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Interview: Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham on Scotland’s actions to tackle climate change

Roseannna Cunningham - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Interview: Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham on Scotland’s actions to tackle climate change

Climate change is one of the few things to have broken through the fug of Brexit and risen up the agenda, and with Scotland’s contribution to the future of the planet at stake, it’s a big responsibility for the person in charge of making sure Scotland’s emissions are reduced.

This currently falls to Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. It is a responsibility, says Cunningham, but “the nature of the job is bigger than the individual in it”.

More difficult is actually fitting in everything she is responsible for. The climate change part of the job has “mushroomed massively”, she says, and having to carve out more time for it from a brief that also has one of the biggest Brexit impacts is “challenging”.

While climate change cuts across all portfolios, it is Cunningham who has to stand up in parliament annually and report on what progress is being made in Scotland towards its emissions reductions targets.

However, most of the biggest emitters, such as heating, transport and agriculture, don’t fall within her own portfolio, so isn’t this an anomaly that she holds the responsibility but not the power to make the changes?

“It’s a bit like, I kind of say the analogy is like being the finance secretary,” she explains.

“So, he’s the one that has to do the budget and make sure that’s all sorted out, but then the actual spending and the decisions within the portfolio spend are all at the portfolio level.

“So I have to manage the government’s overall response in terms of climate change, manage things like the legislation, the climate change plan and what we’re doing, but my colleagues all have to be part of this, because their portfolios cover the key sectors where we require operational change in order to effect the outcomes that we want. So they are part and parcel of it as well.”

She adds, conspiratorially: “I have actually occasionally said that I’m the cabinet secretary for everything because of climate change, but that’s in the same way that Derek [Mackay] is kind of also, because he’s got that pinnacle role about finance as well.

“So these are the two portfolios where the decision-making kind of flows out into absolutely every portfolio. And that does mean we spend a lot of time doing bilaterals with our colleagues.”

Climate change now sits across the policy decision-making process, Cunningham says, and the Scottish Government is making sure that the budget and the climate targets are working as a whole and achieving what needs to be achieved through the whole of government.

While some portfolios are “a bit further away from climate change”, she notes, there is nobody in government who doesn’t have some part of their portfolio impacted by it.

It might seem logical to make each cabinet secretary stand up and defend their own individual targets, but Cunningham says they haven’t set central targets in that way because of the risk of double counting.

However, they do have ‘sector envelopes’, which assigns each portfolio area its contribution to reducing emissions. And with the expected reduction increased now from 10 megatons of CO² by 2032 to 25 megatons by 2032, all the portfolios will be asked to deliver a share of that.

Cunningham explains: “Not all portfolios are being asked to deliver the same share, for obvious reasons, but all portfolios will be asked to deliver a share of that.

“And, you know, all my colleagues are well aware that if in one portfolio area they try to say, ‘well, we can’t do that’, it means that another portfolio has to deliver even more.

“So it’s a collegiate approach, because we are all part of the same government and we need to work together … what I’m doing is saying to my colleagues, well, here’s the sectoral envelope that you’re meant to work in, this is what we’re expecting from you, but it’s then their decision how, within their portfolio, that is then delivered.”

Scotland is internationally leading in targets, with a deadline of 2045 for achieving zero emissions, but does Cunningham really believe it is internationally leading in action, too?

“Well, yes, it is internationally leading in action as well,” she replies. “I mean, we wouldn’t have got the 47 per cent emissions reductions over that period since 1990 if we haven’t actually been delivering.

“And when I go to international talks, they’re always very keen to have me speak on anything that’s energy related because they can see that we’ve actually delivered, as opposed to talked. We’ve actually delivered.

“I’m always asked to go and speak about the ‘just transition’ side of things, which is the delivery that’s fair and all the rest of it.

“We’re the only country in the world that has a just transition commission.

“So, people talk about it and talk about the principles and one or two countries have a just transition approach to a specific industry, generally the coal industry; no other country in the world has actually set one up for the whole of the economy.

“So, there are lots of things on which not only are we leading, but we are recognised as leading and you know, we do things in a very strict and constrained way. And I’m not sure people understand the extent to which that is the case.

“So again, we’re the only country in the world where the responsible politician has to stand in the parliament every single year and justify what we’ve done over the last year and what we’ve achieved. No other country in the world does that.”

But given the scale of the climate crisis, how can she justify Scotland continuing to use oil and gas?

“My basis: what the UK Committee on Climate Change tell us,” she replies.

“They’re the science, they’re the advice, and what they tell us is, it can continue to be part of the overall energy mix as long as you are able to show a trajectory where it is being phased out.

“But there’s where the just transition issue comes in, because you know, I can’t say to people, ‘Right, we can do this. Of course, we can do this. We could do this in the next five years.

