A greener future: Scotland's recovery from the pandemic
Back in early April, when the world was locked down due to the spread of coronavirus, daily carbon dioxide emissions were, on average, 17 per cent lower than they were last year.
According to a study published in the Nature Climate Change journal, daily emissions in early April fell to levels last seen in 2006 and researchers said the lockdowns could lead to an annual carbon emissions decline of up to seven per cent – the biggest drop since World War II.
The scientists who carried out the research studied lockdown measures in 69 countries that are responsible for 97 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, looking at data from key economic sectors and attributing massive decreases in transportation usage and industrial activities during the pandemic as the main sources of the decline.
The changes were widely documented. In China, for example, lockdown resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and 50 per cent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions, which one earth systems scientist estimated may have saved at least 77,000 lives over two months.
News sites were filled with pictures of the famous Venice canals, where the water cleared and fish were spotted as a result of the drastic drop in water traffic caused by the lockdown and absence of tourists.
And in the UK, the National Grid reported demand for power fell by as much as 20 per cent during lockdown, reaching its lowest around the Easter weekend, on 11 and 12 April.
While the pandemic has devastated lives across the world, the lockdown, at least, was having some positives on our natural environment.
But even though those changes made during lockdown are significant, carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and scientists have warned that the progress made during lockdown is unlikely to make a lasting difference if governments don’t prioritise environmental policies.
“Population confinement has led to drastic changes in energy use and CO2 emissions,” said Professor Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, who led the study published in Nature Climate Change.
“These extreme decreases are likely to be temporary though, as they do not reflect structural changes in the economic, transport, or energy systems.
“The extent to which world leaders consider climate change when planning their economic responses post-lockdown will influence the global CO2 emissions paths for decades to come.”
And that is exactly why governments across the globe need to be having these conversations now – if they haven’t done so already.
With an almost blank canvas as a starting point – or as close to one as is possible – there is no excuse for not making any recovery from the pandemic a green recovery.
According to the OECD, renewable energy is estimated to employ more people per unit of investment and energy than fossil fuel generation, and could potentially employ more than 40 million people by 2050. It estimates that if the international community utilises its full renewable energy potential, energy sector employment could reach 100 million by 2050, up from around 58 million today.
“It is encouraging to see many governments seizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure a truly sustainable recovery, but countries should go much further in greening their support packages,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.
“Climate change and biodiversity loss are the next crises around the corner and we are running out of time to tackle them. Green recovery measures are a win-win option as they can improve environmental outcomes while boosting economic activity and enhancing wellbeing for all.”
Scotland, of course, had already committed to an ambitious net-zero target well before the pandemic; the First Minister declared a climate emergency in April last year.
We must use this moment to make significant advances to deliver the fairer, greener, more prosperous Scotland we all want to see
It is therefore no surprise that the Scottish Government is embracing the opportunity to take that even further and centred this year’s Programme for Government around the green recovery and what should be done to lead Scotland into a greener, more sustainable future.
“This Programme for Government is based on our strong belief that in recovering from this virus it must not be business as usual,” said Nicola Sturgeon when announcing the priorities for the coming year. “We must use this moment to make significant advances to deliver the fairer, greener, more prosperous Scotland we all want to see.”
“Of course, our economic recovery must be a green recovery,” Sturgeon continued. “Even before the pandemic, we knew we had significant work to do in order to improve the state of nature and meet our statutory commitment to be a net zero society by 2045.
“The impacts of the crisis have reinforced the need for that, but also the opportunities it presents. This programme sets out the next phase of our Green New Deal announced in 2019.
“We will take forward ambitious commitments to transform how we heat our homes; giving us the opportunity to meet our climate and environment ambitions, whilst building a better economy and creating jobs.
“Putting a green recovery at the forefront of our approach offers many businesses the chance to innovate and diversify, and it gives individuals the opportunity to retrain and upskill in new and high-growth areas.”
Supporters of a green recovery say that if the government is going to make large and expensive interventions in the economy, then the priority should go to industries and projects that will last into the future and could help Scotland meet its target to be net-zero on carbon emissions by 2045.
