Nothing Green About These Freeports

The freeports are more than a greenwashing gimmick, writes Ryan Morrison. They mark a grim concession to corporate efforts to profit from the climate crisis.

In January 2023, the Scottish and UK Governments jointly announced that bids from the Cromarty Firth and the Firth of Forth had been chosen to become Green Freeports. Then Deputy First Minister John Swinney described their selection as a “milestone achievement”. The Scottish Greens, part of the Scottish Government, decried the programme as a gimmick, containing “no hard requirements” on climate or fair work.

As Peter Henderson writes elsewhere in this issue, Freeports do not seem like good news for workers. Unite the Union noted the lack of clarity from the Scottish Government on enforcement of the Real Living Wage or collective bargaining rights. Nor is it clear, well over a year on, what exactly will be ‘green’ about the Freeports north of the border, compared to those across England and Wales. A scan through promotional documents on the Green Freeports shows a list of tax reliefs, customs, and planning incentives, as well as preferential access to regulators. There is nothing unique about descriptions of ‘Green’ Freeports in Scotland, and no mention of workers or climate emissions.

Big rhetoric meets harsh reality

It is well-known that the Scottish Government is eager to adopt a buzzword but reluctant to back it up with the power of the devolved administration. Fair work, climate emergency, just transition, and wellbeing economy have been taken as far as the statute books, into cabinet secretary job titles, and across a litany of vision statements in their rhetorical odyssey through the Scottish Government. The ‘green’ in our freeports continues the trend. It recognises social harm and injustice that exist, and their potential to be exacerbated in future. Such recognition just adds insult to the Scottish Government failure to meaningfully tackle their root causes or build alternative models.

ScotWind was the first round of offshore wind leasing round in Scottish waters for a decade.

The ScotWind leasing round has been heralded as progress towards a just transition, yet the offshore wind sector only shows a falling return on jobs as companies enjoy a rapid growth of their income. Now ‘Green’ Freeports with their tax breaks and threats to workers and environmental rights are set out as a milestone to reaching net zero and delivering fair work. By now there shouldn’t be shock or frustration when the Scottish Government adopts the titles but never the contents of demands from the left. When push comes to shove, this is a government that wants the praise but not the conflict.

We’re all out of carrots

The first workers who came together to organise around the term just transition understood its underpinning necessity. Workers have skills which can be turned to social good or social harm, while capitalism is ambivalent to either outcome if profits or wealth can be extracted. Resisting harm necessitates placing limits on what investment and production can take place in an economy, whether health and safety regulations, or barriers to prevent climate breakdown. If such limits block potential avenues for capital, they force a fundamental conflict. In this intersection workers must be organised to demand better, particularly where governments are found wanting .

The UK’s independent climate advisory body, the CCC, published a report last month confirming that the Scottish Government’s statutory target for emissions reductions by 2030 was no longer possible. This won’t surprise anyone who has followed their recent track record against these targets. The CCC’s calculations can’t have been particularly difficult, given repeated warnings of insufficient progress in recent years.

In response, Cabinet Secretary Mairi McAllan cited the ScotWind leasing round as one of several reasons to be reassured. Yet Scotland already generates more renewable electricity than would be needed to meet current electricity demand. The concern of the CCC and many others is that climate targets can’t be met without far more significant intervention in our transport system, the way we heat our homes, and how we manage the land. ScotWind doesn’t provide answers to these challenges.

Scotland’s emissions have halved since 1990, largely driven by the closure of coal-fired power stations. Yet other sectors including transport, buildings, and industrial processes have barely changed since 2016. Growing renewable capacity has offered a lucrative new avenue for energy companies, with the UK Government securing returns [CG4] through the regressive Contracts for Difference consumer subsidy model.

Renewable energy is a straightforward avenue for capital extraction. Shifting travellers from private cars to public transport, improving home insulation to reduce energy demand, or making industrial processes less carbon-intensive are far less profitable avenues. The reality is that the next stage of emission reductions takes us into these sites of conflict. The Scottish Government has always favoured the carrot over the stick. They are now failing to answer what happens when there are no carrots left to give.

Fighting the politics, winning the wealth

This is the context of the Freeports. The projects are underway and the response from the left must address the reality for those who work and live around them, alongside a critique of what they represent and what could be done instead. Their outcome can be predicted based on experiences from similar initiatives worldwide. The likely outcomes will be jobs displaced from elsewhere in the country, local and national tax revenues lost, and attacks on workers and environmental rights. Rights are a floor for workers, not a ceiling. Collective bargaining empowers workers who have a vested interest in their working conditions and local community. It is the only way to resist the erosion of rights and retain for workers as much of the wealth flowing through ports as possible.


Freeports are no isolated project but another demonstration that the government is unwilling to challenge the corporate interests crowding around ‘net zero’ and green industries. The resistance starts by refusing to run the race to the bottom it triggers, and demanding alternatives rooted in the interests of the working class.

Freeports are one more example of the favours granted to capital by an ideologically driven UK Government and an ideologically vapid Scottish Government. The latter’s rhetorical ambition for social justice stutters when faced with pushback from corporate entities. Understanding Freeports in this context is an important prelude to building a multi-faceted trade union response: one with the power to build a genuinely green economy by taking on and defeating the ideology of Freeports, while ensuring that communities cast under their net can organise to gain, not lose, from their development.

Ryan Morrison works on just transition issues within the Scottish trade union movement.