The Scottish Government's climate change plan raises questions over its priorities

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 13 June 2017 in Inside Politics

Despite ambitious headline targets, the draft climate change plan is seen as cautious on transport

Nicola Sturgeon’s October 2016 trip to Iceland didn’t generate quite as much attention as some of her other appearances overseas, but for environmental campaigners the journey was a significant one.

The First Minister travelling to speak with foreign leaders has become a pretty common sight – Sturgeon journeyed to three continents as part of official visits during her first year in the job. But still, environmentalists watched with great interest.

The purpose of the trip to Reykjavik had been to allow Sturgeon to address the Arctic Circle Assembly, meet leaders from around 50 countries with an interest in the area and to discuss tourism opportunities with Iceland.


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But critically, she also talked about climate change. Speaking to the assembly, she said: “Scotland may not geographically be part of the Arctic Circle, but we are committed to acting on climate change and limiting global temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees.

“We know the most damaging effects of climate change are in developing nations and fall disproportionately on the very young, the very old and the very poor. Following the Paris Agreement on climate change, countries can’t just stand back and wait – we all have to deliver.”

Campaigners breathed a sigh of relief. Although they had not said so at the time, environmentalists had been slightly nervous about the news that Nicola Sturgeon would be taking over from Alex Salmond, in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum.

After all, Salmond had been a known quantity. It was Salmond who had brought the 2009 Climate Change Act, containing world-leading emissions reduction targets and backed by every MSP in the Scottish Parliament, and it was Salmond who had theatrically declared ambitions to make Scotland the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”.

No one had any particular reason to think the SNP would alter its course on low carbon energy and emission reduction, but with Sturgeon framing her arrival as leader of the party around inequality and the attainment gap, campaigners admit privately that they were unsure what it would mean for the environment.

And so, Reykjavik, as well as a recent trip to California, helped soothe concern.

Not that international climate change discussions are within the FM’s competency anyway. That power lies with the UK Government, and it was Amber Rudd, not Nicola Sturgeon, who officially represented the UK in the 2015 Paris climate talks – even if Sturgeon did travel to France to make the Scottish Government’s stance known to delegates.

Instead, the Scottish Government’s commitment to combating climate change can be tested closer to home, through measures enacted in the Scottish Parliament. Most recently, that action appeared in the form of the draft climate change plan, unveiled in January, which sets out how ministers intend to cut emissions over the next 15 years.

It is here, in domestic action, that the words delivered by Sturgeon in Reykjavik and California can be put to the test. 

The headline target – which had actually been released well before the plan’s publication – was a 66 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2032. The plan was brought together using a new approach, the TIMES energy model, which allowed civil servants to create a system-wide plan to map out how a decarbonised Scotland might look.

While in the past, different departments had been asked to assess what they could do in terms of emission reductions – creating what environmentalists criticised as a bottom-up process – the new model allows a more holistic and comprehensive approach.

Friends of the Earth Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon sees the TIMES approach as a step forward. “It is a kind of objective way for the climate team to negotiate with civil servants, and for ministers to negotiate with each other. It gives an objective input to how much everyone should do, though of course, there is political horse trading involved, if a policy would not be popular or if they don’t want to upset a particular constituency.”

But while the overall aim of the plan was ambitious, it was the lack of detail provided by ministers that attracted criticism from both campaigners and opposition parties.

Both the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB Scotland used submissions to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee to question the ambition of proposals to reduce emissions in agriculture, while transport group Transform Scotland said the draft proposals for promoting walking, cycling and bus use were “weak”.

Perhaps more significantly, the Scottish Parliament’s committee system itself raised real questions over the plan, with the four committees to examine different aspects – the environment, rural affairs, local government and economy committees – questioning the Scottish Government’s ambition.

With transport accounting for 28 per cent of harmful emissions, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee questioned why targets for the sector were weaker than in other areas.

It also called on the Scottish Government to create a ‘Plan B’ in case its assumptions on how carbon capture and storage could help emission reductions prove unrealistic, while recommending ministers provide more detail on emission reductions across all sectors.

Meanwhile, the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee reported concerns that targets for a six per cent reduction in heat demand from Scotland’s homes by 2032 could be viewed as “business as usual”, with MSPs recommending that the Scottish Government should consider more ambitious targets.

The Rural Affairs and Connectivity Committee recommended that greater consideration should be given to policies that will encourage a shift away from private cars, while warning that “many stakeholders have said that the draft Climate Change Plan for the agriculture sector is not ambitious enough and that some proposals lack detail”.

The committee said the action “should be specific, clear and transparent in the final plan”.

