Climate change: Scottish Government's plans to cut carbon emissions could be investigated by Environment Standard Scotland – Dr Richard Dixon

Legal challenges and other forms of scrutiny could help turn tough climate targets and fine-looking plans into reality

From the Netherlands to the United States, more and more legal actions are being brought to try to force governments to do the right thing on climate change. The same kind of scrutiny might be about to be turned upon Scotland’s climate plans.

I wrote recently about the legal challenge to the UK Government, leading to a High Court judgment that their climate plan should include the details of which policies would reduce emissions by how much. The result was a flurry of 44 climate and energy documents, which at least partially fill some of this gap in information.

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There are thousands of legal cases around the world that relate to climate change with getting on for 100 being this kind of challenge to the overall plans of a country. The latest is against the French government, with the administration of a suburb of Dunkirk following up an earlier case in which they argued that the government must do more or their area was in danger of being submerged.

A court ordered the French government to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, from 1990 levels. Now the court has decided that the proposed action does not guarantee the target will be met and the government must announce stronger plans by the middle of next year. Brought by the mayor of Grande-Synthe, the case is also supported by the City of Paris, Greenpeace and Oxfam.

Meanwhile, the UK Government has been back in court, this time because Greenpeace is trying to stop them granting 100 new oil and gas licences, on the grounds that they are ignoring the emissions that would result from actually burning the stuff.

In Scotland, a relatively new route for this kind of challenge is not to go to court but to make a representation to Environment Standard Scotland – the body set up to replace the European Commission’s role in making sure environmental laws are enforced (I am a board member). That is what someone has done, asking ESS to look at the “effectiveness of the Scottish Government’s climate change plan”.

ESS is already looking at whether local authorities have enough support to help them contribute to meeting Scotland’s climate targets but this new topic is a much broader one about whether the government’s plans across all sectors are effective. Both the government’s own monitoring and their official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, have said Scotland is not on track to meet its 2030 climate target. Like the UK High Court case, the CCC also complained that there is a lack of information in the plans that means it is very hard to judge whether they could succeed or not.

Climate change activists are moving from the streets into courtrooms (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Climate change activists are moving from the streets into courtrooms (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Climate change activists are moving from the streets into courtrooms (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

If ESS does investigate the current climate plan, the government could use any lessons to feed straight into the creation of the next plan, which is being put together right now and is expected to be submitted to the Scottish Parliament towards the end of the year. Tough targets and fine-looking plans are one thing, but actually delivering reductions in emissions often lags behind the ambition. Legal and related challenges are a powerful tool in service of the planet.

Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant, and a board member of Environment Standard Scotland