Climate change and the Paris talks: Interview with Dr Aileen McLeod

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 3 December 2015 in Inside Politics

The Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform on Scotland’s emissions targets and her trip to the Paris climate talks

Dr Aileen McLeod’s office is full of people. In fact, between the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform herself, three advisers, a giant picture of a cow and a large table, there is barely room for the Holyrood photographer to get inside.

She apologises for the stacks of highlighted notes piled in front of her – different coloured pieces of paper covered in details on policies and legislation.

Her manner is quite different to most politicians. There seems very little ego about McLeod. In fact she is almost shy, at least by the somewhat warped standards of elected politicians.

Each answer brings another shuffle of the notes, the minister firing out facts and stats and references to consultations. Every so often she turns to an adviser for a view. She looks pretty awkward.


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McLeod has a reputation as something of a policy-wonk and, from this evidence, it is easy enough to see why. Her brief focuses on climate change and land reform, but these are topics that intersect with health, transport and energy. It is facts on these other areas, presumably, that are included in the complicated pile of information lying in front of her.

At the moment, though, McLeod’s time is being taken up by preparations for the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference – COP21 – in Paris.

She says she knows Paris quite well, having travelled to the city fairly regularly while working in Brussels for SNP MEP Alyn Smith. This experience of the EU, she says, gave her an understanding of how international negotiations work and some insight into the dynamics of climate diplomacy.

But the Paris she visits for COP21 will be a different city, following the recent terrorist attacks. In fact, at first it was unclear whether the talks would definitely happen. But while the world sent messages of solidarity to a nation still grieving, the first confirmations came through that COP21 would go ahead.

US President Barack Obama was one of the first to reaffirm his intention to travel.

 “I think it’s absolutely vital for every country, every leader, to send a signal that the viciousness of a handful of killers does not stop the world from doing vital business,” he said.

So how will the recent Paris attacks affect the dynamic of the talks? Does it change the way states will interact? Lord Stern, author of the 2006 Review on the Economics of Climate Change, said he thought the attacks may lead to less grandstanding and more collaboration.

Ever since the world saw news of the shootings, killing 130 innocent people, coming in through TVs and news feeds, the talk has been of solidarity. Is there a chance these talks could see greater cooperation?

McLeod is reluctant to speculate. “I think we will have to wait and see what the actual format will look like at the COP after the Paris attacks. Certainly the French President and the French Government have made it clear that the climate talks will take place and we support that. As a community, as a nation and as a government, we stand as one in solidarity with the people of France.”

There have also been rumours that Nicola Sturgeon will attend. McLeod says the First Minister is keen to go. But security issues have made the Government more secretive than normal.

Her adviser says that, with security volatile, they are still waiting to make a decision. McLeod says they are still finalising their programme.

But while last-minute security details are still being finalised, the Scottish Government, UK Government and EU have been preparing their approaches to negotiations for months.

Beyond correspondence on the UK negotiating position, McLeod has met with secretary of state for energy and climate change Amber Rudd a couple of times so far this year, while also holding discussions with her Welsh counterpart. Meanwhile, the First Minister and the Prime Minister have also talked. Glancing at her notes, McLeod reels off a list of meetings between Scottish officials and parts of the UK delegation, officials at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

“You know, we also participate in briefings across Whitehall on the UK’s position and our contributions have been welcomed by both Amber Rudd and the UK Prime Minister.”

But, still, the Scottish Government doesn’t have a frontline role.

McLeod nods. “No, it is very much a supporting role that we play.”

“For Scottish ministers, we attend the United Nations COP as part of the UK Government delegation. So the devolved administrations and other UK Whitehall ministers will be providing general influencing and engagement – supporting, essentially, the UK’s outreach activities. Obviously it will be the UK secretary of state for energy and climate change that leads on negotiations themselves. So, for us, it is an opportunity to promote the key role that Scotland plays as a devolved administration within the UK. So we are supporting the UK and the EU’s high ambition, and obviously the role of devolved and other state and regional governments in delivering action on climate change and championing climate justice.”

