Why have we returned our
Thistle Award for Climate Action?
East Lothian Cottages has returned its VisitScotland regional Thistle Award for Climate Action in protest
at VisitScotland’s continuing funding of fossil fuels via their pension scheme.
The Thistle Award
In October 2023 we won a regional Thistle Award for Climate Action (for Central and East Scotland). Hosted and presented by VisitScotland, the public body tasked with promoting Scotland’s tourism industry, the Thistle Awards are their annual celebration of the very best of our sector, and 2023 was the inaugural year for the Climate Action Award. We’ve put a lot of work into ensuring that guests can stay in our cottages with minimum impact on the environment, so we were delighted to have our efforts recognised in such a way.
A commitment to responsible tourism is, quite rightly, a precondition of every Thistle Award category. And sustainability is something VisitScotland advocate again and again. As their website says: ‘tackling climate change is the biggest challenge facing Scottish tourism.’ Their sustainability policy seems to reinforce this: ‘It’s our goal to reduce the environmental impact and maximise the economic and social benefits of our own operations. We take direct action on issues to help and influence the opinion and action of third parties.’
Such a position is nothing less than we would expect from Scotland’s tourism body, whose principle role is to promote our nation’s greatest asset: our environment. Unfortunately, though, there is a vast gulf between VisitScotland’s public claims and their private actions.
The Lothian Pension Fund
VisitScotland has a statutory obligation to offer its employees a local government pension scheme. Theirs is managed by the Lothian Pension Fund (LPF), the second largest in the country and one that manages the pensions of a range of employers, including Scottish Water, Edinburgh Napier University, Heriot-Watt University, and the Scottish Police Authority. And it currently holds well over £230 million in direct fossil fuel investments, via companies such as Equinor, BP, TotalEnergies and Shell.
The science is impervious to ideology or greenwash: to avoid climate catastrophe, the world must urgently phase out our use of coal, gas and oil. We already have far more fossil fuel reserves than can safely be burned, which means, as many international bodies including the IEA and the UN have clearly stated, there can be no expansion of fossil fuel production.
Yet, in defiance of the facts and with the approval of many of the world's governments - our own included - fossil fuel companies are aggressively seeking yet more fossil fuels to extract and burn.
As a member of the LPF, VisitScotland is not just knowingly funding the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, but is inviting its employees to profit from the destruction of the very asset it is their job to promote.
The Pensions Committee
What makes VisitScotland's position so much worse is that one of their employees sits on the Pensions Committee of the LPF. He holds the casting vote that could phase out the entire fund’s investment in fossil fuels, redirecting that money towards a sustainable future.
It's fair to say that this VisitScotland employee represents all employers, and not just VisitScotland. But many employers and employees within the scheme have already requested the adoption of a divestment strategy, including the entirety of East Lothian Council and the City of Edinburgh Council. In refusing to publicly support these calls for divestment, VisitScotland is not just failing to show the climate leadership it lays claim to, but is actively aligning itself, as a national body, with the ruin of our environment, and a horrific list of crimes perpetrated by fossil fuel companies around the world.
At the time of accepting the regional Climate Action Award, we were aware of VisitScotland’s involvement in the LPF. Yet we were assured by a VisitScotland director that they recognised the issue and were taking action. And their own website is awash with similar promises, professing that ‘VisitScotland is committed to bold action and championing change.’ But well over seven months since we first contacted VisitScotland to highlight this conflict between claim and deed, and despite multiple efforts to raise it via my local representative and their Board, they remain members of the LPF, and unwilling to rule out continuing support for their current policy of funding fossil fuel expansion.
We recognise the exceptional work of the wider industry to embrace sustainability and responsible tourism, and congratulate this year's Thistle Award finalists, especially those in the Climate Action category, who deserve all the praise they get. And we recognise that there are many within VisitScotland itself determined to have a positive environmental impact on the industry. Unfortunately, though, their association with the LPF wholly undermines their organisation's own credibility, and we at East Lothian Cottages refuse to be complicit in such hypocrisy.
For lack of any substantive response, it’s therefore with real regret that we are today returning our award, and have asked to be withdrawn from the national finals. We urge all those involved with VisitScotland to hold the organisation to account on this important issue. Investments - and especially pensions - can be a highly effective tool for positive change. According to the MakeMyMoneyMatter campaign, divesting your pension is twenty-one times more effective at reducing carbon emissions than giving up flying, going vegetarian and switching to a green electricity supplier - combined.
It’s past time for all individuals and companies to be clear about the future they’re creating via their own pensions.
1st December, 2023