Twenty years ago this month, world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit, setting out ambitious plans to help save the environment. Now the focus is back on South America once more
The green agenda is perhaps one of the areas where the Scottish Government has been keenest to show forward thinking, demonstrated by tough targets to slash its carbon emissions.
By 2020 CO2 should be cut by 42 per cent – and this should drop even further to 80 per cent by 2050.
Next week, delegates will once again descend on Brazil for what has been dubbed Rio+20 and the world is a different place, but debate has continued to rage over whether enough is being done to tackle global environmental issues like climate change.
On the home front of course, one of the biggest changes has been the creation of a new Scottish Parliament. So unlike 1992, this year Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson is confirmed as Scotland’s representative among the rainbow of nations attending.
The cut in emissions so far is currently 27.6 per cent and Stevenson is confident that with two-thirds gone, the rest of the 2020 target is achievable. “As we move closer to various dates we’ll understand better the potential of a range of different policies. But we believe it can be done and in Scotland we have so many natural advantages that help us, particularly in the area of renewable energy where really no country in Europe has the opportunities we do.
“We want to help other countries understand that we can have a modern industrialised businessfocused nation, but address the climate change agenda and show others that it can be done.” The most high-profile way that Scotland is aiming to meet its targets is in the energy it produces and there has been a determined push towards more renewable sources, such as wind, tidal, wave and hydropower.
But it has not come without criticism, not least from Tory MEP Struan Stevenson, president of the European Parliament’s Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development Intergroup, who fears the concentration on wind in particular, will destroy some of Scotland’s finest natural heritage.
His concern is that building onshore turbines means damaging huge swathes of Scotland’s peat lands – which actually store so-called ‘blue carbon’ and is seen as a natural way of tackling carbon emissions. Offshore turbines as well, he says, are having a similar effect on Scotland’s seas – destroying fragile and vital ecosystems.
He said: “The Scottish Government aims to have 30 per cent of our energy from renewable by 2020 and 100 per cent of electricity by 2020.
This is just not achievable.
“We will have to erect about five huge wind turbines a day offshore from now until 2020 to achieve that. The costs will be horrific.
Landscapes would be destroyed. Electricity bills would rise by about £500 a head.
“The Government is almost taking part in ‘groupthink’ on this. They are convinced the only way for them to save the planet is by destroying the planet.” His SNP namesake insists this is not the case.
“Struan is just wrong, pure and simple, on two fronts,” he says. “One of the major factors for onshore proposals not being approved has been precisely consideration of the effect of peat bogs.
Peat bogs are going to be a very significant part of our ability to absorb and reduce methane emissions as well.
“Scottish Natural Heritage and Marine Scotland scientists are very heavily engaged in making sure that in the offshore sector we learn the lessons from the oil sector of the effects of putting structures into our seas; we’ve got a lot of experience of understanding that. The traditional method that’s been used elsewhere, for example, pile-driving wind turbines into the sea, we recognise may not be appropriate in many locations in Scotland. But I think we have the best part of 40 years’ experience of how to put structures out there.” The other source of contention is over the use of nuclear power. The SNP has a ‘no nuclear’ strategy and Hunterston B in Ayrshire and Torness in East Lothian will not be replaced when they are decommissioned in 2016 and 2023 respectively. But some people, like Struan Stevenson, say that uranium, a cleaner fossil fuel source than coal, oil or gas, should not be ruled out.
The MEP says that nuclear infrastructure has a far longer shelf-life and “unproven” renewable sources have an unreliable power output, meaning there will be times when Scotland has to rely on nuclear energy from south of the border anyway.
But Stewart Stevenson again insists this is not the case. “We are currently a significant exporter not an importer of energy and I don’t think there’s a very convincing argument about intermittency,” he says.
“The bottom line in Scotland is, we don’t need it. With renewable energy, we are reliant on our own energy and resources, so we are free of considerations of supply. Australia is a big supplier of uranium; there is certainly none that I’m aware of anywhere near here so it would all have to be imported.” Investments in renewables during 2011/12 were £1.7bn, the second highest across the UK.
