Dr Phoebe Cochrane: Let’s make sustainable products that last – or the planet won’t

Dr Phoebe Cochrane, Sustainable Economics Officer at Scottish Environment LINK
Dr Phoebe Cochrane, Sustainable Economics Officer at Scottish Environment LINK
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Climate change has been ­hitting the headlines ­recently and the Scottish Government has been one of the first to acknowledge the climate ­emergency and swiftly respond to scientific evidence that Scotland needs to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

The First Minister has ­committed to looking at all our ­policies to make sure they are ­consistent with those ambitions. This is absolutely the right thing to do and environmental ­charities from across Scotland have welcomed this strong response.

One of the most obvious places to look for change is our own carbon footprint. This measure includes all the greenhouse gas emissions that occur in other countries as a result of our choices as consumers and the products we import. Because we import a significant proportion of our manufactured products, often from countries still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, the carbon impact of our imports is significant.

In 2015, these emissions amounted to 41.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, nearly three times the total emission associated with all forms of transport in Scotland. Despite ­Scotland being ahead on achieving our 2020 climate targets, our ­carbon footprint only fell by 8 per cent between 1998 and 2015.

Other far-reaching environmental impacts of our lifestyles have been highlighted recently. We have heard about the extent of marine litter and the harmful effects of plastic pollution on wildlife and human health, as well as the chemicals and quantity of water used to produce much of our fast fashion.

The common thread is the unsustainable nature of our ­consumption – what we buy and how it is made. Recent reports find that consumption of natural resources – things like minerals, metals and ­timber – has ­tripled since the 1970s and is set to further double by 2060.

Ninety per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress is caused by resource extraction and processing. If everyone in the world followed our lifestyle, we would need three planets to sustain us.

Earth Overshoot Day for the UK was 8 May in 2018 and is predicted to be in May again this year. Overshoot Day is calculated by comparing the ­ecological footprint (carbon, food, timber, fibre, land consumption) with the capacity of the planet to renew these resources. We should tread more lightly on our planet through optimising the use of resources, rather than exploitation for maximum gain – we need a new model for ­production and ­consumption.

Environment charities in Scotland, members of Scottish Environment LINK, are calling for a reduction in our carbon and material footprints through steering our economy to one that is more circular, where products are designed to last as long as ­possible, are easy to repair, and made out of materials that can be recycled. Such an economy should be restorative and regenerative, replenishing and sustaining our natural systems.

This is not a new idea – the Scottish Government has a circular economy Strategy: Making Things Last. There has been valuable work in supporting innovative enterprises and investing in specific institutions, such as the Scottish Remanufacturing Institute.

The Scottish Government is ­banning products such as ­plastic- stemmed cotton buds, has introduced levies to disincentivise the use of plastic bags, and is bringing in a deposit return system for ­bottles and cans. The Government has also committed to bring forward a Circular Economy and Zero Waste Bill in this ­parliamentary term. This bill is urgently needed to establish ­legally-binding targets for reductions in our carbon and raw material footprints. The targets should be accompanied by plans which detail the steps required and drive change in ­policy.

Public appetite to address our environmental impact has ­never been higher. Businesses and investors like a level playing field and a clear policy horizon.

Following the Scottish Government’s leadership within the UK on a deposit return system, now is the time to continue to lead the way with a circular economy bill.

Dr Phoebe Cochrane, sustainable economics officer at Scottish ­Environment LINK.