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Scotland's Place in the World: First Minister's speech - 16 May 2022

Speech delivered by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Brookings Institution,  Washington DC, 16 May 2022.

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Thank you very much indeed, John.

Can I begin today by associating myself with your opening remarks about the horrific shootings in California, Houston and New York over the weekend. The shootings in particular in Buffalo, New York, as you rightly say remind all of us of the need to stand united and in solidarity against those who perpetrate hate and division in our societies, but my thoughts are very much today with the bereaved and injured.

Thank you for your wider and very kind introduction, and a very grateful thank you from me to the Brookings institution for hosting me at this event today and for all of you for joining us for this discussion.

Due to COVID, this is actually my first time in the United States in three years. If you’d told me that back on my last visit back in 2019 I would have struggled to believe it would be three years before I returned here to the United States and so it is wonderful to be back here in Washington DC.

And I am particularly pleased to be speaking here at Brookings today. It’s no exaggeration to say that your expertise on international affairs is more crucial now than perhaps it has been at any time over the past century.

When President Biden spoke at the United Nations last September, he said then that the world was facing “an inflection point”.

And of course, back then he was referring to three issues in particular.

We were – and are - still coping with the impacts of the worst pandemic the world has experienced in more than a century.

We face - and we must address - an urgent and accelerating climate emergency.

And we are seeing the rules-based international order come under severe and increasing strain.

However since the President made that speech, those strains have become even more severe, with Russia’s brutal, illegal and entirely unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

I want to be very clear today, to you, here in the United states that Scotland stands with the United Kingdom, the European Union and countries around the world - including of course the United States – in our condemnation of Putin’s actions.

We support the severity of economic sanctions on Russia, and also the supply of military assistance to Ukraine.

We are also, in Scotland, seeking to play our full part in offering humanitarian aid and supporting as many as possible of those displaced from Ukraine to find refuge, sanctuary and support in Scotland.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the first and most urgent duty of every country across the democratic world right now is to offer tangible support and solidarity to Ukraine as it fights for its democracy, independence and territorial integrity.

However, that said, a war of this scale in Europe – not seen before in the 21st century - has also forced European nations to ask really fundamental questions of ourselves.

As a result, many of us are now reassessing long established defence and security positions and priorities.

The pleas of Eastern European nations for a much greater focus on the continent’s border with Russia have been heard more clearly than ever – and are now being rightly responded to.

Germany has reversed its long standing position of not supplying arms to conflict zones and it has set out plans to significantly increase its own defence spending.

And, very significantly and very topically here today, two of Scotland’s northern neighbours, Sweden and Finland, which for decades have remained outside NATO, now seem firmly on track to join the alliance - and with a level of public support in their own countries that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

That is highly relevant to Scotland. The party I lead decided back in 2012 that should Scotland become independent, it should seek membership of NATO.

There is no doubt that the events of the last three months have strengthened my conviction that this position is absolutely the right and essential one.

I am even more firm in my view today that - coupled with a strong relationship with the United Kingdom - membership of the European Union and membership of NATO will be cornerstones of an independent Scotland’s security policy.

The Scottish Government is acutely aware of Scotland’s strategic position on the northern edge of Europe, close to the Arctic.

Russian military aircraft regularly approach the UK’s area of interest, and in recent years there has been an increase in Russian submarine patrols within the North Atlantic.

And so we are clearer than ever that membership of NATO would not only be vital to Scotland’s security - although it would most certainly be that - it would also be the principal way in which an independent Scotland, in an interdependent world, would contribute to the collective security of our neighbours and allies.

Current debates about security in Europe however are not just about military capabilities and strategic alliances.

The invasion of Ukraine is forcing us to rethink many long-held assumptions.

And that of course includes assumptions about energy policy and energy security.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen – set out plans for the latest round of sanctions against the Kremlin – and proposed the phasing out of Russian oil imports into the European Union.

Moves to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas are also being rapidly accelerated.

Energy policy in Germany is shifting dramatically under the new German government – as is shown, of course, by the cancellation of the Nordstream II gas pipeline - while Poland announced in March that it would become independent of Russian gas by the end of this year.

Now there is understandable impatience from Ukraine about the timelines being adopted by many EU states for this transition.

The EU depends on Russia for around 25% of its oil supplies, around 40% of its gas, and in some countries the extent of that dependence is even greater - around 50% of Germany’s gas came from Russia at the start of the invasion, and for countries like Estonia, Latvia and Finland it is over 80%.

Now in Scotland and the UK, by contrast, there is no significant dependence on Russian oil and gas at all, so it is perhaps not for me to lecture others on the pace at which they should turn away from Russian supplies. However, it is clear, I think very clear for all of us, that this transition is increasingly fundamental to national and energy security.

