[Guest Blog] What happened to Scotland’s world-leading climate targets?

On 18 April, Humza Yousaf, then First Minister of Scotland, approved the Scottish Government decision to remove and revise its legally binding obligation to reduce carbon emissions by 75% for 2030. While the move came as a shock for some, many in Scotland were aware of the Scottish Government’s shortcomings in implementing its ambitious targets, as the Climate Change Committee (“CCC”) –the UK’s independent climate advisory body– had declared, in its latest progress report to the Scottish Parliament. According to the CCC, Scotland was missing a “coherent, transparent and quantified plan on how it will meet its stretching 2030 targets”, putting in doubt the government’s capacity to deliver a challenging policy objective.

AUTHOR: Nicolas Woo-Canal

An early climate leader

In 2009, the Scottish Parliament unanimously voted to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020 compared to 1990 base levels as part of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act, becoming the most ambitious climate legislation at the time. This was a significant moment for Scotland, as it signalled to the world it was ready to lead the charge against the most harmful effects of climate change.

By 2019, Scotland had exceeded its objective, cutting emissions by 44% a year early. These were largely due to the rapid decarbonisation of electricity generation and the rapid rollout of renewable energy sources. On the back of that success, the Scottish Parliament aimed to up Scotland’s ambition, passing the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction) Act. By increasing its 2030 reduction target to 75% it doubled down on its commitment to climate leadership. In comparison, the UK Government and EU Commission pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 68% and 55% by 2030 respectively.

COP26, to be hosted in Scotland, was largely considered the most important meeting of the Parties since the signing of the Paris Agreement. This presented a unique opportunity for Scotland to showcase its ambition and push international commitments to address climate change. In the end, Scotland and the UK’s host delegation played a key role in what was seen as a successful COP26, including important advances in the creation of the new reporting ‘rule book’ and the future creation of a climate fund for vulnerable countries. The latter also saw Scotland become the first country to pledge money in support.

Faltering steps

However, despite the promises of high ambition, voices of concern were emerging over the deliverability of plans, particularly as the benefits of the decarbonisation of the energy sector had begun to reach its ceiling, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns skewed Scotland’s emission reduction trajectory.
While Scotland had exceeded its target goal for 2020, achieving a 58.7% reduction in carbon emissions compared to a 56% reduction since 1990, The CCC’s report in 2021 emphasised the importance of delivery to ensure it cut emissions at a reliable and steady pace until 2030. Furthermore, warnings over complacency in slow-progressing sectors, such as industry, transport, agriculture, or buildings were also beginning to echo.

In effect, by the following year, the CCC estimated that “progress towards meeting these milestones [was] not happening fast enough, and policies and plans are not yet sufficient to speed things up to the required rate”. In fact, efforts have continued to stall since then, resulting in what environmental groups have now called an ‘abject failure’ to deliver, indicating the negotiations around Highly Protected Marine Areas, the anticipated land reform bill, or road infrastructure investment. Environmental groups in Scotland have often protested that many of the necessary actions never got off the planning stage, or remained as ambiguous strategies, hampering its ability to succeed in the long run.

(Re)newed beginnings?

The Scottish Government has missed nine of the last 12 legislated targets since 2010 and three out of four since 2018. These trends have now rendered the 2030 targets virtually unattainable, and have caused the Scottish Government to abandon its annual and interim targets and shift towards a carbon-budget system, like those utilised in Wales and by the UK Government. This crisis in climate policy contributed to deteriorating relations between the SNP led by Humza Yousaf and their partners in the Scottish Green Party. This resulted in the ending of the Bute House Agreement, then Yousaf’s resignation and the formation of a new SNP-only minority administration by their new leader, John Swinney.

It remains unclear what a Swinney minority government will accomplish in Holyrood, and how a changed relationship with the (new) UK Government and their priorities, including on climate and energy policy, will affect Scottish ambition and delivery. Swinney could follow the policy package presented by the Yousaf Government before he departed, although Scottish environmental NGOs have shown little enthusiasm for it. The first Swinney Programme for Government is expected in the first week of September, when Holyrood returns from recess. This will provide clarity on what, if any, of the 18/4 statement remains, and other climate commitments such as the Heat in Buildings Bill.

The SNP’s broad electoral base encompasses many diverse constituencies, from rural exclaves to urban centres, which could influence internal discussions on how to best attain domestic climate targets. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to consider that, to keep the party on a steady course it was easier for the SNP leadership to approve less impactful measures for the environment (such as Just Transition plans for the oil and gas producing areas in the North-East) than step up to the deliver its ambitious climate targets.

The Scottish Government must now chart a credible, path to achieve its new climate targets, beyond its success on energy decarbonisation. Tackling Scottish-specific issues, such as road transport and agricultural emissions are likely to be the most pressing areas for action. On agriculture, while Scotland has largely adopted the EU’s position of direct payments to farmers, England’s approach under the Environmental Land Management Scheme (“ELMS”), has brought an optimistic pathway for nature-friendly agriculture. It is by no means perfect, but it does provide ‘clear targets and a structure’ rewarding farmers to take restorative action in the right place and scale needed.

For transport emissions, many stakeholders have called for the implementation of the air travel tax in Scotland, designed to levy air travel passing through Scotland. Initially legislated in 2017, the Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Act 2017’s enforcement has been deferred since, due to uncertainty over the scope of the tax, and complaints over any potential exemptions. In addition, road transport roughly makes up 75% of all transport greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland and also requires close attention. This could be addressed through more definitive market solutions, such as the installation of more charging stations, and a detailed evidence-based roadmap to introduce adequate infrastructure, to reduce overall car use kilometres among the public, and a robust rollout of electric vehicles across the country.

In conclusion

Scotland pledged to combat the climate crisis by example and proposed admirable objectives to cement its leadership position. However, its failure to achieve 8 out of 12 objectives and the recent revision of its stated climate goals for 2030 shows that rhetoric is only part of the battle. Implementing solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change at a nationwide level is a much larger challenge. The Scottish government must not give up on its leading role in the battle against climate change.

Nicolas Woo Canal previously worked at IEEP UK, and is now with the public affairs and communications agency Lexington. With thanks to Lloyd Austin for his input into the article.

Photo by Ben Marler on Unsplash

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