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The race to net zero: A look at Scotland and the climate emergency

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The race to net zero: A look at Scotland and the climate emergency

During a year in which people’s lives, work and everyday conversation have been shaped by the coronavirus pandemic, a second crisis – that of the climate emergency – has not disappeared. 

And with the delayed COP26 in Glasgow on the horizon, Scotland’s efforts in trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045 have been placed firmly under the microscope – not to mention its interim target of a 75 per cent drop by 2030, less than a decade away. 

Therefore, there was nowhere to hide for the Scottish Government when it was revealed in June that it had again failed to meet its target for cutting emissions, with the data for 2019 showing they had fallen 51.5 per cent from the baseline period, short of the 55 per cent target for that year. 

Michael Matheson, just under a month into his revamped role as Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, described the findings as “undoubtedly disappointing” but remained optimistic when he told the Scottish Parliament: “We continue to outperform the United Kingdom as a whole on delivering long-term reductions and, crucially, we are now over halfway to becoming a net zero society.

“We should be proud of the steps that we have taken so far but also recognise that there is a long way to go. Our parliament has, quite rightly, set truly world-leading climate change targets. It is easy to overlook the fact that our economy-wide targets for every year in the 2020s and 2030s are the most stretching of any country in the world. There can be no question over Scotland’s ambition here and the government is fully committed to rising to that challenge.”

Of course, there will be some time before the effects of the Scottish Government’s updated climate change plan, which was published in December, will come to fruition but the blueprint includes some eye-catching policy aims such as a commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent and phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030.

The government wants renewable energy generation to account for 50 per cent of energy demand across electricity, heat and transport by the same deadline.

On the topic of public transport, the government plans for Scotland’s passenger rail services to be decarbonised by 2035 and for the majority of new buses purchased from 2024 to be zero-emission vehicles. Meanwhile, a £500m investment has been earmarked for active travel infrastructure and supporting measures over the next five years.

The need for such policy actions is evident. Domestic transport remains the industry which emits the most, signalling the importance of a dramatic change in the sector – namely a shift away from the predominance of car use towards greener methods of travel or less travel overall.

The latter is a trend we have seen during the pandemic as more of us than ever are working from home, making Zoom calls instead of in-person meetings, and limits were put on people’s travel with cars lying unused in driveways. It may all have been in a bid to curb the spread of a deadly virus, but the situation has shown behavioural change is possible. This has encouraged the experts.

“Lots of people have had to change what they do very significantly, which shows there is potential to do it the rest of time,” Professor Iain Docherty, one of the country’s leading transport academics told Holyrood in March. 

“There’s a growing realisation among many people now that we’re not going to go back to what normal used to be, for a whole set of reasons – partly because of the economic shock that’ll happen once pandemic support unwinds – but also because we’ve got very used to using different tools and doing lots of jobs in different ways now, so we won’t go back to doing exactly what we did before.”

Docherty, of the University of Stirling, added: “This is the only big reset opportunity we’ve got in the timeline we’ve told ourselves we need to meet to achieve net zero, so we have to do it.”

In March, Matheson confirmed that ScotRail was to be brought into public ownership. The services will be run by a company owned and controlled by the Scottish Government from March 2022, with the arms-length firm taking over at the end of the current Abellio franchise.

There would be important developments in energy in July when it was announced a programme to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency would receive an extra £9m of funding this year. The government’s area-based scheme would provide over £64m in 2021/22 to enable every local authority to deliver energy efficiency measures to fuel poor households and communities. It forms part of a £1.6bn investment over the next five years to transform the heat and energy efficiency of buildings. 

Meanwhile, the changes in public transport would continue later that month as it was revealed that all residents in Scotland under the age of 22 would be eligible for free bus travel from 31 January 2022. 

Graeme Dey, who was appointed transport minister following the May Scottish Parliament election, said it was “crucial to embed more sustainable travel behaviour from a young age if we are to achieve our world-leading goal of reducing the number of kilometres travelled by car by 20 per cent by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2045.”

There is a matter of months left until world leaders are expected to gather in Glasgow for COP26. The summit was recently described by John Kerry, the United States’ special envoy for climate, as the “last chance” to minimise the worst effects of climate change globally. 

That point was emphasised with the publication of a UN report on the science of climate change, which warned the planet had warmed more than previously estimated. The latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made for “sobering reading”, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as scientists cautioned that human activity is damaging the planet at an alarming rate.

For Scottish ministers, there is no shortage of work to be done in the race to net zero, but significant steps have been made during the last year, a period of time when it would have been easy to focus solely on the response to the COVID crisis.

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