It is also clear that to reduce its dependence on Russia, Europe – in the short term - does need to secure alternative supplies of fossil fuels to keep economies running. So Poland, for example, intends to import liquefied natural gas from the United States.

But the debate in Europe, and this is the fundamental point I want to make to you today – the debate in Europe cannot be, and thankfully it is not, just about finding new sources of fossil fuels.

It is, and must also be about how Europe - including the UK and Scotland - rapidly accelerates its transition to a new, lower carbon economy, and does so in a way that is just and fair.

That task is even more urgent now than ever.

Like many in governments across the world, I spent the first half of November last year at the COP26 summit, which was hosted in my home city of Glasgow.

As an aside, it is worth I think noting the positive – the very positive - difference made at that summit by the United States once again showing leadership and playing a constructive role in climate negotiations. The influence – the personal influence - of John Kerry in securing the Glasgow climate pact was significant, and I saw that with my own eyes.

And partly because of that the summit in Glasgow achieved some very real progress – with, for example, welcome new commitments on financing, reversing forest loss, and cutting methane emissions. And the reference in the final agreement to reducing fossil fuel use was important as a first step - although it was significantly weaker than many had hoped for.

But we all knew back in November - even as the gavel dropped on COP26 - that the Glasgow Climate Pact did not go far enough.

As things stand, the world is on course to exceed not just the threshold of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees - but the 2 degree threshold as well.

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that this will be catastrophic.

In the words of the UN Secretary General, a 2 degree rise will create a “hellscape” on earth.

Equally clear is the consensus that to avoid this “hellscape” and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, global emissions must be halved by the end of this decade.

So it is not an exaggeration to say that the 2020s will be the most important decade in human history.

Our decisions and our actions over what is now a very, very short period of time will determine how habitable our planet is in decades and for generations to come.

The availability of natural resources, and the impact of major climate events, will also be - as has been the case in the past – a huge factor in global and national security.

And so as countries now consider alternative supplies of energy, we must ensure collectively that we do not simply replace one source of oil and gas with another.

Countries must prioritise, as far as we can, an approach to energy security that focuses on sustainability - with measures to promote energy efficiency, and to accelerate the development of renewable and low carbon energy.

In many countries those options are already the most secure and sustainable ways of meeting our needs.

And increasingly - a point we must be very mindful of as rising gas prices fuel inflation and a cost of living crisis that is already causing misery in many countries – including the United Kingdom - these low carbon and renewable sources of energy are becoming the most affordable options as well.

And to illustrate that point - wind already provides the cheapest power in Scotland’s energy mix.

So in my remarks today I want to talk about Scotland’s work to decarbonise our economy – and about the role we hope to play in enhancing energy security across Europe and stabilising energy markets in the North Atlantic.

And I’ll also highlight the importance – the fundamental importance – of a just transition – the importance of that to the wellbeing of our societies, and also to the strength of our democracies.

But first some context.

Scotland has benefitted – and it’s important to recognise this point – we have benefitted significantly, and from a very early stage, from the extraction and the burning of fossil fuels.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Scotland was one of the leading industrial centres in the world. On the eve of the first world war – shortly before this Institution was first established – one fifth of the world’s shipping was being built on the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow, exactly where COP26 was held just last year.

So having led the world into the industrial age, we now have an obligation - and it’s one we should take very seriously – to play our full part in helping the world move into the net zero age.

We also believe that – partly due to our geography - we are well-placed to do that. Although we are a relatively small country we have very significant reserves of wind, wave, hydro and tidal power.

As a result - and I know this is an issue also hotly debated in the United States – Scotland, like the UK as a whole, has almost entirely removed coal from our energy mix.

As recently as 2012, coal produced 40% of the UK’s electricity. In 2020 that was below 2%. And by 2025, it will be zero.

Renewable energy currently accounts for almost 100% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption – which is around a third of our overall energy demand.

And we have recently completed an offshore wind licensing round which could create twice as much capacity again.

Indeed, we have plans to very significantly expand onshore wind generation. And – as I’ll go on to explain - we have huge potential to create and export hydrogen energy from renewable sources.

Partly because of the growth of our renewable energy sector in recent years, Scotland has already more than halved our greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 baseline that is used.

Indeed, we have cut emissions more quickly than any country in the G20.

So we are now focused - through statutory targets - on halving emissions again by 2030, and then on reaching net zero by 2045 - in line with both the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact. And those targets include – very unusually amongst countries of the world – binding annual targets so that we are held to account along the way..

