Lesley Riddoch: Environmental costs mean Scotland must rethink communications

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Excessive travel and the environmental costs mean Scotland must adopt more technological communications argues Lesley Riddoch.

Has the Scottish Environment Protection Agency been caught with its hands in the ecological till? 
A weekend paper revealed the Scottish quango “has put staff on three domestic flights a day since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency” in April.

We need a technological communications same revolution within Scotland, writes Lesley. Picture: Shutterstock

We need a technological communications same revolution within Scotland, writes Lesley. Picture: Shutterstock

Admittedly, most are flights to Scottish islands where public transport alternatives take days not hours, ferries are often cancelled and many routes are closed during winter storms. But the knives are out for short-haul flights, because a larger amount of fuel is used during take-off and landing and because a decent high-speed train network should render most domestic flights unnecessary.

Chance would be a fine thing.

Back in reality, rail travel in Scotland and Britain is still the most expensive in Europe and the line north of Perth is still single track, so that a delay for one train rapidly becomes a delay (and missed connections) for all. No wonder quick hops to Stornoway, Benbecula, Barra, Wick, Orkney and Shetland airports are popular. But there’s no question, they damage the environment. The Energy Saving Trust estimates an Edinburgh to London trip by a single person uses 144kg of Co2 travelling by plane; 120kg by petrol car; 29kg by train and nowt by electric car. Ferries create roughly the same level of emissions as trains. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, if the UK’s aviation industry continues to grow unchecked it will account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The situation facing Scotland is no different. So, the short-haul habit must be checked.

European presidential candidate Frans Timmermans created anxious (and exuberant) ripples across Europe when he called for a total ban on short-haul flights during the recent election campaign. He failed to get the top job and EU control over British aviation and environmental standards may soon disappear. But Scotland can’t hope to buck a developing trend, and if the Scottish Government doesn’t act to change its transport spending priorities, future short-haul flight restrictions will only cause further grief for Scotland’s precarious island communities.

Currently, Hebrideans have almost no chance of leaving on busy summer weekend ferries; Northern Isles residents are still waiting for RET and lower fares and all islanders must thole buses leaving terminals minutes before ferries arrive and trains taking picturesque but lengthy zigzagging routes designed centuries ago to convey landowners to their shooting lodges.

It’s quaint for tourists but our present public transport network provides no modern, viable alternative to short haul island flights. What to do?

One long-term solution is to dual rail lines north of Perth. One medium-term solution is rationing, so that public bodies like Sepa get an annual allocation of air miles and when they’re gone, they’re gone. But the biggest short-term solution is to ask whether all these work-related, short-haul trips from mainland quango HQs to island destinations are really necessary. Technology has developed to let kids compete in online games across the world, yet senior managers still believe a physical presence in the room is essential for training, reporting and problem-solving. So, the preference for “boots on the ground” instead of Skype, video conferencing, FaceTime and the like, stubbornly continues in almost every official walk of life.

According to Sepa; “We must ensure staff in all our offices have the same opportunity for face-to-face discussions with line management and access to training.”

Yes, equal access does matter. But is formal, face-to-face contact with a manager in the same room, always better than a good skype chat? Government departments, NHS services and quango chiefs should all expect to communicate meaningfully with “remote” participants – and so should big players in public life like BBC Scotland, which still insists on bringing contributors all the way to Glasgow for a few minutes on current affair programmes. STV’s flagship programme Scotland Tonight has long used local studios to cut pointless travel.

Aunty could usefully rethink its fondness for “chummy studio” formats and use a wider range of contributors from upgraded studios all over Scotland, along with the network of UHI learning centres round the Highlands and Islands, and good Skype/Facetime links.

Big ecological brownie points await the broadcaster who chooses to protect the climate instead of prolonging the illusion that contributors live around the corner. Responding to the climate crisis must mean an end to every pointless journey that occurs simply because an authority figure prefers to speak in person (whether that’s in the office or on the islands) and won’t use technology instead.

Now of course, physical presence does count for a lot. It’s the reason personal trainers work better than online apps – there’s no way to postpone good intentions when a demanding person stands right in front of you. It’s also true that remote areas depend on easy and constant movement. Islanders must fly south for hospital appointments – visitors, friends, families, artists and musicians head north and west to keep island life vibrant and viable. And some face to face business meetings are worth their weight in gold.

But one of the big bonuses of devolution was NOT having to trail down to London because power had shifted north. We need the same revolution now, within Scotland.

The climate crisis demands a shift of budget and power to town and island-sized councils. Otherwise the grinding process of rural depopulation will continue apace if short-haul flight use faces restrictions.

Scotland urgently needs an end to the damaging traditions of micro-management and constant, bureaucratic oversight and the bad habit of traipsing round Scotland for pointless face-to-face meetings.

Meeting-itis is the urgent problem that needs tackling and the centralised retention of power – both these bad democratic habits have encouraged the rise and rise of short-haul air travel.

Ironically, technology may yet come to the rescue – Loganair plans to convert its eight-seater aircraft to electric power by 2021, providing the ultimate green connection between Kirkwall and Orkney’s smaller islands and winning the international race to fly clean.

It’s an incredible breakthrough – but let’s hope Orkney’s admirable fix doesn’t rob Scotland of a much-needed good crisis, which changes thinking, behaviour and business defaults.