The future of Scotland's Green Ports is inextricably linked to the nation's Net Zero goals, yet major obstacles to their implementation still exist. The British Ports Association is exploring ways to move forward, says Anthony Harrington.

Scotland’s ports are already playing a role across multiple fronts when it comes to helping the nation achieve its net-zero carbon goals. They are having an impact through facilitating the build-out of offshore and onshore wind, by enabling decommissioning to be done as eco-friendly as possible and through efforts to lower their own and customers’ carbon footprints.

On top of all this, the Scottish Government’s Green Ports initiative, which adds an environmental flavour to the UK Government’s Freeports proposal, could inject further momentum to this process.

HeraldScotland: Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive of The British Ports AssociationRichard Ballantyne, Chief Executive of The British Ports Association

However, as Richard Ballantyne, the CEO of the ports membership body, the British Ports Association, notes, the continuing delays in the discussions between Westminster and Holyrood on the initiative is giving cause for concern.

The Scottish Government initially indicated some suspicion towards the proposal from Westminster to introduce up to 10 Freeports around the country but is now much more supportive. These zones will allow firms to bring goods into the country then re-export them outside of the normal tax and customs regulations. It also enables investors to take advantage of new tax, planning and regulatory easements. 

Scottish Trade, Investment and Innovation Minister, Ivan McKee, who previously dismissed the Free Ports proposals as ‘a shiny squirrel’ meant to distract from difficulties over the then Brexit negotiations, is now more positive about the wider regenerative tools of the policy.

“Our ambition for Scotland’s economy is to continue to build a high-productivity, high-wage, innovative economy built on the strength of our world-leading technology, businesses and academic clusters. This is the focus of our inward investment strategies. We remain concerned the focus of freeports may be positioned to compete on low-cost, low-wage, low-value opportunities with which they are often associated globally,” McKee said at the time.


The SNP’s initial position was criticised by the business community, which had welcomed the Freeports initiative. This appeared to prompt a rethink and led to the Scottish Government’s current Green Ports proposals.

In McKee’s words: “We propose to take the Free Ports model and apply Scotland’s priorities to it so that it meets our ambitions to deliver a net-zero, wellbeing economy that upholds the highest standards of environmental protections and fair work practices and supports our strategy of building clusters of high productivity businesses across Scotland’s regions.”

Despite saying it wanted work to begin soon on a ‘joint prospectus’, the UK government has yet to sign up to the Scottish Green Ports idea completely.


Ballantyne comments: “While Scottish ports clearly cannot put forward their bids to become Green Ports until the concept and the associated regulatory regime is formally introduced, notwithstanding some issues around regional competition, we know from our members there is a lot of enthusiasm for a version of the Green Ports scheme here in Scotland.”

The political standoff between Westminster and Holyrood could potentially lead to Scottish ports being disadvantaged and left behind by comparison to English ports, he notes. However, the Scottish Government recently published some draft proposals outlining what could be required of organisations wanting to bid for Green Port status.

“This has given a good flavour of what can be expected. Ports, airports, regions, local authorities and businesses are all either looking at or even preparing bids in line with these proposals,” Ballantyne comments.

He points out that, while both the Freeports and the Green Ports initiatives have had a very positive response from a number of Scottish ports, there is considerable concern over suggestions in the UK proposals that Scotland may only be allowed one or at most two Green Ports.

“There is a real danger that if the Green Ports initiative is restricted to just one or two locations, as appears to be the current thinking, this will severely disadvantage those areas that are excluded. We would like to see the Green Ports scheme extended more widely, with each bid considered on its merits,” he comments.

HeraldScotland: Port of Cromarty FirthPort of Cromarty Firth

Ballantyne points out that ports are accustomed to being independent entities, managing their own affairs free from government direction. The idea that the Scottish Government should pick and choose among ports as to which port should be favoured with Green Port status, with only one or two being chosen, seems inherently invidious.

“The ports and shipping sector is typically market-led. There is a real danger that we could see activities and investment moving from ports whose bids are not successful, to those that are successful. Diverting trade from one area to another should not be what Green Ports are all about,” he comments. He also notes that it is unusual for the Government to intervene or get into the business of picking winners in this way.

“We are pressing both governments to ensure its ports strategy is more inclusive. We would like to see the concept and easements extended across Scotland so all ports could make the status work in respect of their operations.

“We certainly do not think that the Government should be favouring one region over another.”

However, Ballantyne points out that, so far, in discussions with the Scottish Government, the BPA has been encouraged by the degree to which Ministers have been sympathetic to the idea of being more inclusive where possible.

Some of the favourable regulations in the UK Government’s Freeports proposals, such as those around tax, are not devolved powers, however.


