Orcadian Column, 14 December 2023

12 Dec 2023

Tattie picking pushes it hard but gathering kelp was comfortably the most unpleasant task I had growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Child labour laws are more stringent nowadays, and kelp harvesting no longer takes place to any real extent, but it was once an important industry in Sanday and other isles, a source of ash for fertiliser and used in soap and glass production.

While it was never likely to set me on a path to untold riches, it was highly lucrative for those further up the ‘food chain’. As the Northern Isles Landscape Partnership website observes, though, the “back-breaking work was often unprofitable for labourers, and exposed locals to pungent fumes”. I certainly don’t recall mum and dad furnishing me with those warnings as they packed me off to Lopness and Scuthvie Bay with a bottle of juice and woefully inadequate waterproofs.

But as I learned at an event in the Scottish Parliament last week, seaweed farming and harvesting is enjoying a revival. We heard from representatives of the Scottish Association of Marine Science, based in Oban, about the world-leading research they are undertaking in this area. Part of the UHI network, SAMS is working with local businesses to see how the sector might be developed here in Scotland.

Recognised as a ‘superfood’ and a key component in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and biofuels, seaweed offers potentially significant economic opportunities, not least for island and coastal communities. Huge markets already exist across Asia, but demand is growing both there and around the globe.

Also compelling are the environmental benefits. As well as providing food and shelter for other marine life, seaweed and seagrass can improve water quality and sequester carbon. Indeed, such is their speed of growth that they may prove more effective as carbon ‘sinks’ than land-based forestry.

All of which is promising in the context of our efforts to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises: the subject of a further event I hosted on Monday this week to coincide with COP28 taking place in Dubai. Partnering with GLOBE International, the panel discussion considered the role of parliaments and parliamentarians in holding governments to account; making climate change a priority across parliamentary committees; and ensuring legislation, policy and budgets all contribute to achieving our targets.

The online Q&A concluded abruptly as those taking part at the Dubai end were being asked to gather for an earlier than expected conclusion to the conference. Later it emerged that the draft communique prepared on behalf of COP28 participants fell well short of what had been expected, prompting a fierce backlash from many quarters.

While questions remain about how and from whom funds will be collected to help poorer countries deal with the loss and damage already suffered and still threatened due to climate change, the focus of most attention was on the scale of commitment to phasing out oil and gas. An initial draft statement over the weekend appeared promising, but on Monday evening a revised text emerged with the word ‘could’ inserted, making it appear more like a shopping list from which countries would be free to pick and choose or elect not to do anything at all.

Having had no warning of the last-minute change, participants were not slow in voicing their anger. EU negotiators threatened to pull out of the talks, while a UK spokesperson insisted that any final text “must include a phase out of unabated fossil fuels”.

At time of writing, it’s still not clear if the situation can be salvaged. For many, it confirms misgivings about allowing a petro-state like United Arab Emirates to host the climate talks in the first instance. Amongst countries in the poorer Global South, there has been understandable fury at what they see as a further attempt to kick the can down the road, while those bearing least responsibility for man-made climate change are left paying the highest and most immediate price. They deserve, and the planet demands better.

All of which puts into perspective my youthful indignation at being informed I’d be paid for the ‘dry’ not the ‘wet’ weight of the kelp I’d hauled up off the shore.