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by Neil Evans
09 June 2014
Green under fire

Green under fire

If nothing else, Paul Wheelhouse is honest about the job he has to do. “Nobody ever said it would be easy to tackle climate change,” he says.

Sat in his office at the Scottish Parliament, rain is coming down in torrents outside, scuppering the photographer’s plans to take pictures outside, maybe – but also, it’s the perfect backdrop to a conversation on what is being done to get a grip on global climate change and the increasingly volatile weather which it could cause.

When Wheelhouse was made a minister in a surprise government reshuffle in 2012, he faced calls to be a champion for climate change, standing up to other members of his own government, cutting through bureaucracy and the silos of government to ensure ministers stuck to the promises they had made to make Scotland low carbon.

Wheelhouse, a former economic consultant, is a calm and polite politician. When debating in parliament and answering questions from opposition MSPs, he is always quick to pay tribute and recognises that members have a longstanding interest in the subject.

So, in his first interview with Holyrood shortly after taking office, there was no barnstorming promise to take the Government by the scruff of the neck as perhaps some in the environmental sector may have liked, instead, he set out how he viewed his role in terms of collaboration with fellow ministers and members of the cabinet and “thinking laterally” to ensure both sides were happy.

He is the third minister to have the words climate change in their title, following Roseanna Cunningham, who was environment minister when Scotland passed its Climate Change Act in 2009, and Stewart Stevenson – who Wheelhouse replaced in the 2012 reshuffle.

Now, some 19 months on from coming in to the Government and in his own words, “knocking off some major milestones” such as the Aquaculture and Fisheries Act and legislation on crofting, he has found himself in the firing line on a number of occasions: defending the Government’s flagship policy document on how it planned to meet emission reduction targets against accusations it did not go far enough; hastily intervening to overturn the sale of gaming rights on the isle of Raasay; meeting anti-wind farm protestors at the SNP conference only to be told they just wanted to speak to the First Minister; and being heckled by the pro-cycling lobby at the Pedal on Parliament in 2013 whose members believed the Government was not doing enough to encourage active transport.

The Scottish Government has set ambitious targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 and while the climate change brief is his own, many of the key sectors needing to take action – especially housing and transport – and Scotland’s particularly vocal environmental sector, have been lobbying hard to make the Government do more.

“I was very conscious of the fact that Scottish Environment LINK and others were calling for me to be an environmental champion in government,” says Wheelhouse “and I’ve genuinely tried to do that.

“There have been some issues where obviously we’ve had to fight our corner in terms of fighting for additional resources for climate change and other areas. I think we’ve made progress there.”

More money was agreed in the 2014/15 budget to tackle climate change with an additional £419m across sectors including energy, transport and zero-waste measures but Wheelhouse said he still believes it is important to see where other ministers are coming from.

“It’s not easy, nobody ever said it would be easy to tackle climate change, so I need to understand what the challenges are for them on a day-to-day basis. I can use that knowledge to inform how I can help them achieve what I need them to achieve.”

But he adds: “You have to bring people with you rather than have battles in the corridors. I’m really pleased with the kind of engagement from colleagues about how we’ve achieved that.”

Possibly more than any other area, action on climate change needs input from all other sectors, so Wheelhouse says he is pleased at the work of his colleagues such as Keith Brown, who heads the ministerial group for cycling.

Elsewhere in the cabinet, Education Secretary Mike Russell wants to expand the policy of Eco Schools as part of the Curriculum for Excellence and Energy Minister Fergus Ewing, a strong advocate for renewable energy, was named ‘Best Politician’ at the Scottish Green Energy Awards.

There is a stealth campaign being waged across Scotland or so it would seem. On buses, billboards and traffic signs, catchy slogans like ‘Not Far? Leave the Car’ or ‘Take a Great Step, Pedal or Buzzzz forward’ are among the Scottish Government’s attempts to gently sell its Greener Scotland message.

