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Heavy Weather: How the Scottish Government's actions are failing to live up to its ambition on climate change

An aerial view of flooding in Brechin | Alamy

Heavy Weather: How the Scottish Government's actions are failing to live up to its ambition on climate change

When finally completed in 2016, Brechin’s multi-million-pound flood defences promised increased protection for those living next to the waters of the South Esk. Local residents, who through bitter experience had come to dread the swelling of the river during heavy rainfall, were told the new measures would offer a 1-in-200-years standard of protection which would safeguard them for “generations to come”.

But when Storm Babet arrived in all its shocking force, the defences could do nothing more than buy time. Ultimately, they would prove no match for the sort of weather event that climate change modelling had predicted to be still more than 60 years away. According to the Met Office, the storm brought the wettest day on record for Angus (the council area which includes Brechin) by a “wide margin” with some places recording between 150 and 200mm of precipitation – the equivalent of two months’ rainfall – in just 24 hours. As Babet continued to batter its way across the UK, three people lost their lives.

Only those in the heaviest state of denial could dismiss the notion our weather is changing. In Angus, where some of those flooded by Babet may never go back to their homes, four of the ten wettest days on record have occurred in the last five years. In the weeks after Babet, Storm Ciarán smashed a destructive path through the Channel Islands, bringing winds likely to have been the most powerful experienced in the British Isles since 1954. And in the Mexican coastal resort of Acapulco, a tropical storm was upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane, catching forecasters off guard and leaving a trail of apocalyptic destruction in its wake.  

Later this month, politicians from across the globe will gather in Dubai for COP28, the UN climate conference, with the international consensus appearing to weaken even as evidence of the threat we all face continues to strengthen almost day by day. When Glasgow hosted the summit in 2021, the UK Government’s mantra was about “keeping 1.5 alive”, a reference to the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015 which sought to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. However, there’s evidence that limit may now be breached as early as the end of the decade.

Indeed, after a year of unprecedented heat during which July was the planet’s hottest month on record, temperatures for 2023 are expected to be close to the 1.5C threshold. Climate scientists now believe the temperature rise the Paris Agreement sought to protect against could be achieved by 2029. Paradoxically, it is thought that at least some of the rise could be attributed to lower levels of aerosols – a by-product of burning fossil fuels – in the environment which have a cooling effect by helping reflect sunlight back into space. 

First Minister Humza Yousaf and net zero secretary Màiri McAllan will be among those heading to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for COP28. Their attendance was announced the day after the Scottish Government confirmed it would not publish its long-awaited climate change plan in the coming weeks, blaming the delay on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the UK Government which it accused of having backtracked on its environmental commitments, an excuse privately dismissed as “total bollocks” by at least one expert spoken to by Holyrood.

First Minister Humza Yousaf visits flood-damaged homes in Brechin | Alamy

Announcing the delay, McAllan said the hardest part of Scotland’s journey to net zero “lies ahead”. “Regrettably, the UK Government’s recent actions have only made that job harder still, not least when it comes to our homes and transport. While we are working to make our homes greener and easier to heat and reduce our reliance on petrol and diesel cars, the UK Government is reneging on its own commitments, creating huge uncertainty for businesses and households.”

It’s now unclear when the plan will be published but it must be finalised by March 2025, with MSPs given at least 120 days to scrutinise it beforehand, meaning we could be waiting until the autumn of next year – possibly after a general election has taken place. The politics are important because many of the measures that will need to be put in place, particularly around transport and the heating of buildings, are likely to be both expensive and unpalatable with voters. 

The Climate Change Committee, the independent body which monitors both the UK and Scottish Government’s progress towards their net zero goals, expressed its disappointment about the delay, which will also impact its own reporting to parliament on the achievements to date.

“With the encouragement of the Scottish Government, we moved the date of the progress report because we were promised a new climate change plan to look at,” says Chris Stark, the CCC’s chief executive. “I feel like I have been misled on that front because we’re not going to have a new plan to look at.” 

For Stark, there is real concern around the government’s targets for 2030, which he says will be “extraordinarily challenging” to meet. As part of its binding commitment to reach net zero by 2045 – five years ahead of the UK as a whole – Scotland must cut emissions by 75 per cent (when compared with 1990 baseline levels) by the end of the decade. But while progress has undoubtedly been made, it has grown increasingly sluggish. 

“There’s a straightforward difficulty of levelling with the country about some difficult decisions,” says Stark. “If you want a clue as to how difficult some of this is, we were promised a Heat and Buildings Bill this year, but it was dropped from the Programme for Government because it would have contained things within it about housing and what’s going to happen to decarbonise those houses.