Describing it as “light on the contribution that communities and the community empowerment agenda can play in stopping climate change”, the Local Government and Communities Committee also warned the plan was “constrained” in its scrutiny in relation to housing because many of the proposals and policies associated with the Scottish Energy Efficiency Programme had not yet been finalised.

The Economy Committee echoed concerns over the development of carbon capture and storage technology, warning that basing plans on an “as yet unproven technology” meant consideration should be given to other options.

And so, while the response from environmental groups may have been predictable, ministers may have been more surprised at the strength of criticism that came from the four committees.

Discussing the response, Environment Committee convener Graeme Dey told Holyrood: “There was a fair degree of unhappiness expressed by the stakeholders, and there was a fairly substantial degree of criticism of aspects of the plan. It doesn’t mean that the plan is fundamentally wrong, far from it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there and it certainly represents progress from where we’ve been before.”

To Dey, one of the most important aspects of the plan is the inclusion of the monitoring and evaluation framework. He says: “It’s important because it will allow future parliamentary committees to scrutinise the progress that’s been made across the portfolios. In order to do that, you need to have the detail and right now, there is insufficient detail to allow us to have confidence in what’s in front of us. Now, on one level that’s perhaps understandable because it’s a pretty tight timeframe the government had to work to and with the use of the TIMES model, it meant that some things aren’t there that might have been there otherwise. That’s not to offer excuses, I think that’s just the reality.

“The committees have said what they expect to be changed in the coming months and I certainly know that the Environment Committee has every intention of monitoring that process. To be fair, the Cabinet Secretary has been quite clear that she would engage – the phrase she used was ‘further and deeper’ – with stakeholders and with ourselves and we will look forward to that. I think perhaps in the past, the draft climate plan has been passed, the government has gone away and done something with it, I don’t think there’s been a great deal of parliamentary scrutiny as the draft moves into the final version. We’re determined that that won’t be the case this time and we’ll work to get this right. We need more detail around certain areas, we’ve called for remodelling in two particular areas, I know that some of the stakeholders would like remodelling in many areas, but that’s not practical, we need to be realistic about this.”

How remodelling of the plan might look is still unclear. In fact, suspicions grow that the Scottish Government is operating at a reduced capacity in its climate efforts, given the leader of the climate team has left, and has yet to be replaced. Meanwhile, several of those involved in running the model have also moved on.

Yet, given the calls from the various committees which scrutinised the plan, pressure will grow on Roseanna Cunningham to produce evidence of progress, particularly in transport. How long that takes is still unclear, though a final plan is expected by the end of the year.

And while the approach won plaudits for bringing different sectors together, transport and agriculture – the two areas seen to have got off lightly – were not included within the all energy model. Transport’s contribution was determined separately, and without considering the possibility of demand management.

Gina Hanrahan, acting head of policy for WWF Scotland, told Holyrood: “Although the draft plan presents a vision of what a low carbon Scotland could look like in 2030, it fails to set out sufficient policies to give confidence we will get there.

“On transport, which has not done much to cut emissions since 1990, there is a gaping hole on ambitious new policies to cut traffic growth.Unless clear actions such as enabling workplace parking levies and low emissions zones across Scotland are put in the final plan, we’ll miss a huge opportunity to improve the air we breathe, reduce NHS bills and our impact on the climate.”

She added: “We’d also like to see a stronger target for electric vehicle growth in the final plan, which the Scottish Government’s own advisers say is achievable. Already around 40 per cent of new cars in Norway are electric, but we’re planning to take 15 years to get to that level of market penetration. Countries like India have already committed to all new car sales [being] electric by 2030 and we risk being firmly in the slow lane unless we put in place a strong package of incentives and up our ambition.”

The SNP’s reluctance to take tougher action to reduce transport emissions is nothing new. Between 2006 and 2014, the proportion of people walking to work fell from 13.8 per cent to 12.9 per cent. The proportion using buses as their usual mode of transport dropped from 11.8 per cent to 10.2 per cent. Meanwhile, car use increased.

The plan is a question of priorities, and there remains a sense the ministers are unwilling to reduce emissions caused by traffic.

This feeling was echoed by Mike Robinson, chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a board member of Stop Climate Chaos.

He told Holyrood: “Obviously transport is one of those critical areas that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later. There are several strands to it. There’s an emphasis on active travel, which is great but at the end of the day we’re talking about the possibility of getting 10 per cent of journeys to be by bike. That’s an aspirational target but at least 90 per cent of journeys aren’t affected by that at all and there’s a lot of effort we need to put into that side of things.”

Meanwhile, the emphasis on car use comes at the expense of investment in public transport.

