Although much remains to be done, Scotland is showing the rest of the UK how action on climate change is possible.
In September the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its fifth report on the Scottish Government’s progress on reducing carbon emissions. The report set out Scotland’s progress on reducing carbon emissions over the past year and reported on progress against long term carbon reduction goals set out in the Climate Change Act, established in 2009. Although not all positive, the report confirmed why Scotland is often held up as a leading example of how government can act to tackle climate change.
Since 1990, Scotland has reduced carbon emissions by over 45%. The considerable reduction in carbon emissions which has taken place over the past two decades has largely been thanks to a massive uptake in renewable energy, which now accounts for 50% of Scotland’s electricity demand.
A cynic would be quick to point out that the shift to a renewable electricity supply has been comparatively easy for Scotland, given its wealth of windy upland environments, as well its multitude of rivers suitable for hydroelectric production. However, huge efficiency improvements in the waste sector, where emissions have fallen by almost 80% since 1990, prove that the Scottish Government are at least attempting to take a holistic approach to decarbonising Scotland.
The CCC’s report identified that energy production now accounts for 30% of Scotland’s emissions. Although this is a proportional increase of 1% from 1990 due to an overall reduction in emissions and improvements in other sectors, vast improvements have undeniably been made over the last 25 years.
Scotland’s ambitious target of 100% equivalent electricity production from renewable sources by 2020 will be a challenge, particularly with the drastic cuts in UK government support for onshore wind and solar implemented in 2015. However, the 100% renewable target sends a message that the Scottish Government is serious about a transition to a low carbon country.
Whilst Scotland generates around 50% of electricity from renewable sources, the figure for the UK is less promising. In 2015, around 22% of electricity fed into the National Grid was from renewable sources. The recent cuts to in financial support for renewables means that the UK is also expected to fail to meet its renewable energy (i.e. heat and electricity) target of 20% by 2020. Under new leadership in Theresa May, and with the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, it remains to be seen what steps the UK Government will take on decarbonisation.
Perhaps a bigger cause for concern for Scotland is the growing contribution of emissions from transport. Transport’s proportional share of emissions has steadily risen since 1990, and now stands at 28% of total emissions. With continued action on decarbonising electricity and energy production, transport will soon become the largest source of carbon emissions in Scotland.
What makes transport an even more concerning problem for Scotland is that the minimal emissions reductions since 1990 (less than 2%) have arisen not from Scottish Government policy, but instead as a result of European Union policy, primarily through legislation on emissions efficiency in cars. With the recent decision to leave the European Union, both the Scottish and UK Governments can no longer rely on the EU to help cut carbon, not just in transport, but in all sectors.
Much remains to be achieved in transport in Scotland: Journeys made by car have remained stagnant, whilst bus passenger numbers fall year on year; spending on upgrading roads will hit around £9 billion over the next 15 years, whilst rail prices continue to rise and new rail routes are ignored; Air Passenger Duty is due to be cut to make air travel cheaper, whilst cycling and walking sit at the bottom of the list of investment priorities.
Scotland undeniably has a long way to go to being a truly low carbon country, and transport, housing and agriculture all remain big challenges for the future. However, Scotland’s recent action on climate change provides a perfect example of how, with the support and encouragement of government, a small developed country can take action on climate change. After leaving the EU, and with the Paris Agreement now coming into force, the UK Government needs to step up and decide on how they will act on climate change. Looking north of the border may just show Westminster what is possible.