A last look at the ‘Green Flurry’

by | 18 Nov 2021

Looking at the many environmental announcements made by the Scottish Government over the COP26 period and finding an awful lot of oversell and issue-dodging

Let’s take a last look at the ‘green flurry’, the many policy announcements made by the Scottish Government during and around COP26. How substantial are they and what difference will they make?

We’ve looked already at an absolutely crucial one (the hydrogen strategy) and a highly symbolic one (a partial plastic ban). In both cases what we find is that the structure of the proposal is very ‘corporate friendly’. It’s not that they’re not important initiatives, it’s that they are very particular forms of important initiative. Alternative and much more effective versions would have been perfectly possible.

So what about some of the others? One example is a new fund for “empowering communities on climate action” through the Climate Action Towns programme. This is headlined as £146,000 of investment but since it is to be spread across seven towns, it comes out to about £20,000 per town.

This would barely be enough to hire a junior administrator for a year so the scope for doing a lot isn’t high. But actually as best as it is possible to derive from the available material, it looks like the money is actually going to a national agency (Architecture and Design Scotland) rather than the communities themselves. This project may prove valuable, but it is certainly minor and whether it is ’empowering’ for communities is yet to be seen..

Another headline was about “reducing agricultural emissions”. This is a large and complicated question; reforming agriculture to tackle climate emissions is not easy or routine. So it comes as not a massive surprise that this is a fairly minor tweak to slurry regulations rather than a large-scale plan.

But it also falls at an uncomfortable moment for all concerned because it is to be administered by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) which was just shown to have failed to enforcing existing regulations on dumping sewage into rivers. Worse, when the scale of the problem was revealed (much worse than the rest of the UK) it appeared to want to cover this up.

Again, it’s not that the changes to regulations are unwelcome, but this is a minor move which doesn’t inspire a high degree of confidence in terms of how it will be enforced.

The Scottish Government’s response is to dedicate £300k to the proposal. In government expenditure terms this is truly derisory.

A more glaring example of Government over-sell relates to its approach to the outcomes of the Climate Assemblies. As a reminder, these cost millions of pounds to run and were worth the investment because they produced serious, ambitious and often radical plans.

The evidence so far suggests this is having little purchase on the Scottish Government and one announcement does everything to reinforce that impression. The Climate Assembly had received a presentation from Common Weal and strongly recommended major investment in ‘resource libraries’ (tool libraries, but for many more things).

The Scottish Government’s response is to dedicate £300k to the proposal. In government expenditure terms this is truly derisory. The ‘sharing economy’ is one of the most important elements of getting serious about climate change and so for the Scottish Government to invest less than a third of what it spends on the press officers who put out the stories is a poor show. The funding works out at about the equivalent of one screwgun to be shared between 18,000 people.

Another announcement was on a biodiversity fund. Again, this is very welcome – much needs done. But the headline amount of £55 million is of course spread over five years so works out at annual funding of about £11. Again, to put this into perspective, the Scottish Government gave the oil and gas industry £62 million in recovery grants last year.

Setting this against need, the lifetime management cost of a hectare of land properly stewarded to maximise biodiversity (as well as soil management, rewilding and tree planting) probably falls in the range of about £9,000 to £15,000 (accounting for establishment and annual running costs). The Fund is about more than habitat restoration but if we use that as a rough guide it would mean fewer than 100 hectares of habitat being restored per year.

Once again, this is desperately needed, but at the end of this period if the money is all used well it would enable habitat restoration of rewilding or woodland development of about 0.006 per cent of Scotland. Common Weal things that about 50 per cent of Scotland’s land area needs to be managed this way (including the need to reform agriculture).

An extra £18 million was announced for ‘warmer, greener homes’ (i.e. retrofitting for energy performance). Getting homes up to an acceptable standard is a labour-intensive task. Common Weal priced it at £25,000 per house on average, Glasgow City Council priced it slightly lower (but achieving a lower thermal performance level) and current real-world case studies are currently coming in substantially more expensive.

The lower number requires big efficiencies of scale but let’s assume that can be achieved. This is therefore funding for about 720 houses, or something like 0.03 per cent of Scotland’s homes. At current expenditure rates Scotland’s entire housing stock will eventually reach an acceptable thermal performance, but not until well into the next millennium.

The Deposit Return Scheme debacle is yet another example of ‘it is hard to fathom how it is possible to screw something up quite this badly’

Potentially a more substantial investment is the £7 million each seven local authorities are getting for recycling. Much investigation would be required to establish what you can get for £7 million in recycling but as a ready-reckoner, the total spend on waste management in the UK is about £9 billion.

So this might be creeping towards investment of nearly one per cent of total waste expenditure in Scotland. That isn’t insignificant but it is unclear at the moment the scale of the impact this will have in recycling rates.

But all of the above must also be put in the context of another environmental announcement – the news that the Deposit Return Scheme is in total disarray. The scale of this mess is yet another example of ‘it is hard to fathom how it is possible to screw something up quite this badly‘ but there are now serious questions about whether it will ever materialise.

This needs to be borne in mind when thinking about the above. The ‘pioneering’ Scottish Deposit Return Scheme, just like the National Energy Company, has been a key plank of the Scottish Government’s claims on being an ‘environmental leader’. Both were repeatedly delayed, extending the period of time which the Government could generate headlines on them before both reached the point where they were scrapped or virtually scrapped.

Adding together the entire ‘green flurry’ paints a fairly clear picture. It is of a government which is putting substantial effort into presenting itself as a pioneer of green policies. But presentational work disguises the very modest nature of what is being done, the extent to which it is carefully avoiding taking on corporate interests and the remarkable rate at which it all falls apart during implementation.

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