“The targets themselves are extraordinarily challenging. The 2030 target, in particular, is more ambitious than anything we have advised before. We have a job to advise on those targets and the 2030 target that the Scottish Parliament set is much more ambitious than the one we were recommending. As time ticks on, it just gets harder and harder to hit that target.” 

While most of the areas relevant to the Scottish Government’s climate plans are fully devolved, there is undoubtedly a prevailing wind coming from Westminster – at least for the time being.

Mairi McAllan last week announced in a delay to the climate change plan | Alamy

In July, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for hundreds of new oil and gas licenses to be granted in the North Sea, a decision that was criticised by the government in Edinburgh. In last week’s King’s Speech, it was confirmed that a new annual system would be introduced for the awarding of licenses, helping the UK’s transition to net zero in a “pragmatic, proportionate and realistic way”. 

With all the polls currently suggesting Sunak is fighting for his political life in the run-up to next year’s general election, the prime minister gave a speech in September in which he sought to temper some of the commitments associated with the net zero agenda. Perhaps spurred into action by the result of the Uxbridge by-election, in which the Tories narrowly held onto Boris Johnson’s old seat amid controversy over the expansion of the Ulez (Ultra-low emission zone) under Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan, Sunak pushed back the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035. Some of the other headline-grabbing suggestions in his speech – on car-pooling, the need for “seven different bins” and a meat tax – had never been government policy to begin with. 

Yet while the rhetoric has undoubtedly changed, there has been nothing from the UK Government to suggest it’s no longer committed to its own net zero targets. Yet it was these “unprecedented changes” which McAllan cited as evidence of the government in London “reneging” on its net zero ambitions and which she blamed for the delay in the Scottish Government’s own updated climate plan. The net zero secretary will meet UK Government counterparts this week, promising to hold their feet to the fire about “putting party politics ahead of planetary health”.

But there’s plenty for her own government to be getting on with for the time being. The government has missed its legally binding target for reducing emissions eight times in the past 12 years. The most recent figures for 2021 show it achieved a 49.9 per cent reduction against the 1990 baseline, falling short of the 51.1 per cent target. Among 100 recommendations for the Scottish Government identified by the CCC in a report published last year, 79 related to powers which are “mostly devolved”. Those include hugely complex and potentially controversial areas such as the heating of new homes, reducing car use, improving recycling rates and overhauling agriculture to promote low-carbon farming practices. 

“Our planet is boiling, so the new actions needed to reduce Scotland’s emissions in sectors like transport, agriculture and heating cannot be left to barely simmer for months,” says Mike Robinson, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS), a coalition of more than 60 organisations.

“We urgently need a firm new timeline for the Climate Change Plan, and the delay must be fully utilised to ensure the plan drives rapid delivery of meaningful new climate action. In the meantime, amid a climate and nature emergency, and having missed eight out of the last 12 emissions reduction targets, we cannot stand still. 

Flooding in Brechin during Storm Babet | Alamy

“Bold action is needed sooner rather than later, and there are a number of policies that can be progressed now. For example, reforming the funding system for agriculture, making our homes warmer, and enabling more sustainable transport options.”

But while there has been criticism of the government from the likes of SCCS and Oxfam, perhaps unsurprisingly there has been nothing from the Scottish Greens. The party was quick to criticise the announcement about oil and gas licenses in the King’s Speech, accusing the Tories of following a “scorched earth” approach to the climate. But it has been notably silent on the pushing back of the climate change plan with its co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater having responsibility for zero carbon buildings, active travel and the circular economy between them. 

As climate records continue to fall all over the globe, the international community now sets its sights on COP28 in Dubai, with the world unquestionably in a more fractured state than when the same event was held in Glasgow two years ago. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas threatens to ignite a wider struggle across the Middle East. Yet there are still those who believe a climate summit being hosted by a petrostate can thrash out a deal which helps move us to a post-fossil fuels future. 

The UK currently makes up around one per cent of global emissions, with Scotland clearly just a fraction of that. And yet nearly a third of the world’s overall emissions come from countries in the exactly the same position. 

“The rush to set net zero pledges by governments and businesses is a bit like a sugar rush,” Stark says. “The sugar rush period – as enjoyable as it was – has to come to an end and the reality of actually meeting these targets is now hitting home. 

“Scotland’s imminent targets are so difficult. That was a choice by parliament – the political machine in Scotland decided that’s what they wanted. It’s extraordinarily difficult to hit the 2030 goal. That’s where politics comes back in – the Scottish Government are going to have to set out their stall on that or level with the country that it’s not possible to hit that target.” 

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