McLeod attended the 2014 Lima talks very soon after taking over as minister for climate change and the environment. While there, and amongst other engagements, she met the UN special envoy on climate change, Mary Robinson, and the ‘Troika Plus’ of women climate leaders to discuss gender and climate change. So while McLeod may not be a state representative at the talks, she will be trying to push for as strong a deal as possible.

She says: “The Scottish Government is firmly committed to continuing to support the UK, the EU, the UNFCCC and the French hosts’ efforts to secure an ambitious, comprehensive, robust, credible, durable, and transparent international climate treaty. From a Scottish Government perspective, we are hoping very much that the Paris climate summit will be a big step forward in the international effort to tackle climate change. We’ve got a long history of cooperation on climate change; we have been very active members of the Climate Group States and Regions Alliance for over a decade.”

So what sort of deal can we expect? For decades now, a two degree rise in the earth’s temperatures has been touted as the highest possible if humanity is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Experts agree the number is arbitrary, that the higher the temperature rise, the worse things will get, and campaigners would like to see something much lower to protect the world’s most vulnerable people and habitats. But there is general agreement that, beyond two degrees, we really have no idea what will happen.

As Professor Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research put it: “Beyond two degrees of warming we are leaving the world as we know it.”

States have provided Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) ahead of the talks – outlines of what they feel they could achieve in terms of emissions reductions – but these offers do not provide much in the way of optimism. In fact most of the analysis to emerge since the INDCs were submitted suggests the deal will keep warming at around three degrees.

So is a two-degree limit possible at Paris?

“There is another aspect to this as well – the climate justice side. So the UK wants to avoid the worst impacts of climate change falling on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people and obviously the best way to achieve that is to get agreement on an ambitious treaty. Paris is already a big step forward, the pledges at Paris cover around 90 per cent of global emissions, from over 150 countries. Now that is a big step from where we were with the Kyoto Protocol, which covered around 15 per cent of emissions.

“Then the pledges themselves, they take us a long way from the ‘business as usual’ growth of global emissions, which would raise global temperatures by four degrees Celsius or more. So we have a global plan that equates to around three degrees and I think we can clearly build on that to get to a two degree goal. Obviously, we are supporting the UK and the EU in calling for ambitious mitigation commitments from all parties, along with a plan to implement them and keep a two-degree goal within reach.

“For us, it is a good start, what we have from the pledges, and we welcome the pledges, but we want to go further, so it is crucial that we follow up on the Paris conference and get a further push to limit global warming to two degrees and avoid the worst aspects of climate change falling on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, especially our women and children. We want to see the international community matching Scotland’s high ambition.”

And what about the argument that states are underplaying what they could do? Some have suggested the INDCs are an example of governments waiting for others to show their hand first, and that a tighter deal could emerge once they actually meet up.

McLeod flicks over a page of briefings.

“Certainly I think we want to make sure Paris isn’t the end of the process and we want to ensure that ambition is raised in future years and we are very supportive of a mechanism that would review the mitigation ambition every five years. So we could bring partners back to the table, take stock, and raise future ambition in line with a long-term goal to keep the world moving towards the below two degree Celsius goal.”

How?

“We’ve been calling for a robust, legally binding rule framework to ensure we have transparency and accountability in climate action, essentially to track countries’ progress.”

That is something campaigners would probably welcome. So how can the public help keep up pressure on governments to take a tougher stance?

McLeod pauses and smiles. There aren’t any stats or frameworks behind this one.

“I would say just keep doing what they are doing. It is important for NGOs to make their voice heard.”

So how does Paris differ from those that came before? Copenhagen was a famous disappointment for governments and campaigners. Hopes had been very high and yet the EU was not even included in the final round of negotiations. Talk to those who were there and you can still detect the frustration that such high expectations translated into so little.