Like public health campaigns on handwashing or breast cancer awareness, the marketing exercise is aiming to get over one of the biggest hurdles in its effort to cut the country’s greenhouse gases – changing people’s behaviour for good.

The legislation passed in 2009 with legally-binding targets to cut emissions by 42 per cent by 2020 has been followed by two lengthy reports on how different sectors can cut their carbon with yearly targets.

Transport is one of the key areas and the marketing campaign has spread to St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh, where the waiting room is now adorned with a large Greener Scotland mural and outside are two parking spaces for electric cars, complete with charging points.

The campaigns could so easily be dismissed as ‘greenwash’ – an attempt to divert attention away from the very real concerns of environmental groups that those crucial targets are still not being met.

But he stresses, if the Government isn’t doing it, people are less likely to follow, which is the reason why it is expanding its electric car-use capacity and increasing the take up of hybrids.

“With society as a whole, about half of what we have to achieve is down to behavioural change and cultural change in Scottish society – that’s why the ‘Greener Together’ campaign, ‘Not Far? Leave the Car’ and other examples of that are so important because the Government can only do so much – whether it’s mitigation or adaptation.

“We need consumers, businesses, individuals and families and communities to take it on and that’s just as important in government as it is in any part of society, we also need to show leadership where we can as an organisation.
“We are walking the walk rather than telling everybody what to do and not doing it ourselves.”

The Government has attempted to shrink its carbon footprint by reducing the number of flights it takes, reducing yearly flights from 11,169 to 8,036, shaving off two million kilometres and 650 tonnes of greenhouse gases from its output.
The effort was part of WWF’s One in Five Challenge and the Government and its staff were praised for increasing the use of video conferencing and train travel to reduce the number of flights needed.

But surely where government action counts most is in the annual reduction of emissions – as prescribed in its Climate Change Act – and the first two years were missed.

The 2010 target was missed by 1.1m CO2 equivalent, which was partly blamed on the heavy winter and the extra heating of homes and business that was required as a result. In 2011 it missed the target by 800,000 tonnes CO2e, as a result of an adjustment of the baseline figure from 1990.

Campaigners have recognised the difficulties in meeting the targets caused by the complicated adjustments but not let the Government off the hook.

But Wheelhouse insists that the trajectory towards 42 per cent is still on course, backed up by the independent Committee on Climate Change, headed by Lord Deben and said extra investment in the rich carbon stores of peatland and more money for active travel, are evidence the government is already taking action.

And he ruled out any attempts at changing the targets to make them more attainable.

“We have set ourselves the toughest goals and we always knew it would be difficult,” he says. “But you have a choice as a government, do you sit down and decide to have targets that are easy to meet to make life easy for government ministers and society – or do you do what you feel is necessary to limit the long-term temperature increase to two degrees.”

He adds: “We will be buffeted around from time to time on our journey. We are confident we can achieve this but it’s not going to be simple.”

Wheelhouse appeals for a “more mature understanding” of what the targets and the baseline revisions are, as well as an increased transparency of how the emissions data is calculated so people can easily interpret the information.
But he readily admits while there are some aspects the Government can do nothing about they need to be “open and honest” about where further action is needed.

Wheelhouse says work is still needed to “design out the vulnerability” to fluctuations in the weather, where a mild winter can see emissions reduced, but a cold one can see them soar once again.

“Unfortunately because of climate change, the weather will probably be more volatile in the future.

“I’m very encouraged by the kind of support I’m getting from colleagues in housing and transport. These are the next frontiers that we have to push up against and try to break through – and I am confident colleagues are up to the task.”
One of his first tasks as environment minister was to get to grips with the Second Report on Proposals and Policies (RPP2) which was due out shortly after his appointment, setting out how emissions would be cut in the long term.
The first had left groups such as Stop Climate Chaos Scotland disappointed for being too light on actual policies and there was a clamour for its follow up to be more detailed.