So there will be limits on the extent to which the Scottish government will be free to extend its Green Ports initiative to a wider number of Scottish ports.

Ivan McKee has written to Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, warning the Scottish Government is becoming “frustrated at the lack of cooperation from the UK Government … to agree to our Green Port ambitions.”  He warned the Secretary of State Scotland will not support any Free Port initiative that does not include Scotland’s key Green Port proposals concerning fair work and a commitment to net zero.


HeraldScotland: Rhona Macdonald, Sustainability Advisor at the British Ports AssociationRhona Macdonald, Sustainability Advisor at the British Ports Association

Net Zero strategy: Unique characteristics of every Scottish port represent opportunities

SCOTTISH ports, in common with ports all around the UK, have a huge role to play in helping Scotland achieve its net zero carbon goals. This means looking at how they can get their day-to-day operations closer to a net zero carbon footprint, while also helping the general push to transition to renewable power and helping to move freight off the public road network.

Rhona Macdonald, Sustainability Advisor at the British Ports Association (BPA), a membership body for the UK’s ports that represents all the main Scottish ports and harbours, explains the BPA is currently in the process of formulating an environmental programme for the sector, which will include Scottish ports. This will look at how ports can embrace green technology, electrify their operations and work with the shipping and haulage industries to reduce their environmental impacts.

“We are working hard on our environmental programme for the ports industry. This will help move our sector forward in line with government’s ‘net zero’ targets. The aspiration is to get it published before the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which is being held from October 31 to November 12 this year,” she comments. The plan will be to create a guide for all types of ports, providing help and guidance on a range of things ports can do to reduce their carbon footprint.


As Macdonald points out, every port has its own unique features, so this is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ sector. The plan aims to provide ports with useful help and guidance on moving forward. Each port will need to interpret the guidance according to its own circumstances and the unique characteristics of its own operations.

As is so often the case, the devil is in the detail, so much work will remain to be done by the ports themselves.

“Many of our members are keen to sign up. We have a draft plan ready and this has now been approved by our council” Macdonald says.

In parallel to the BPA project the Scottish Government is promoting a ‘Green Ports’ initiative that replicates the UK’s Freeports programme which could see one or two locations in Scotland designated with a special business and regulatory status. As Madonald points out, the two initiatives are far from identical. The ‘green’ requirement is just one among a number of policy points that define what the Scottish Government initiative.

By way of contrast, the BPA’s initiative is aimed at helping all ports to reduce their carbon footprint.

“This is a very diverse sector,” Macdonald emphasises. “You have Trust Ports as well as private ports and ports run by local authorities. They all have different characteristics and different mixes of business. They all, also, have different opportunities to enable a wide range of other initiatives that will have the effect of helping Scotland to achieve its net-zero target.”

Some Scottish ports, for example, are already deeply involved in developing the offshore wind sector. Indeed, a number of ports have made significant investments in constructing heavy lay-down areas and other facilities. This is reinforced by Scotland having 25 per cent of Europe’s wind resource, demonstrating how ports have a vital role to play in enabling the growth of Scotland’s offshore wind power market. 

“There is a huge incentive here to move forward and facilitate the creation of the infrastructure that will give us a tremendous North Sea offshore wind power resource.

“With their heavy lifting capacity and large reinforced laydown areas, a number of Scottish ports have a key role to play in this,” Macdonald comments.


Scottish ports are also well placed to support the offshore oil industry with decommissioning. Macdonald points out the pace of decommissioning is likely to speed up in the next few years. “It all has to be done in the safest possible manner, with the lowest possible environmental impact and several Scottish ports are already either actively involved in decommissioning or are preparing for it,” she says.

A number of Scottish ports are favourably situated for decommissioning work and, as Macdonald notes, some have been making significant investments to strengthen their quaysides and hard standing areas to accommodate the size and weight of some of the structures that will be coming ashore.

At quayside, the BPA acknowledges as a critical part of logistics and supply chains ports play a wider role in facilitating the decarbonisation of the freight industry.

In doing so, some Scottish ports have already installed shore power connections for vessels at berth, demonstrating their commitment to reducing the impact of the sector as a whole.

While it is celebrated that some Scottish ports have invested in low-voltage shore side connections, there remains many technological and operational challenges in moving towards electrification of large fleets and port infrastructure. This is where the BPA plays a key role in representing the interests of its members to Government and supporting the delivery of policy frameworks that enable a just transition.

“There is a significant push for the implementation of low to zero carbon solutions as evident from our involvement in Scotland’s Future Maritime Fuels Group and with a lot of action happening on the ground, it’s an exciting time to join the sector” Macdonald says.

This article is brought to you in association with The British Ports Association.