Achieving these further emissions reduction targets will involve some genuinely difficult decisions for Scotland and for all countries, and it will involve significant behaviour change – for example we are aiming to rapidly increase the use of electric vehicles, at the same time as cutting overall car use.

And we need to also rapidly accelerate our programmes for decarbonising the heating of buildings.

And also, and this is an important point economically, as a country with a significant oil and gas industry, we are conducting detailed work on the pace and the scale of change that will be required in that sector, to meet our international commitments – but in a way that is fair to those who work in the oil and gas industry and to the communities who currently depend on it.

In addition, as COP26 helped – I hope - to show, we are positioning ourselves as a testbed for green technologies.

Scotland is already home to the world’s largest floating windfarm. We are an established centre for the development and testing of new wave and tidal technologies. We have developed plans to trial carbon capture and storage, and we are working to position ourselves as a hydrogen centre of excellence.

Our hope - first and foremost of course - is that all of this innovation and development will create jobs and opportunities at home in Scotland and help ensure that no one, and no part of Scotland, is left behind in our transition away from fossil fuels.

However, we also hope that this innovation will benefit other countries as well.

And a good example of that combination of innovation and opportunity is that focus on hydrogen that I’ve referred to a couple of times already.

Hydrogen will be an essential part of the move away from fossil fuels.

Indeed, when the US last year published its own strategy on Pathways to Net Zero, it highlighted the role hydrogen could play in decarbonising transport.

The German Government, too, has set out plans to invest €8 billion in hydrogen projects, which will be matched by €33 billion of private investment.

But - an obvious but vital point is this - since the creation of hydrogen uses energy, large-scale hydrogen is only a sustainable solution if it is produced with renewable power.

And so Scotland’s significant renewable resources give us the opportunity - we firmly believe - to become the most reliable and lowest-cost green hydrogen producer in Europe.

We aim to have the capacity, by 2030, to create 5 GW of hydrogen – for context, that’s just over one seventh of Scotland’s current total energy demand.

Even at that level of production, as well as using it within Scotland, we expect to be in a position to export to other countries.

However, our plan is that by 2045, we will have the capacity to produce 25 GW of hydrogen, and much of that will be exported.

Scotland’s potential is already being recognised by other countries. In the past year alone, we have signed memorandums of understanding with Denmark, and with Hamburg and North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany.

And Europe’s interest in and need for exportable sources of hydrogen has increased further and has become much more urgent as a result of the Ukraine war and the focus on energy security that it has necessitated.

Now hydrogen power is of course still a relatively young technology, and I realise it’s not always easy for people to see now the full potential that it offers us. But as we all know, renewable technologies can and do grow very rapidly. Scotland’s first offshore windfarm, just as an example to illustrate that point, didn’t become operational until 2010, but today, little more than a decade later, offshore wind is a key, essential, and increasing part of our energy landscape.

So my hope is that Scottish hydrogen production can make a significant contribution, not just to Scotland’s own energy needs, but to energy security in Europe and beyond.

Hydrogen also has the potential - and this is another key issue, which will lead into my next key point – it has the potential to become a significant industry in Scotland. If we realise the ambitions that I have just briefly set out, hydrogen won’t simply be an important source of energy - it will also be a source of secure skilled employment.

The same is true of offshore wind – as part of the recent Scottish offshore wind licensing auction, significant guarantees were secured for supply chain investment.

And that is important – really important.

Many developed countries obviously went through a process of deindustrialisation in the 1970s and the 1980s. And that deindustrialisation process was far too often very poorly managed.

The part of Scotland where I grew up, not far from where part of John’s family hails, was deeply, deeply scarred by the impact of industrial policies that resulted in the closure of coal mines and heavy industry with no thought or effort given to securing alternative jobs and investment. And some of those scars, all these years later, are still visible today.

And that experience, of the impact and the harm of deindustrialisation, weighs very heavily on me today as a First Minister seeking to lead my country into and through the process of decarbonisation.

Scotland, as I alluded to earlier, still has a very large oil and gas sector. Many jobs depend on it - directly and indirectly. The people working in that sector now - and in decades past - have contributed hugely to our country’s prosperity. So as we make the transition to alternative energy sources, we must ensure that job opportunities and wealth are created in a way which doesn’t leave entire communities - and those who live in those communities - behind.

That’s why, for example, in Scotland we have a very sharp focus on how the north-east of our country - the area centred on the city of Aberdeen, currently known as the oil and gas capital of Europe – can become a global green energy capital.

It’s why we are conducting the detailed work I referred to earlier on the future of the oil and gas sector.

And it is why we place a very strong emphasis on training and skills. We need to ensure that people of all ages are equipped for the jobs of the future.