“I might have to crash the economy to do it, is that what you want?’ Well, maybe not. So all of this is a judgment about managing the transition across the whole economy, but also within sectors in the economy.

“And in some sectors, the transition is probably going to go faster and more easily than in other sectors, there is no doubt about it. And these things are a challenge, so there’s no getting away from it.

“If we don’t have oil and gas in the near future, if we no longer have oil and gas, I’m in the government, I have to say what you have as an alternative. And if I can’t say that you have an alternative and basically, the end result is you don’t get to heat your home.

“Well, once upon a time, central heating wasn’t particularly well known, but I wonder how many people would put their hands up to go back to that,” she laughs.

It’s a similar conversation you have about agriculture, she says, because food production is a basic essential that every human being in the world needs and therefore, the question is, how efficient can you make that food production. But the answer isn’t the same in every country.

“And again, the UK Committee on Climate Change, basically saw a reduction in eating certain kinds of meat might be what you’re looking at.

“But there’s a huge conversation around that because the areas of Scotland that are devoted to livestock production aren’t areas of Scotland that are suddenly going to become raspberry farms and grow avocados.

“Effectively, that is the only form of food production there will ever be in those areas of Scotland, so again, that’s back to our setup is different, and therefore, we need to think through different choices there.

“You know, we don’t have vast factory farms. The pictures about agriculture always show a vast farm in somewhere like Kansas with the whole row of combine harvesters all moving down in a great big sweep.

“Well, of course, you don’t have that in Scotland, so these are all decisions that you have to make.

“But you also have to be thinking … if you do too rapid a change, then you end up with a lot of people left behind or a lot of people unable to access what we would consider fair work or a reasonable lifestyle and all the rest of it.

“So it’s just this constant balancing all the time, which I think ... some parts of the lobby are very impatient with the reality of that, but that is the reality of it.

“I’ve got to think about, do I actually have enough plumbers to take out every gas boiler in Scotland? You know what the answer to that is? No. By a long, long way.

“So there’s already a restraint that most people are not actually thinking about. It’s as boring as that.

“Because that’s effectively what you have to think about when you make these decisions, and policy decisions have got to understand the implications of the consequences of what the decision means.”

She adds: “I can’t make decisions that are going to basically make life horrible for people. That will then create huge problems. So, that’s not where we are at.

“And Scotland is a good example of how to make huge reductions without doing that.

“So, the 47 per cent reductions since 1990 are not to be just glibly put aside, because a huge number of countries in the world are nowhere near that, nowhere near that. We are.”

Holyrood notes that there is no commitment for major change in heating for homes and suggests that the programme for government seemed to have some quite small things in terms of specific action on climate change, given the climate emergency.

“What? Small things like billions of pounds,” Cunningham exclaims.

She interjects as Holyrood starts to reply.

“Well, no, I’m not letting you away with that, right?” she says. “When you’re committing billions of pounds out of a devolved budget, that is not small.

“But secondly, the thing that you also have to think about is, again, go back and look at the report from the Committee on Climate Change.

“They were absolutely crystal clear that we will not achieve our targets in Scotland if the UK doesn’t step up to the plate, and the decarbonisation of heat is a really key point in that because one of the big things that should be done is decarbonising the gas grid and that’s not in our gift. That’s Westminster’s responsibility.

“So we end up having to look at how we switch heating over in Scotland without having the ability to do the decarbonising of the gas grid.

“And that’s why moving out of what we currently have, and the vast majority of people have gas central heating, but moving away from that is enormously challenging on a whole different set of levels.”

But there is going to have to be some sort of mass change over the next decade, whether retrofitting homes or providing district heating systems, Holyrood suggests.

“Well, indeed there will need to be – or the gas grid itself is decarbonised,” Cunningham answers.

“And I’m keen not to allow the UK Government to be let off the hook by people here. Because the UK Committee on Climate Change are absolutely clear: we will not make 2045 if the UK Government does not work towards 2050.

“We will only make 2045 if they do all the things that they are charged with doing, as well as things that will impact on us.”

But going back to the programme for government, are the actions promised transformative enough to deal with the scale of the crisis?

“Well, if you expect it to be tackled like that overnight, no,” she retorts, “but no government will ever be able to do that, ever. And some of the transformation that’s needed will have to go over a period of time.

“So, half a billion pounds on bus infrastructure, but you can’t spend half a billion pounds in the next two weeks. So that will be rolled out, of course it will, [a] three-billion-pound investment. Well, you invest and the money goes in, but then the project has to work.

“What will be required for transformation? Well, I’ll tell you what will be required for transformation: the whole of society stepping forward, and that includes the private sector as well. Government will not be able to pay for all of this.

“Every single penny that we have to use for this is your money, so we need everybody to step up to this. And that’s the challenge, I think, out there right now, that everybody has to be part of this.”

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