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Privatising Scotland’s Trees

The Scottish Government's £2 billion PFI deal to pay wealthy landowners to plant trees will increase inequality and do nothing to deter big polluters – proof that the market can't fix the climate crisis.

The Scottish Government's £2 billion PFI deal will disproportionately benefit the 432 landowners who own half of Scotland's private land. (Getty)

On March 1st, under the guise of the SNP leadership contest, the Scottish Government signed one of Scotland’s largest-ever PFI deals. NatureScot’s new £2bn partnership with private finance perfectly illustrates how ‘green capitalism’ has come to haunt efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

Signed by a Green government minister, the ‘pilot’ project aims to ‘secure landscape scale restoration of native woodlands’ through ‘private investment in natural capital.’ NatureScot’s press release was couched in the language of environmentalism but, put simply, the deal empowers corporations to asset-strip Scotland. 

Asset Stripping Nature

The deal will see banks provide loans to landowners to fund tree planting and profit from carbon offsetting—when polluters pay for others to reduce emissions or absorb CO2 through activities like tree planting to compensate for their own emissions. In addition, landowners can access state grants as a consequence of their ‘green’ efforts. The deal is a windfall for all involved, except the public, who are left subsidising the profits of private capital.

The partnership’s details are characteristically murky. However, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the agreement makes it very clear that the deal’s sole state player, Scotland’s nature agency NatureScot, will act primarily in an advisory capacity, leaving most responsibilities to the cabal of private interests behind the deal. The bank Hamden & Co will finance the initiative, ‘global impact’ firm Palladium will design the project, and Lombard Odier Asset Management will oversee the sale of carbon credits.

NatureScot suggests the agreement could create 185,000 hectares of native woodland over the next 30 years. Through orchestrating this development and the associated offsetting scheme, the bank, asset management company and ‘global impact firm’ hope to see a return on their investment.

The agreement will see private capital bridge a gap in public funding for woodland restoration. Currently, landowners looking to plant trees receive state subsidies over a period of years. Now, Hampden and Co. have come to landowners’ rescue by offering to provide the capital for tree planting upfront. While the bank profits from its loan, already wealthy landowners access Scotland’s growing ‘carbon market’. In effect, the eventual guarantee of public subsidy ensures security for the banks and reimbursement for the landowners. It’s a corporate bonanza which, in the words of the think tank CommonWealth, ‘privatises Scotland’s trees.

Climate U-Turns

Just two years ago, Scottish Green Party co-leader Lorna Slater argued that ‘we need an absolutely fundamental change in how our economy works.’ On March 1st 2023, Slater, now Scottish Government Biodiversity Minister, signed Scotland’s response to the natural emergency over to multinational capital. Heaping praise on the deal, Slater said, ‘ Scotland is well placed to take a leading role [in restoring the natural environment] by offering investors the opportunity to generate sustainable returns from the restoration and regeneration of our landscapes.’

This £2bn private finance agreement must be understood in the context of Scotland’s hyper-concentrated pattern of land ownership, in which just 432 landowners own 50 percent of Scotland’s private land. It is these estate owners who can be expected to benefit from Scotland’s growing ‘carbon market’. In response, Scottish land value rose by 61 percent in 2021 alone.

This deal, which redistributes wealth directly to asset-rich landowners who already enjoy healthy subsidies, is only beginning. Now, in their recruitment for the board of the Cairngorms National Park, the Scottish Government lists the development of ‘private finance investment’ among the position’s key responsibilities.

When it comes to the free market’s greenwash, Scotland is open for business. For the Scottish Government, even woodland restoration is an ‘opportunity’ to strengthen the already cosy transactional relationship between the state and private sector. Dependence on the good intentions of big business is increasingly key to Holyrood’s climate response.

Having abandoned their own commitment to establishing a national energy company, the Scottish Government heralded the results of last year’s ScotWind leasing round. This was when the publicly-owned Crown Estates Scotland auctioned off the rights to develop offshore wind projects to multinational corporations, including BP and Shell.

As far as the SNP and Greens were concerned ScotWind, like the NatureScot partnership, was an ‘opportunity’. In reality, the auction legitimised the oil companies’ ‘greenwash’, outsourced jobs and offshored profit. With fossil fuel corporations handling the development of renewables, the Scottish Government’s efforts to enlist private equity firms to solve the nature crisis should come as no surprise.

‘The Value of a Whale’

In her book ‘The Value of a Whale’, Adrienne Buller argues that carbon pricing ‘offers, in theory, a pathway for addressing environmental breakdown that preserves capitalist social and economic relations.’ Buller points out that, more than simply preserving market fundamentals, carbon pricing provides ‘a new state-facilitated route to profit-making.’ Soaked in the market-speak of ‘natural capital’ and ‘sustainable investment’, NatureScot’s new partnership is a timely reminder that the natural environment is far from safe from commodification.

Green capitalism and the carbon market will not solve the climate crisis. As far back as 1867, Marx highlighted the environmental consequences of a system dependent on perpetual accumulation, arguing that capital robs the soil of its fertility just as it exploits the worker. Green capitalism, then, aims to resolve an inherent contradiction by preserving the planet but increasing extraction. The carbon market embodies this paradox. Big polluters are free to behave as they have done for centuries, safe in the knowledge their actions can be ‘offset’. In this case, Scotland gets trees while the transactional nature of the carbon market dictates that somewhere else must receive emissions.

NatureScot’s partnership is the latest instalment in a pattern of moves to asset-strip Scotland, one from which the new First Minister will not deviate. As the continuity candidate, Humza Yousef will not stray far from Sturgeon’s commitment to tinker around the edges of neoliberal orthodoxy. And having confessed that she thinks the job of First Minister is to ‘create breathing space for business’, the situation may well grow far worse on Kate Forbes’ watch. What’s certain is that the Scottish Government’s corporate carve-up is gathering steam.