When the draft report was finally published in January, campaigners were disappointed at its contents, but hopeful that revisions could be included by the time of the final version, especially after it was subjected to the scrutiny of four separate Scottish Parliament committees.

The day after the final version was published, Wheelhouse, in a radio interview, pointed out a statement critical of the report from Stop Climate Chaos had been put out within half an hour of it being presented to parliament – barely time to scrutinise the report.

Wheelhouse gives a wry laugh and says he wasn’t surprised by the criticism.

But he says: “I think people care. It’s probably a function of the fact people care so much about climate change and clearly as a society, we set such high goals and high ambitions for ourselves that we want, naturally, to excel and do as well as we can.

“We obviously have to temper it with the knowledge that we have constrained resources – that’s not making excuses, it’s just a fact of life.”

RPP2, which covers actions between 2013 to 2027, was all-consuming for his department – and one of the things he had been keen to stress at the time was the level of work that had been put into it. But now nearly a year on, thoughts are already looking ahead to what will be in the next plan.

While the most recent report looked at the restoration of Scotland’s peat bogs, which are a vital source of carbon storage, Wheelhouse has already given an undertaking that there will be more exploration of blue carbon, carbon sinks contained in the seabeds, in RPP3.

As Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Scotland is now part of the UK delegations which go to the yearly UN climate summits and Wheelhouse has represented the Scottish Government in Doha and at last year’s summit in Warsaw.

As the September referendum approaches, the Scottish Government has been setting out what the gains to different areas would be from independence – including the environment.

Wheelhouse said this year’s Warsaw summit, where he met groups including the International Trade Unions Congress, CAN (Climate Action Network) International highlighted why he believes the country would be better off independent.

“Lots of different stakeholders were saying to me that they really admire what Scotland is doing, I was honest with them about some of the challenges we face, so I wasn’t sugar coating it. I was completely transparent and open about the challenges Scotland faces in achieving our ambitions.

“But the recognition was there of what Scotland is trying to do. We are an honest broker, we are a good global citizen and there was extreme frustration on their part, not just mine, that I couldn’t voice that.

“I couldn’t stand up like other governments – I was looking at other governments standing up – I think Mexico probably came closest to the kind of messaging we were coming out with.

“I think the world needs governments not just like Scotland but others to put that positive message out that this is achievable.”

He said Scotland could be playing a stronger role on the global stage persuading other nations to follow its lead. Finland, for example, has been a leading light with its LULUCF – land use, land use change and forestry – agenda and the country’s environment minister Ville Niinistö has been heading up the European negotiations.

“Hearing evidence of what is possible around the world, it is very frustrating that we cannot have a direct voice in the negotiations themselves and I see countries like Finland, Sweden and Denmark – small European, well developed economies, that are leaders in climate change playing a key role in the UN process.”
This is not to say Scotland is carping from the sidelines at the UN summits.

In 2009, Scotland was not included in the delegation to Copenhagen, but politicians from north of the border have been included in every one since and Wheelhouse says Scotland attends the COPs (Conference of Parties) with the aim of supporting both the UK and EU – although he says he would like to see both governments being more ambitious in their targets.
“The UK does not have as ambitious targets as Scotland, but they are far more ambitious in the EU context, so we don’t find it difficult to have common cause in that respect.”

He adds: “We position ourselves in the European context as being one of the more progressive countries and we believe that it is important to show developing nations outside the European Union that the EU is serious.”
In contrast to Scotland’s missed targets the European Union is on track to overachieve its lower target for 2020, but Wheelhouse says it is important Europe is more ambitious to help convince others to follow.

“I’m frustrated that the European Union hasn’t been able to go as fast as people would like and indeed the UK would like in terms of ambition on the 2020 target.

“I certainly want to see solid climate mitigation and renewables targets for 2030 – that is absolutely vital if we are going to encourage others.”

Europe has a vital leadership role, particularly as the world looks towards the 2015 Paris COP where tougher agreements are due to be reached.