McLeod looks to one of her advisers, who steps in.

“Probably, in comparison to Copenhagen, the fact that the INDCs have been brought forward in advance of the treaty itself, and in advance of Paris, puts us in a better position to reach a more ambitious treaty this time round”, he says, “Especially in light of recent events, leaders are saying they are coming to Paris and that a deal will happen.”

McLeod takes over again, asserting that, “we are in a strong position ahead of the talks”.

I tell McLeod I would also like to ask about Scotland’s domestic approach to climate change. Cue flicking through more pages of stats and policy.

Scotland has made good progress towards the target of reducing emissions by 42 per cent by 2020. But at the same time, it has also overshot annual emissions targets year on year. Every year for four years, in fact. Does that concern McLeod? How big a problem is it to miss these annual targets?

“The report we published last month on Scotland’s progress towards meeting its interim target shows that, between 2010 and 2013, the percentage reduction we have achieved has exceeded those we set out in the trajectory to making the 42 per cent reduction by 2020. Scotland’s emissions have fallen by 38.4 per cent from the 1990 baseline. We are more than three-quarters of the way towards meeting the 2020 target.

“We are on track and that is a message we should focus on, it is a fantastic achievement made possible by action taken across Scotland. I know there is no room for complacency; we do recognise the challenges in meeting Scotland’s annual targets. It is a serious challenge that has been made all the more difficult by the revisions to the baseline data that they were based on. Obviously, the report on the annual target for 2013 has been narrowly missed by 1.7 megatonnes and that is because of revisions to the baseline since the fixed annual targets were set.”

This sort of conversation puts McLeod in her element. She seems most comfortable explaining technicalities, how the revisions and the changes in measuring emissions data have made the targets harder to hit. But then she has probably had to do that a few times before.

She continues: “Despite this, the fact is that Scotland’s emissions have fallen by 38.4 per cent from the baseline, far greater than the 31.7 per cent reduction that was envisioned when the target for 2013 was set. We are still outperforming the rest of the UK as a whole and we are one of the leading countries in western Europe for reducing our emissions.

“I think against the 2020 and the 2050 targets, Scotland is making significant progress, but we are aware that we must continue to lift the pace of our actions against our fixed annual targets. I remain absolutely determined that we will make every effort to meet them going forward.”

Scotland is very proud of the 2009 Climate Change Act and of its action to reduce emissions. There is cross-party backing, and the Government rarely wastes an opportunity to boast of its commitment to fighting climate change, along with its ‘world leading targets’.

Meanwhile, though, it also remains intent on extracting every last drop of oil from the North Sea, a strategy which will inevitably contribute to the destruction of the environment and exacerbate climate change. How can we justify that environmentally?

McLeod says: “In Scotland we need a diverse and balanced energy portfolio to provide us with secure and affordable heat and electricity for decades to come. Oil and gas will remain an important part of our energy mix whilst we transition towards a future that is based upon renewable energy. But we are committed, we are absolutely committed, to the transition towards a low-carbon economy. That is evidenced in our ambitious renewable targets, our climate change targets, and our policies on electricity generation, renewables heat and energy efficiency. These are progressively reducing our use of fossil fuels. And obviously the new technologies, like carbon capture and storage, will also help the Government in our ambition to decarbonise electricity generation.

“Also the skills we have in our offshore oil and gas industry, that is crucial to mobilising our low-carbon technology. So our approach is one of careful stewardship of our natural resources.”

Evidence from the International Energy Agency  (IEA) shows that two-thirds of the world’s oil must stay in the ground if we are to keep warming under two degrees and avoid the worst effects of climate change. I put it to McLeod that this means either Scotland leaves two-thirds of the oil in the North Sea – now an impossibility – or it expects other states around the world to leave other oil reserves in the ground to make up the difference.

So either the IEA is wrong, or the Scottish Government’s position is hypocritical.

