How Scotland is driving innovation to tackle the issue of climate change

Nearly a year ago First Minister Nicola Sturgeon became one of the first world leaders to declare a climate emergency and vowed Scotland would “live up to our responsibility to tackle it”.

With Glasgow due to host Cop26 (the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference) in November on behalf of the UK, Scotland’s

eco credentials are under greater scrutiny than ever before. The country has some of the most ambitious climate targets in the world, setting a legally binding pledge to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest – five years ahead of the date set for the UK as a whole.

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Scotland’s emissions cuts to date stand at around 50 per cent since 1990 baseline levels, but achieving 100 per cent will take a lot of work across every sector of the community.

Scottish leaders are pushing a raft of measures aimed at cutting the country’s environmental impacts and protecting society into the future. Renewable energy schemes, with more than 11,000 megawatts of installed capacity, already generate more than three quarters of Scotland’s power.

The network of electric vehicle charging points is being rapidly expanded as we move away from petrol and diesel engines, while plans have been unveiled to turn the Highlands and Islands into the world’s first net-zero emissions aviation region by 2040. A new deposit return system for drinks containers is due to be rolled out soon in a bid to tackle plastic pollution and increase recycling rates.

About one-third of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have declared climate emergencies and are also bringing in measures to cut their impact on the environment. Our two largest conurbations are currently vying to become the UK’s first net-zero city, with both places unveiling ambitious plans to cut emissions to a neutral level. Glasgow wants to reach the target “well before” 2045, while Edinburgh has set its sights on 2030.

Aberdeen is operating the pioneering £19 million Hydrogen Bus Project, which deploys ten fuel-cell buses on operational routes throughout the city. The vehicles emit only water vapour, reducing carbon emissions and air pollution as well as being quieter to run.

Dundee has been crowned the electric vehicle capital of the UK and possibly Europe due to its high percentage of uptake and good network of public charging points.

New Scottish Government policies include investing more than £500m in Scotland’s bus networks, reducing emissions from railways to zero by 2035, ensuring all new homes use only renewable or low-carbon heat by 2024, planting up to 15,000 hectares of new trees annually, creating a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan to make sure the country has the right skills to successfully fight the climate crisis and introducing a Green New Deal to attract financial investment into renewables, waste and construction.

There is a major drive towards a circular economy, which aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate materials at the end of each product’s viable life cycle.

Businesses will play a crucial part in the transition to a greener and more sustainable society. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has warned companies that fail to move towards zero-carbon emissions would be punished by investors and go bankrupt. “Achieving net-zero emissions will require a whole economy transition – every company, every bank, every insurer and investor will have to adjust their business models,” he said.

As well as environmental benefits, a thriving green economy presents significant economic and industrial opportunities for Scotland. Many Scottish companies are already working hard to become more sustainable and to develop innovative new green products and services.

Businesses are at the forefront of driving change in many ways, for example by inventing more sustainable alternatives to single-use items and packaging, commercialising ways of using by-products from industries like whisky distilling and fish farming, and developing reuse and reprocessing operations that keep products in use for longer.

Adopting circular economy principles could benefit the Scottish economy by up to £3 billion, according to a report produced by state-backed organisation Zero Waste Scotland, while there’s also potential to grow a new, green manufacturing industry. For individual businesses, switching to more circular procurement processes promises vast savings in waste and carbon, while helping to protect nature by reducing demand for finding and extracting new materials.

Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland, says: “With repeated warnings in the news about the climate emergency, we are all aware of the need to minimise our contribution to climate change.

“Scotland’s businesses are no exception – and there’s no question that many are stepping up to the mark. Scotland is recognised as a global leader on the circular economy, and successful sustainable business opportunities have had a key role in developing that reputation. We know there are huge economic opportunities for Scotland as a nation, to the tune of up to £3 billion, and individual businesses simply can’t afford not to improve their operations to be more environmentally friendly.”

“Customers are calling for new and better ways of developing products that have minimal impact on the planet,” adds Gulland. “That’s a huge challenge for businesses, but one that will help retain and grow their customer base as well as future-proof their operations if they take it up. Getting ahead when it comes to making things last is a sound business decision, and it is fantastic that Scotland boasts so many innovative, sustainable business models operating and in development right now.”

Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham acknowledges the massive efforts needed to achieve a greener way of life but highlights the long-term benefits for everyone.

“An estimated 80 per cent of our global climate emissions are currently linked to the production, consumption and waste of products and resources,” she says. “For our journey to net-zero to be successful it must involve a fundamental rethink about how we use and reuse materials. An innovative circular economy can improve productivity and open up new markets while providing employment opportunities and lower-cost options to access the goods we need.

“Responding to the global climate emergency will be a challenge for us all – government, business or individuals – and I’d strongly urge everyone to share their views on how we make this journey together.”

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s spring 2020 edition of Vision. A digital version can be found here.