The Warsaw COP was where not only charities and NGOs attending walked out en masse in protest at the lack of progress, but where Philippines’ commissioner, Yeb Sano, announced in an emotional appeal to the conference that he would go on hunger strike in solidarity with his fellow countrymen and women suffering from the after-effects of a massive typhoon, until meaningful progress was made.

“It has been very emotive speaking to sub-Saharan states and the Philippines about the kind of challenges they face today and thinking how much worse it will be in a world in 2050 with a five degree or worse temperature rise. I can’t imagine how bad life will be for some of the citizens of these countries.”

It was these experiences that were foremost in his mind when he delivered the latest part of the Government’s domestic climate change strategy to parliament last month.

The Climate Change Adaption Programme sets out ways that the country can adapt to increased flooding and other weather changes caused by man-made climate change – as he points out, even with all these measures being taken, the temperature is still rising 2C.
In Scotland, temperatures between 2003 and 2007 were the highest since records began in 1910 and average winter rainfall in the 1990s and 2000s was 23 per cent higher than between 1961 and 1990. Areas like Dumfries and Galloway and Ayrshire both suffered serious floods earlier this year when storms hit Scotland.

Wheelhouse, who has a 10-year-old son, said: “I’m a parent and anybody who is a parent will understand when I say I’m thinking about the next generation – those who come after. We don’t have an infinite amount of time to put this right.”
He adds: “The pressure is on and I do believe we can get a deal in 2015, I do believe it is vital the governments including Scotland – albeit without a direct voice but we put our offers firmly and squarely on the table so that people know there are countries committed to tackling this and try and persuade others that they’re not setting themselves up for a fall by committing to climate mitigation, there are other countries who have committed already and they are not the only show in town.

“It is important we put the evidence on the table and get the message out that as a global society we can achieve this.

“It doesn’t cost the earth in terms of jobs or the economy. There can be positive benefits for the economy; making it more resource efficient and more resilient to supply chain risks in the future.

“Developing a circular economy in Scotland, for example, [on] which the Cabinet Secretary is very keen, reduces our exposure to the markets for raw materials and in agriculture, if we can improve the efficiency and reduce the use of fertilisers, that reduces our exposure to rising prices around the world, so it’s about being smart and making your society more resilient but at the same time, working together to solve what is going to be a major global challenge.”

Wheelhouse did not come to his brief as an environmentalist, although after his election to parliament in 2011, he served some time as parliamentary liaison officer to Richard Lochhead and Stewart Stevenson. He says he had previously taken measures like using A-rated energy products, but it has only been since his promotion that he has really been aware of the global challenges for the environment.

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change last year, which found that not only had each of the last three decades been successively warmer, but they were warmer than any period since 1850 and probably any time in the last 1,400 years, and in parliament Wheelhouse told MSPs he believed: “There is no doubt in my mind that climate change poses one of the greatest threats to the world as we know it.”

The moment he said the penny dropped in relation to what needed to be done was when he was preparing for his first COP in Doha in November 2012, just after he had been appointed, where the scale of the challenge of bringing global heads round a table as well as dealing with the self-interest of many countries involved became obvious.
He said: “I am naturally an optimist. It is in my nature and I do believe we can do this.

“I have seen enough evidence over the last year and a half to understand this challenge is not insurmountable and the cost to the economy is not so great that we should stop our actions – if anything, we need to accelerate because in the long run we can save society much larger costs in the future.”
A much used phrase in government, ‘finance-speak’ is ‘spend to save’ and Wheelhouse says: “This is probably the preventative spending of all preventative spending.”

He adds: “When you start to see the evidence, which I hadn’t been aware of before I was made minister, you see just how serious the implications are globally.

“Even at a domestic level, I was just in Orkney and while I didn’t get the chance to see Skara Brae, if you think about the neolithic heritage we have in this country that is at risk from coastal erosion and facing, potentially, up to 0.8m sea-level rise by the end of the century, it would be tragic if we were the generation that consigns these key environmental heritage features of Scotland to history.”

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