Last week the Scottish Parliament passed world-leading climate change legislation, embedding in law a “net-zero” target for 2045, which means that any CO2 emissions after that date have to be completely offset with carbon-absorbing measures such as increased tree planting.
This target is more ambitious than that set for the UK by some five years. In addition, an ambitious interim target of 75 per cent by 2030 was also agreed.
All this puts Scotland at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Encouragingly, there was a broad consensus across the Holyrood Chamber that this was the right thing to do, although, bizarrely, the Scottish Green Party MSPs abstained in the final vote, refusing to support the Bill which everyone else agreed to.
The ambitious targets set last week don’t go far enough for some. I met a number of youth climate strikers outside Holyrood on Thursday, who were both articulate and passionate about their subject. Groups like Extinction Rebellion have certainly helped put tackling climate change at the centre of the political agenda, but on the fringes there is the whiff of an end-of-times apocalyptic cult about some of their members.
The measures that we are taking to reduce CO2 emissions are guided by the advice of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If their considered view on what needs to be done changes, then that is the time to take further action.
Offshore wind getting cheaper
It also needs to be remembered, in all this debate, that Scotland amounts for a fraction of one per cent of global CO2 emissions. Meeting our climate change targets will come at a cost, both economically and socially, but the overall impact will do nothing to help save our planet unless the lead we are taking is followed by countries across the world.
The point was fairly made in last week’s debate that the setting of targets, however robust, is the easy part; what is harder is actually implementing the policies to ensure these targets are met. In the fields of energy, and transport, in particular, we will all have to make different choices if we are to meet the targets we have set.
Technological advances will be vital here. Last month saw the award of the latest Contract for Difference by the UK Government, demonstrating another substantial reduction in the cost of electricity generated by offshore wind. Nuclear power, while now relatively more expensive in terms of its unit cost, provides a reliability that other, intermittent, forms of low-carbon electricity generation struggle to meet.
In the area of transport, we need to see a modal shift away from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles both to public transport and to individual vehicles powered by low-carbon sources. Electric cars are still limited in range due to battery size, but as the technology improves costs will reduce, and they will become more attractive.
In all this, we do have to be aware of the potential impact of any policy changes on social justice. The fuel duty escalator introduced by the previous Labour Government has now been frozen for eight years running. While it is perfectly possible to make an argument in terms of reducing carbon emissions that the escalator is a valuable policy tool, in practice it is a regressive tax that hits hardest on the poorest households.
Unfair taxes dressed up as ‘green’ policies
In similar fashion, the SNP’s Workplace Parking Levy or “Car Park Tax”, which could hit those parking at their place of work with an annual charge of up to £500, might well be dressed up as a “green” policy, but will hit hard at those who have no alternative but to use their private cars to get to their pace of work.
Similarly, low-emission zones in city centres can be got around by those wealthy enough to buy more modern, low-emitting vehicles, but those who can only afford to buy a ten-year-old diesel car will find themselves effectively excluded from city centres. Raising the cost of aviation will mean that the wealthy can still travel by air, while pricing out those who simply want an annual family holiday to the Mediterranean.
All this demonstrates why government policies are a blunt instrument which can often have unintended and negative consequences. And it illustrates why individual responsibility, and personal choices, are as important in the fight against climate change as any legislation that might be passed.
Because, if we are serious about reducing CO2, we will all need to be prepared to live our lives differently. That means making choices that come at personal cost to ourselves: using the car less, flying less often, turning down the heating, and wasting less food.
To give just one example: people will often make the claim that if only public transport were better, they would make less use of their cars. And yes, public transport can and should be better, but the reality is that even if we had the world’s best public transport in Scotland, it is still never as convenient as using your own vehicle. The best bus or train system in the world will not pick you up from your front door, and deliver you precisely to your exact destination, by your own preferred route. Using public transport as an alternative to a private car will always mean a sacrifice, and it is simply a cop-out to say that we need better public transport before we can make that choice.
We don’t need to be Greta Thunberg to realise that we need to take the threat of climate change much more seriously than we have done in the past. The Scottish Parliament has taken a significant step forward with the legislation passed last week, but on its own it simply won’t be enough. We are all going to have to change our behaviours, and that is going to come at personal cost.