This is an issue of course we work closely with other countries on. I’m currently the European co-chair of the Under-2 Alliance, a coalition of more than 260 cities, states and devolved governments committed to keeping global warming well below that 2 degrees threshold.

California, Virginia and New York State are some of the US members of that alliance.

Creating a just transition to net zero – in which no people or communities are left behind – definitely makes economic sense, but it is, also , just the right thing for governments to do.

And it is, to return to the issues of energy and security, important I think for the strength and the health of our societies, and for the strength and the resilience of our democratic institutions.

The Brookings Institution published a piece about this just last week. It highlighted that “former heartland industrial powerhouses…represent the most fertile ground for authoritarian strongmen.”

Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with your Senior Fellow, Fiona Hill - who grew up in the north of England, and whose background and early life experiences are strikingly similar to my own.

In her recent, excellent book, Fiona of course draws parallels between the challenges faced in the North of England and US industrial heartlands during the 1980s; the lasting scars and loss of opportunity that resulted; and the subsequent rise in support for Brexit in the United Kingdom, and for Donald Trump here in the United States. Similar forces, of course - she argues - are at play in the rise and dominance of Putin in Russia.

Certainly, one of the reasons for the wave of populism we’ve seen in many countries in the developed world – including the UK and the United States – is that sense that people have been left behind, that they’ve been ignored and disregarded by their governments. That sense has its roots the economic changes of the 1980s, and was undoubtedly compounded by the impacts of the 2008 financial crash.

And so if the move to net zero turns out to be yet another economic upheaval that is done to people and communities rather than done with and for them; if people don’t have the chance to influence the changes they see in their lives; and if they cannot see and feel any benefit from those changes; then there is a real danger that communities will feel abandoned again, that faith in politics will be further undermined, and that more countries will become susceptible to the populism of strongmen leaders.

That would be disastrous for our environment, detrimental for our, in some places, already fragile democracies, and deeply dangerous for our national and international security.

And so my final point today is that ensuring a just transition to net zero isn’t just important within each individual nation – although I argue that it is of fundamental importance for all of us individually – but it is also vital internationally, and for the very same reasons.

We know that developing countries have done least to cause this climate crisis that we face. But more often than not these are the countries that are the worst affected by the impacts of climate change. There is a gender dimension here, too – women are often disproportionately affected by the consequences of climate change.

Developed countries must take account of these injustices. That’s why in my view it’s so crucial that the global north not only finds the $100 billion of adaptation finance first promised back in 2009, but that it also fully invests - with countries in the global south - in the adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage programmes that they so badly need.

Recognising the basic but deep injustice at the heart of the climate crisis is the right thing to do. But it is also in the interests of Europe, the United States and the rest of the global north.

Resource shortages and uninhabitable conditions will lead to more conflict, to increased migration and the mass movement of populations.

A continued unjust climate crisis will make our world less secure, which is why our energy futures are so intrinsically linked to our future security.

I mentioned at the outset of my remarks that our world is still emerging from the pandemic. We are all of us still dealing with the reality of that pandemic.

But for all the trauma created by COVID – and there has been a great deal of deep trauma created by it - we should never, ever forget that it also demonstrated the incredible ingenuity of humankind.

Mass testing infrastructures were established almost from scratch. Vaccines were developed at incredible pace, and governments embarked on expenditure programs that would have seemed inconceivable when I was last here in the United States in 2019.

One of the difficulties though of the climate crisis is that, despite the mounting evidence all around us, too many governments are still refusing to accept the urgency and respond accordingly.

That is - as of now - a failure of will. But it is perhaps also a failure of imagination.

For if we could fully imagine the horror of a world which is more than 2 degrees hotter; if we in the developed world imagined ourselves in the shoes of those in the global south who are being brutally affected by climate change right now; then surely the world would already be much more on track to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

So now – when we have seen what was possible in response to COVID, and when the west has already shown a resolve and commitment in responding to Russia’s aggression that would have been hard to believe just a few months ago – we surely must, to go back to President Biden’s words, use this “inflection point”, to respond with much greater urgency and ingenuity to the gravity of the climate crisis.

We must move at greater pace to develop clean energy sources.

And we must act in a way that shows solidarity - with communities in our countries who might otherwise get left behind, and of course with the global south.

For all of these reasons, Europe’s debates on energy security really do matter to the wider safety and security of the entire world.

And Scotland, where we can, wants to be a constructive partner in these discussions - and a contributor to the solutions.

We will – I hope - lead by example in our own actions. We will contribute to international energy security in doing so. And we will work with allies across the globe as we strive, together, to build a fairer, more secure and more sustainable world.

That has never been more important than it is now. Thank you all very much indeed.

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