Robinson said: “I think it’s incredible that our trains, in some cases, are slower than they were in the 1890s. It is amazing that you could get from Edinburgh to Perth or Edinburgh to Dundee in 1890 faster than you can now. It doesn’t make sense to me and I don’t need to know anything else about trains to know that we’re not taking them seriously enough. You can get almost from Edinburgh to London in three hours, and you can barely get to Inverness in the other direction.”

So campaigners remain concerned. And while low ambition on transport will have knock-on effects on climate change, campaigners are also worried about the immediate effect on human health.

Richard Dixon told Holyrood: “We have had a climate change act since 2009 but transport has done almost nothing at all [in terms of emissions reductions]. We now have a climate plan which shows some reduction, but that’s because some cars will go electric, so again, they don’t have to do very much and society doesn’t need to change.

“There is a huge resistance to doing things differently – it is a business as usual strategy and that concerns me. The consequence of that is that we are not going to get enough reduction in climate terms, and then in local health terms, it is the air pollution question.

“Yes, electric vehicles will help a bit, but if traffic mileage is growing by 25 per cent over the next 15 years or so, you wipe out much of the gain you have got from taking away diesels and putting electric vehicles in place.

“If you talk to experts they’ll say, ‘yes, of course we will be banning fossil fuels from city centres in five or ten years’ time because it is the only way to meet standards’, but electric vehicles can’t possibly replace them naturally in that time scale.”

The European Environment Agency describes air pollution as the single biggest health threat in Europe. Around 2,500 deaths are attributed to air pollution each year in Scotland and new figures released in January, around the same time as the draft climate plan was unveiled, show there are now 38 zones in Scotland where safety standards for air quality are regularly broken – five more than last year.

Dixon says: “In road crashes, less than 200 people die. That means ten times as many are dying from air pollution. People are losing months off the end of their lives because of air pollution – it is a public health crisis.”

Dixon takes encouragement from the inclusion of plans to trial a low emission zone in the climate change plan, saying, “there’s a good attempt to join the two agendas up”.

The decision on where to hold the trial will be made soon, with Glasgow looking like the obvious choice. It has the biggest air pollution problem, but also has the most suitable geography for creating a box around the city centre.

“The boundary is to be debated but it is fairly obvious how you might do that in Glasgow. There is a question over what vehicles would be covered, and what we have been suggesting is buses, lorries and some classes of vans.

“So an electrician who comes in from East Kilbride to do jobs in the city centre might not be covered, because that would be quite a big expense for them, to change their vehicle, but if you are a major delivery company knocking around the city centre in a big transit van, then you should be covered. For those vehicles, the standards would probably be the tougher EU standards, so a clapped out old bus won’t be coming into the city centre, it will be newer quality buses, newer HGVs. It is quite a gentle introduction, but you would include more things as time goes on. So you would include taxis at some point, you would give them a lead time, say five years, and say that unless they meet certain standards then they can’t come into the LEZ – that is what they are doing in London. Then eventually you could include cars, until there are no fossil fuel vehicles in the city centre – only hydrogen or electric.”

But what all this means for the climate change plan remains unclear. MSPs expect a statement in parliament from the Cabinet Secretary over the next few weeks, covering the latest emissions figures and with an update on ministers’ plans to move the plan forward.

For Graeme Dey, the priority is coming up with a plan that addresses concerns, rather than rushing something out too soon, with the convener telling Holyrood: “It’s more important we get it right than press on regardless, if that’s the right phrase.”

Still, despite concerns over the approach to transport, there remains a sense that the environment and climate change sits fairly high on the political agenda in Scotland, even if the draft plan is unlikely to generate the same amount of attention as the 2009 Climate Act itself.

Dixon at least is pretty optimistic that a cross-party consensus exists on the need to tackle emissions.

He said: “It is still on the agenda, and it is something that this first minister, like the last one, has done a good job of raising in international platforms, and she is encouraging other countries to do something. I think it is definitely something the SNP think they are good at, because they remember the climate bill and they have a good history on renewables, they set up the Climate Justice Fund, so I think it is in the top five or six things they think they are strong on.

“Meanwhile, Labour keep pressing them, the Greens keep pressing them and even the Tories keep pressing them, Maurice [Golden]’s environment document was quite remarkable. It was very good, as long as you ignore the bit about nuclear, and 15 years ago, you would not have imagined the Scottish Tories producing that document.

“I just had some visitors in from Australia and they were talking about climate scepticism in their media, and it exists in the US, but I was able to say that in Scotland, very occasionally, a climate sceptic gets on the radio or writes an article, but it is very rare.

“Most people in Scotland think it is an issue and we need to do something about it, because it is serious.”

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