A lot of work was already underway before COVID-19 to look at how the government could help sectors like oil and gas transition away from fossil fuels without creating damaging levels of job losses.
A £25m fund will be used to bridge the skills gap between those facing unemployment and sectors with greatest potential for future growth, including focus on provision of green skills in areas of immediate demand like heat and energy efficiency.
Over the next five years, the Scottish Government will create a £100m Green Jobs fund, investing alongside businesses and organisations to support new and increased opportunities for green job creation across Scotland.
This will invest £50m through Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and South of Scotland Enterprise to help businesses which provide sustainable and/or low carbon products and services to develop, grow and create jobs.
A further £50m will be invested to support businesses and supply chains across a range of sectors – such as manufacturing, technology and land based organisations – to take advantage of public and private investment in low carbon infrastructure, and the transition to a low carbon economy in Scotland and beyond, boosting green employment.
An apprenticeship system and the National Transition Training Fund will also support people into the jobs created, while nature and land-based jobs will be boosted, with Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland doubling the number of opportunities available to young people.
Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to declare a global climate emergency and last year it set out a Green New Deal to rethink investments; this deal has now been expanded and enhanced to form the basis of a green recovery.
To ‘Build Back Better’, we need to stop wasting our limited resources and make things last
Other commitments to fulfil green ambitions include investment of more than £500m over five years for active travel infrastructure and access to bikes schemes and plans for ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ where people living in communities can meet their daily needs within a 20 minute walk.
The government has also committed an additional £2bn of infrastructure investment over the next parliamentary session to stimulate demand and create jobs in the transition to net zero and the Scottish National Investment Bank is on track to open this year.
It will also support its ambitions for a circular economy – which is part of the solution to the global climate crisis – through procurement. If public and private sector organisations add circular economy criteria to their procurement practices, this will not only reduce emissions, but will also make cost savings.
Zero Waste Scotland is already working with NHS Scotland to find more sustainable and circular methods of procurement for the £2.3bn of goods, services and works which the health service invests in each year and the hope is that other public sector organisations will follow suit.
“To ‘Build Back Better’, we need to stop wasting our limited resources and make things last,” Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland wrote recently in his blog. “That’s what the circular economy does, by keeping things in circulation as long as possible through reducing, reusing, repairing, remaking and finally recycling.
“We are about to publish new research revealing that nearly one in ten jobs in Scotland is already in the circular economy. That’s significant, but to really make a difference we need to score ten out of ten.”
Another innovative approach will see local communities in Scotland given the chance to get involved and help drive their own green recovery initiatives.
The £3.5m Community Climate Asset Fund, which was launched last month, will provide grants of up to £100,000 for projects supporting community climate action including those that boost energy efficiency in community buildings and those that enable the purchase of electric bikes and vehicles.
Grants will also support active travel and waste reduction projects, and enable community groups and schools to purchase tools and equipment for food growing projects.
To ensure Scotland makes the most of its green recovery, the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has launched an inquiry into what the green recovery from the pandemic could look like.
The inquiry’s focus is on identifying the principles, opportunities, key actions for change, immediate priorities, leadership and governance needed to underpin an effective green recovery, as well as the potential barriers to implementation.
The committee put out a call earlier this year for written evidence. By August it had received more than 100 submissions from academics, activists, public agencies, industry bodies, councils, business leaders and members of the public.
Responses were generally favourable, but many said the framework needed to go a lot further, with a number of respondents arguing that a green recovery programme needs tailoring to their particular cultural, geographic, financial or other needs.
“The global pandemic has been responsible for creating immediate challenges across almost every aspect of modern day living,” said Gillian Martin, who is Convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. “But pre-COVID-19, we already faced the biggest and most immediate challenge of all – climate change.
“We have proven that, as a nation, we can adapt our behaviours and thinking for the greater good, so it makes complete sense that within this mindset, we grab the opportunity to change our habits and thinking to bring us out of this crisis in a green and sustainable way.”