23rd December 2020

With 2020 having brought a range of unforeseen and pressing challenges for businesses in the North Highlands, we can perhaps be excused this year for losing sight of some of the longer-term issues. Yet the release recently of the UK Government’s Energy White Paper and promise that the nation will “build back cleaner” has reminded us that sustainability remains a pressing concern not just for the North Highlands, but across the whole of the UK.

Too often, as businesses, we look at issues like sustainability as a burden – more regulation, more paperwork and, too often, more money – and it is hard to deny that the shift to new ways of working that these issues require do bring with them all of those challenges.

However, as I have said repeatedly over the course of this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us more than ever how much businesses are at the heart of their communities. As part of that, we have a responsibility to our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, to be the best we can be and to lead the way on issues that affect our whole community.

It has become clear that the climate emergency is one of the most pressing social and political issues of our time. As businesses, we have a key role and responsibility to play in addressing it, even if that brings with it some short-term challenges.

We must also remember that if we are active, willing participants in the climate discussion, we can help to shape the policies that will be coming. Not in a way that avoids our responsibilities, but in a way that helps us ensure the burden is fairly balanced and that the needs and concerns of businesses are considered as we build a new, greener economy.

On that note, it is also important that the benefits of the national push towards a sustainable economy are spread evenly, and that regions like the North Highlands see their fair share. We are well on the way to this already, with a strong skills base and supply chain experienced in areas like offshore wind and tidal, but the next few years will be key in ensuring that we receive the support we need from Government.

We also need to work hard to remind Government that, while an economic transition is needed, this cannot happen all at once and that there will be occasions where seemingly counter-intuitive investment decisions will have to be made to enable a transition that is fair for all.

Aviation, for example, is undoubtedly a contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet without access to lifeline air services in the North Highlands, it will be hard or impossible to develop other key parts of the green economic recovery in this region. Government support now for air services to the region will pay huge dividends in green development years to come, as well as unlocking the potential for the North Highlands to be at the forefront of exciting developments in low/zero-carbon aviation.

As a Chamber, we have been involved in discussions as part of the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission, and have been alarmed at some suggestions such as punitive measures on car drivers which would unfairly impact remote and rural regions like ours. We need to ensure that decarbonisation measures take into account these impacts and involve investment in transport modes, like aviation, that work for the remoter parts of Scotland and aren’t just focused on the Central Belt.

Businesses in the North Highlands have faced more than their fair share of challenges over the years, and it is clear that we will be feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for many years to

come. The coming years and decades, and the inevitable shift to a green economy will undoubtedly bring their own burdens to the region.

There is an opportunity, however, for us to look past those burdens, grasp the sustainability agenda with both hands, and ensure that this region sees the investment it needs to rebuild stronger and better than before. As a Chamber, we will continue to be at the forefront of fighting for businesses in the North Highlands and helping them to build a better, cleaner, greener future for everyone.

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