Despite the best efforts of industry lobbyists, the debate over whether climate change is happening is over. In Scotland, we have ambitious targets, but targets alone don’t remove emissions from the atmosphere. For that, we need equally ambitious action plans.
The Scottish Government has recently published a new Environment Strategy. It offers some long- overdue reassurance that our environment and biodiversity will be protected and enhanced in the face of the climate emergency. It also recognises that the climate and nature crises are intrinsically linked.
Like many government strategies, it is strong on vision, has lovely infographics, and describes processes. There are some actual plans, such as SEPA’s sector plans, expanding forestry, and re-using vacant land. Other plans don’t really have the level of activity that most organisations would recognise as an action plan. In fairness, there is a commitment to outcome pathways, but we are not there yet.
As the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said, Scotland and the UK now need to "walk the talk". Not least because we are hosting COP26 in November - international experts will not be much impressed by a nice infographic.
A key area for action is industrial strategy. We need a Green Industrial Revolution that includes a massive investment in low-carbon infrastructure. People in cold, damp homes waste over £400 on gas every year, and fuel poverty is a challenge for many households. Retrofitting homes would employ thousands of people, and the resulting health benefits of warmer homes could save the NHS millions.
A real industrial strategy, including the creative use of public procurement, will stop the reduction of emissions by simply offshoring jobs. The recent loss of contracts to manufacture turbines for a wind farm off the Fife coast demonstrates the dismal failure of the Government to link climate action and industrial strategy.
This is something highlighted in the interim report of the Just Transition Commission. The report also stresses the importance of turning sectoral emission targets into detailed Just Transition plans. As they say; “To date this sort of planning has not been undertaken in as rigorous a manner as might be the case.”
Transport is responsible for more than a third of Scotland’s greenhouse gases, while estimates suggest air pollution causes upwards of 2,500 deaths every year. Electric cars will be part of the solution, but what is needed a real shift to public transport and active travel. This means a step change in the provision of low-emission buses and the early electrification of our railways. Aviation growth also has to be curbed and needs measures like a frequent flyer levy, if the polluter pays principle is to mean anything.
A lot of progress has been made in decarbonising electricity generation in Scotland, but that still leaves heat decarbonisation, which will require the roll-out of technologies like solar hot water and hydrogen and investment in district heat networks.
A recent WWF report clearly sets out the actions needed to reduce emissions in agriculture. I am not sure this week’s NFU report really steps up to the challenge with its steady-state message. We need a much more radical approach to land use and food production, as well as action on fertilisers and pesticides.
As this week's row over fossil fuel investments at Strathclyde Pension Fund shows, some parts of the public sector have some way to go in taking climate change action seriously.
Many of these issues are covered in a new Scottish Labour policy consultation paper. The paper argues the action required to deliver on our climate change targets cannot simply be done by governments imposing top-down solutions. It requires grassroots action and social innovation, changing social norms and behaviour as much as technology. A (low carbon) net-zero economy can mean many more jobs, but we must ensure that there is a Just Transition, which doesn’t leave any community behind.
Scotland needs to demonstrate that we are not just a world leader in climate change ambition, but that we can also lead in climate change action.