic areas for onshore wind energy developments. These were linked to Technical Advice Notes (Wales) (TANs), so the areas indicated in the maps are referred to as TAN 8 areas. The Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition agreement stated that TAN 8 areas would be retained and the target revised upward if at all.
  • London. The main policy was the introduction of a congestion charge in 2003, which was extended westwards in 2007. Despite its name, this was partly designed to reduce climate emissions. Exemptions are given to electric and hybrid vehicles. Livingstone proposed an increase to £25 (from £8) for gas guzzlers, but Johnson has scrapped this and also removed the Western extension. Johnson has also said that he may extend exemptions to petrol or diesel vehicles which emit the same or lower levels of carbon dioxide as hybrids.

Livingstone’s main tool to promote renewables was the 2004 London Plan, which required all major developments to generate renewable electricity, where feasible, with a target of 10%. This was based on a policy used in the Borough of Merton, so is usually referred to as the Merton Rule. Livingstone subsequently increased this to 20%. Johnson has said that he will relax the Merton Rule and put more emphasis on insulation and off-site renewables, and also district heating.

The London Climate Change Agency was established in June 2005. This was intended to expand decentralised energy and the use of energy services companies (which provide insulation and other measures to use energy efficiently, as well as fuel). Johnson abolished the Agency.

Livingstone was also involved in creating a network of 40 large cities from both the developed and developing world to work on carbon-reduction programmes – the C40. This initiative, supported by the Clinton Foundation, recognises that urban areas produce 75% of global greenhouse emissions and that solutions exist. The first C40 summit was held in London in October 2005, the second in New York in 2007 and the third in Seoul in 2009. The mayor of Toronto is currently its chair. Under Boris Johnson, London remains involved and committed.


In terms of the reduction of greenhouse gases, Wales reduced its emissions by 7.8% between 1999 and 2006. Scotland reduced its by 3.5%, as did Northern Ireland. Emissions from England reduced by only 2% (see AEA: Greenhouse Gas Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: 1990 – 2006). However, there is no comprehensive analysis of how much of these changes are due to the policies and measures of the devolved administrations.

On energy efficiency, the devolved authorities have each spent money to improve the existing building stock. For example, in 2004 the Scottish Government launched a £20 million fund to improve efficiency in the public sector by the end of 2006. The public sector cut its energy use in public buildings by 4.8% between 2004/05 and 2006/07. In 2005, the Welsh government allocated £10 million to insulate homes. In London, Ken Livingstone set aside £7 million in 2007/08 to offer heavily subsidised loft and cavity wall insulation. Before 2005, the building regulations in Northern Ireland were lower than for other parts of the UK, but they were brought into line that year. Scottish building regulations were strengthened in 2006.

Scotland leads the UK on wind power, with around 1.5Gw of installed capacity. England has around 1.25Gw, Wales around 500Mw and Northern Ireland around 250Mw. However, in Scotland, Wales and England, projects under 50Mw are given or refused planning permission by local councils (except marine renewable schemes, which are decided by Edinburgh, Cardiff and London). In Northern Ireland, even small schemes are decided by the Assembly, which gives consent to 97% of all such schemes. However, the price is that decisions take on average three years to emerge (see BWEA: Wind Energy in the UK: A BWEA State of the Industry Report October 2008). The Scottish government has made a commitment to speed up the planning process by giving a decision for schemes larger than 50Mw within nine months of application. In England and Wales, decisions on schemes above 50Mw will now be taken by the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), being established under a 2008 Act – though the Conservative Party has said that it will integrate the IPC with the Planning Inspectorate, if it wins the 2010 UK general election. Scotland is not covered by the IPC, so there is more stability on planning matters.

However, Scotland’s development of renewables is seriously damaged by the failure to upgrade and extend the electricity grid. Consideration of a major upgrade from Beauly-Denny (a new power line from close to Inverness to near Stirling) has been under consideration for the past four years. A Public Inquiry was held and ended in December 2008, but the Scottish government has still not made a decision. Beauly-Denny is extremely controversial, mainly on landscape grounds – although the public organisation responsible for protecting Scotland’s landscape and biodiversity, Scottish Natural Heritage, is not opposed in principle.

Welsh renewable development is also seriously threatened by grid issues. There are strong grid connections along the north and south coasts, but not into mid-Wales, where many of the TAN 8 sites are located. As in Scotland, there is predictable opposition on landscape grounds. The Welsh government is not formally responsible for grid issues, since this power remains with the UK government, but will clearly have a major influence. However, the National Grid company, which will build and operate the grid, has not yet said what route it proposes.

The Scottish government has been active on marine power. It has provided financial support for the European Marine Energy Centre on Orkney, to demonstrate wave and tidal stream technologies and, earlier in 2009, introduced higher bands for these technologies. Wave will receive five Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), and tidal stream three ROCs. Established technologies, such as onshore wind, will continue to receive one. However, these technologies are still at demonstration stage and so are expensive to build and install, but generate little electricity. The number of ROCs received depends on the amount of electricity generated, so the higher bands may not provide enough subsidy. In the past, the Scottish government has given direct subsidy, not related to electricity output, and will probably need to do so again. Northern Ireland has led the way on tidal stream technology – a 1.2Mw device began generating in Strangford Lough in 2007, although the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended at the time the decision to provide public subsidy was taken.

London has done well on promoting microgeneration through the ‘Merton rule’ (see above). However, the Climate Change Agency was unsuccessful in decentralising energy and promoting energy services companies, so its abolition was not particularly unexpected.

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