Scotland’s New Climate Bill: An Opportunity Missed?

Written by Mike Robinson on 23 July 2018 in Comment

Scotland is at risk of losing its edge on climate change, warns Mike Robinson, chief executive of the RSGS

Climate change - Holyrood

As portrayed, the Scottish Government’s new Scottish Climate Bill, which is currently being consulted on, is disappointing in that it correctly plots the inevitable decline of fossil fuel emissions, but fails to grasp the leadership nettle.

It therefore risks losing the edge Scotland has exhibited, and benefited from, by taking action on climate change to date.   

When a target of a 42 per cent reduction in emissions on 1990 levels by 2020 was announced back in 2009, it was widely reported as being impossible. 

However, this target was reached in 2014 – 6 years early – according to Government figures. In part, as a result, the new Climate Act proposes an unflinching new target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 56 per cent by 2020.

This ambition is commendable, but given we are nearly in 2020, it is the more distant targets that will now prove more pertinent. And our performance to date reinforces the fact that stretching targets are achievable.

Along with its 2020 target, the original 2009 Climate Change Scotland Act also had a more distant but equally important 2050 target of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions.

The Paris Climate Agreement reinforced the need for greater urgency and ambition globally and it has already been made clear that this new Scottish Climate Act will respond by raising Scotland’s ambition of an 80 per cent reduction to circa 90 or 100 per cent, ultimately plotting a course towards a net zero carbon economy.

The only question is how quickly this should – or can realistically and politically – come about.

As Lord Deben, Chairman of the UK Committee on Climate Change said this week: “The choice is clear: either set a target now with a pathway to achieving it, or set a more ambitious target and work out how to get there along the way.”

So should our target be 90 or 100 per cent by 2050? Whilst both targets are challenging, perhaps we need to remember why we want to set this target. Scotland has made capital from its world-leading status in combatting climate change – it has had knock-on benefits for Government, industry and academia. As nations around the world respond to the Paris Agreement (which even the USA is at city and state levels), more and more are choosing to set challenging targets.

Can Scotland still claim to be world-leading if we don’t at least aim for 100 per cent by 2050?  Striving for a 100 per cent reduction is a declaration of intent which would maintain our international status of bold innovation and moral leadership.

However, for such a broad all-encompassing issue, this is a very limited test of success.

The greatest disappointment of the new Climate Act for me is its narrowness.

Where is the wider ambition to ease implementation? Where are the actions on transport, which has struggled to reduce its emissions impact, and for which policy remains far too road and air transport orientated? 

Where are the proposals to deliver affordable efficient homes and renewable heat schemes to our towns and cities? What are the government policy commitments and infrastructure investments, like improved rail connectivity, which can help properly drive this low carbon pathway? Where are the nitrogen budgets which could go a long way to improve the currently unrealised role of agriculture and land-use in reducing emissions? Where is the roadmap to Scotland’s circular economy? And where are the other measures by which we can calibrate and drive progress?

The Bill should also feature the critical need to communicate an understanding of climate solutions and targets – to promote the key policies and proposals at all senior levels of business and government. And it must demonstrate a way to engage all sectors of society in helping to deliver them. This could take the form of a formal qualification or course in climate literacy and solutions leading to a network. Otherwise, we will struggle to engage today’s decision makers and simply delegate the issue to future generations.  

Working with the universities of Stirling and Edinburgh, and in discussion with a wide range of other public bodies and business for a, the RSGS are developing just such a qualification in order to address this shortfall.

It will not only spell out key solutions in which everyone can play a part, but will also provide market and legislative prescience to those concerned with strategy in industry, community, or local and national government. Without it we will struggle to have a shared understanding of our roles in achieving the targets, whatever they are. 

And, without it, we are unlikely to be able to address targets quickly enough, or capitalise on our international reputation.  

The Act, as currently presented, risks being disappointingly one-dimensional, and its only marker of success will be around which year it proposes to become carbon neutral. If, as it professes, we want to maintain our leadership, the new Act needs to be bolder

Scotland has benefited from its boldness to date, and much of the world has taken note, but only a strong and suitably broad new Act can maintain that reputational and competitive advantage. 


Mike Robinson is chief executive of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society




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