Is Scotland on the right climate change path?

by | 11 Jan 2022

The UK Climate Change Committee's new report to the Scottish Parliament makes sobering reading for those who believe Scotland is a 'climate leader'

The UK Committee on Climate Change has produced its latest report to the Scottish Parliament on Scotland’s steps towards ‘net zero’ and projecting how these will go. It does not make for encouraging reading.

Let’s start with what it says that is positive – and it isn’t much. Scotland again gets credit for having set ambitious targets. It is worth dwelling on the fact at this stage that these are only ambitious targets in relation to the targets others have set and that achieving these targets only places Scotland slightly ahead of the least it has to do to keep climate change survivable.

And when the second element of good(ish) news is added to this it doesn’t make the picture more positive. Because by far the majority of any progress that has been made is in decarbonising electricity generation with the installation of wind generation.

This is a positive outcome which unfortunately shines a depressing light on other aspects. The development of wind turbine generation of electricity is beyond a ‘no brainer’ in Scotland. It is effectively ‘free money’ for the owner of any new development. Plus this is mainly an outcome of UK Government policy – the Scottish Government’s role in wind turbines should have been manufacture capture.

What that shows is that what Scotland has done so far is the definition of ‘easy’. We had a valuable resource, we let private business take the valuable resource and then we paid them for it. This shows how little we’re really doing in Scotland and also how privileged Scotland is when it comes to the climate crisis.

Beyond this point the report is politely grim. Having previously explained that as far as there is a coherent plant for net zero in Scotland it is ‘on the fringes of credibility’ it now rather depressingly projects that even if this plan was achieved in full, we’d still miss our targets.

Which is to say that the plan doesn’t appear to be realistic but that even if we succeeded in delivering it it wouldn’t work sufficiently well anyway.

If we do what we say we will do we will fail to achieve what we say we will achieve because we’ve only done easy things and are ducking doing the difficult things

Why? The report picks up a number of reasons for this. Three to highlight are transport, agriculture and carbon capture and storage. A lot of what is promised is predicated on very substantial savings in the carbon emitted by the transport sector, but the report makes clear that the necessary steps to achieve that are not being taken. It marks as ‘urgent’ the need to start taking seriously the steps needed.

Agriculture is also in the crosshairs and is again identified as an area that requires ‘urgent’ action. The Scottish Government has not produced a low-carbon agriculture policy and will not do so for another two years – but it is reliant on making the savings nonetheless (plus all the noises coming out about the Scottish Government approach at the moment are that it will not be interfering with the interests of the farming lobby).

And on carbon capture the report is pretty clear. Again, it is phrased in the diplomatic language of a Committee which has constantly to issue bad news to powerful actors – but this language isn’t all that diplomatic. It points out that all the real world indicators are that there is almost certain to be nothing like the scale of deployment of carbon capture necessary to stay on track with targets.

In fact it makes clear that there must be a full set of contingencies, which is a polite way of saying ‘this isn’t going to work and so the Scottish Government must start again with a Plan B’.

It’s other relevant conclusion here is that the Scottish Government is also relying fairly heavily on including in its planning a series of savings it knows it has no power to deliver because they’re reserved and which go beyond what the UK has committed to do.

Summed up, this broadly means that if we do what we say we will do we will fail to achieve what we say we will achieve because we’ve only done easy things, are ducking doing the difficult things and are making up the giant gap this leaves with technologies that don’t (and won’t) exist and by making commitments which are not ours to make and which we can’t deliver.

This is sobering reading for anyone who thinks Scotland is a ‘climate change leader’ or believes that we are sincere and serious in our commitment to climate change.

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