McLeod passes this to another adviser, who explains: “I think the oil is an important asset to Scotland and a successful oil and gas sector is a prerequisite for the diversification of the energy supply and the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Yes, but we want to extract as much as possible now. That’s the plan, isn’t it?

The adviser continues: “I think we want to maximise recovery but obviously there are issues certainly about the short-term health of the oil and gas industry and it’s important that we support that as a government.”

This is one of the biggest issues facing Scotland’s energy policy and I am keen to get the minister’s view. Oil is important to the Scottish economy and it seems perfectly fair to make the argument that the Government wants to extract as much oil as possible in order to protect jobs. But the difficulty is in reconciling that plan with saying they are committed to fighting climate change. Either you want to exploit oil or not.

McLeod says: “Our argument is also that this is happening at the same time as we are transitioning towards a future that is based in renewable energy and a future based in a low-carbon economy.”

No one doubts the SNP’s commitment to renewables. Even now, years later, Alex Salmond’s typically dramatic pledge to make Scotland the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewables’ still lingers in the memory.

But it is the party’s commitment to oil extraction, not a lack of commitment to renewables, that raises cries of hypocrisy in its passionate rhetoric on climate change. It smacks of cognitive dissonance.

And while the North Sea oil industry may need all the support it can get at the moment, renewables companies too are concerned by recent changes in direction from DECC. Soon after the General Election, DECC announced that the Renewable Obligation scheme would end a year earlier than planned – removing a key pillar of support for onshore wind.

More recently, Amber Rudd announced plans to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025. But instead of emphasising the centrality of renewable generation to the UK’s energy future, Rudd seemed to put her weight behind gas and nuclear.

Then, just days after the interview, the UK Government announced plans to scrap its £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage programme.

How have the decisions taken by DECC affected the Scottish renewables industry?

McLeod says: “I think certainly the changes made in the UK Government’s energy policy, to say the least, are not very helpful and they will make it much harder to build the low-carbon energy system that both the UK and Scotland needs, at exactly the time we should be accelerating our actions.”

She adds: “The UK Government’s own impact assessment of its plan to close the Renewable Obligation early conceded the decision could increase UK climate emissions by up to 63 million tonnes. So we are extremely disappointed.” 

Does that undermine the UK’s credibility going into Paris?

“Well, we have certainly made our views known to the UK Government and obviously we have written to Amber Rudd to say that the UK’s hand would be considerably strengthened in Paris if the UK Government would consider again its position on renewable subsidies, which are obviously of such national strategic interest to Scotland.”

It’s clear that McLeod has an in-depth technical knowledge of her brief. In fact, I am growing to suspect she might be a bit of a geek. After the interview, she sent through more facts, covering energy consumption, forestry, heat, housing, peat, renewables, transport and waste.

So the policy-wonk label may have some justification. Surely that is a good thing, but how does she go about communicating issues like climate change to a wider audience? Why does the environment matter?

McLeod pauses. “When most people think about climate change, they probably think about the natural environment of Scotland. Our landscape, our water, our sea, and everything that lives in them. But I think there is another kind of environment now that is just as important to people’s quality of life, and that stands at their front door with everyday concerns about the economy, housing, health and the quality of their local environment. I think people are now beginning to recognise that climate change will also impact on these everyday concerns.”

This, perhaps, explains the stacks of papers in front of the minister for environment, climate change and land reform. The brief may sound fairly focused but its work relates to half-a-dozen other government departments.

Meanwhile, as well as preparing for the Paris summit – billed as the most important such talks in history – McLeod has also been tasked with pushing through the Government’s land reform agenda. The minister arrived in her post with both of these issues beginning to dominate Scottish politics. It seems like a lot. How has she found it?

“It is a privilege and I am enjoying the post immensely,” she laughs. “It has been a very steep learning curve – that I can say. But I have enjoyed it, and all these issues – environment, climate change, land reform – they are all interconnected.”

She didn’t look at her notes for that bit. 

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