Tom Ballantine, Stop Climate Change Chaos Scotland’s chairman. told Holyrood: “We are on the cusp of a significant worldwide change in renewables. It is up to us to make the most of our opportunities.” But he thinks there still needs to be more spending in budgets to help meet targets.
He said the next updated ‘Report on Proposals and Policies’ which covers 2013 to 2027, needs to be “fairly explicit” in how the country will meet its aims. Ballantine, who said in January this year that the government needed to “raise its game” to meet targets added that continued action was needed on two main areas, energy efficiency in homes – which he said could be a “relatively easy hit” and on transport, which includes encouraging more active transport and improving rail infrastructure “rather than spending a lot of money on roads.” Indeed, cutting emissions in energy production alone will never be enough. Roughly, a quarter of the country’s emissions come from transportation and there Scotland faces two challenges – of cutting car use by making public transport more attractive, and the so-called ‘greening’ of the fleet – switching people to cars running on cleaner energy sources.
At the Holyrood conference, Towards a Greener Fleet, held last month, delegates including government officials, public sector organisations and business representatives discussed the issue of increasing the number of non-petrol cars on the road.
John Curtis, from Transport Scotland, said improvements in the infrastructure in order to encourage more people to switch from the internal combustion engine, now included 350 charging posts – 119 of them available to the public.
The government agency has also spent £6.4m on funding 76 hybrid buses in Edinburgh.
Aberdeen City Council has recently trialled two hydrogen cars which were loaned by Hyundai to its car club and is considering plans to introduce hydrogen buses across the North-east of Scotland in conjunction with Aberdeenshire Council, First Bus and Stagecoach.
He admitted: “There’s a question mark about whether we should back a horse, should we say, we’re all about electric vehicles. Should we say, well, actually, hydrogen’s the way forward, should we say, scrap the lot of it, let’s just go with biofuel, or is it about having a mix?” In addition, there are discussions over the next ScotRail contract and how to make train travel more attractive, and other measures to encourage bus use, or cycling and walking.
At the same time, though, the Government is funding large multi-million-pound road projects, such as the M74 extension opened last year, the proposed Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and the new Forth Road Bridge.
Stevenson heads to Rio for the conference starting on 20 June, as part of a small Scottish contingent, alongside the UK delegation, likely to be headed up by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
The original Rio conference gave rise to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the treaty that started the wheels in motion to mandatory emission limits spelled out at Kyoto years later. There have been further successes since, but not everybody has been happy with the pace of change. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was recently quoted as saying that progress had been “painfully slow”.
But Stewart Stevenson says there is still much reason for optimism. “We’re seeing people in countries and states within countries emerging to come up to the plate. “There are provinces in China who are now becoming actively engaged in discussing [these matters], there are states in India, which is not a leading climate-change country.
“There are significant challenges. The United States at federal level finds it difficult to move this agenda, Russia finds it difficult to move, but people like the Chinese are beginning to get the message that the next generation of industries can be based on this agenda.” Getting things fixed at home is only half of the picture, though, and there seems to be a consensus that Scotland, as one of the leading lights in the Industrial Revolution and with an economy that has benefitted from carbonheavy industries, it has a responsibility to help countries elsewhere who are now suffering from the effects of climate change.
The Climate Justice Fund was launched by Alex Salmond and former Irish president Mary Robinson just weeks before the Rio conference, with the aim of supporting projects for developing countries and includes an initial government investment of £3m for water projects in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia.
Stevenson said: “Climate justice is about supporting these people with some of the assets we have, helping them to work their way through to a future where they will have access to energy and industrial processes without the carbon emissions. That’s the difference and we in particular work in Africa directly with organisations rather than through governments because we find that much better.” The fund has been lauded as a major step forward by groups including Oxfam, WWF, and other NGOs who attended the launch in Edinburgh. Many of them will be out in Rio to ensure that the next steps that are agreed to really do make both the planet and Scotland a greener place.