Climate emergency: Scotland needs an Office for Net Zero with real teeth if we are to tackle carbon emissions – Liam Kerr

New body could independently audit public sector organisations and scrutinise Scotland’s journey to net zero

Despite an increase in 2021/22 of 3.6 per cent in pollution from the likes of local authorities and the NHS, the Sustainable Scotland Network (SSN) explained this away as a consequence of post-Covid activities and increased reporting.

The latter rather reminded me of my time as Shadow Justice Secretary when my opposite number would claim rising statistics did not show that crime was increasing, just that more people were bothering to report it. In any case, PR gloss aside, there’s clearly a major issue with emissions in Scotland’s public sector which threatens to jeopardise the country’s drive towards net zero.

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We’re now several years beyond the “climate emergency” declared by former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and almost all of Scotland’s 32 councils. And we’re edging closer to 2045, by which time Scotland must be a “net-zero” nation, which basically means we can’t cause more pollution than we offset.

So it’s deeply disappointing, some years in, to see the trend go into reverse. The SSN, whose secretariat is funded by the Scottish Government, turned up the heat on ministers slightly more in its conclusion: “Greater action is urgently needed across the public sector to bring steeper cuts in emissions at a much faster pace. This requires strong leadership and transparent decision-making that demonstrates alignment of public sector expenditure with pragmatic but transformative pathways to achieving a resilient net-zero Scotland in accordance with our national targets.”

It’s my view that if we are to succeed in our drive to net zero, publicly funded bodies should be held to a higher standard than businesses. Taxpayer-funded organisations ought to be compelled to go further in terms of practice and behaviour, and be more accountable if they fall short. It seems to me that if the public sector can be sorted out, businesses will soon see the benefits and choose to follow suit.

One policy that would help get things moving in the right direction would be the creation of an independent regulator. A Commissioner and Office for Net Zero would have real teeth through holding the power to independently audit public sector organisations without fear of influence or political bias. It would scrutinise Scotland’s journey to net zero, make sure organisations are leading by example, impact on official strategies and legislation, and carry out broad research on green matters.

Improvement notices would be issued on bodies that were falling short. And if things still didn’t change, we’d look at whether it was appropriate to issue penalties, with all revenue generated going straight back into local climate change projects. Now, of course, some may feel we don’t need yet another government-funded body when so many quangos exist with remits in relation to carbon emissions.

Liam Kerr is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and Scottish Conservative MSP for North East ScotlandLiam Kerr is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and Scottish Conservative MSP for North East Scotland
Liam Kerr is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and Scottish Conservative MSP for North East Scotland

But the apparent inability of many arm’s-length organisations to hold the SNP to account in previous years means something needs to change. In fact, it could use those failures as inspiration to do even better. Of course, such a body would have a cost but it would be money well spent when it comes to cleaning up the environment.

Because I am determined that Scotland will lead and play our part in the drive to net zero, it’s important to be upfront about the need to pay for it. The SSN report also shed some light on the impact of finance in all of this, pointing out “financial constraints across the public sector are making it harder for investment projects to gain approval when faced with competition from the delivery of core business and essential services”.

The Scottish Government has slashed public sector budgets in recent years, and that’s particularly true of councils. Many of them are struggling to fulfil even the most basic services, and are being forced to raid rainy-day funds to cover the swingeing cuts to budgets by the SNP-Green coalition.

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Leisure centres are closing, libraries are shutting down and schools have even talked about reducing their operational hours for pupils. There are fewer police on our streets while both the Scottish Ambulance Service and the fire brigade have spoken of the strains of squeezed funding.

So it’s easy to understand why, for these organisations, embarking on ambitious green measures may not exactly seem like a priority. But embark on it they must – and do so with the backing and funding from the Scottish Government. And we need to show that being environmentally friendly does not only result in cash savings but can be economically beneficial with the correct implementation.

Take the ill-fated deposit return scheme, the principle of which commands cross-party support but whose botched implementation by the Scottish Government saw it delayed again. For all the positive contributions that a properly implemented scheme would make to reducing waste and cutting emissions, investment and economic opportunities also abound.

A properly thought-through and implemented scheme gives opportunities for innovation, for jobs to be created in collection and disposal, and for Scotland to work with the UK to show real leadership and collaborative working. Yet like so many other environmental opportunities in Scotland, this one has been missed.

The fact is that Lorna Slater and the Scottish Government’s approach shows that real change won’t happen with warm words, virtue-signalling and political knockabout. What will drive it is a regulator for emissions to hold the Scottish Government and its bodies to account.

It might not transform environmental performance overnight. But it would ensure Scotland makes meaningful progress on the road to net zero while taking people and businesses along too. The climate emergency means the time for targets, talk and time-wasting by this Scottish Government is long past. The time for real action is now. That’s something the Office for Net Zero would deliver.

Liam Kerr is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and Scottish Conservative MSP for North East Scotland



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