Scotland now has a zero-carbon bible to tackle climate change. And its scale is daunting – Bill Jamieson

The scale of change designed to tackle climate change over the next 30 years envisaged in the first report by the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland is extraordinary, writes Bill Jamieson.

Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg addresses guests at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Picture: Michael Probst/AP)

It runs to 137 pages. There are 14 appendices. It has a time span of 30 years, with a projected £7 billion investment plan.

It is the product of 147 responses, nine “thematic round tables” and four “face-to-face deliberative workshops”.

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It bristles with “key strategic investments” and calls for action. Just when you think you have read the final panel of urgent priorities, more pop up.

For the end goal – “over-arching” barely does it justice – is the achievement of an inclusive net-zero carbon economy within 30 years. It will mean little short of a social and economic transformation of life as we know it.

Welcome to the first report of the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland. By the time you have downloaded this and printed it off, you may well have added to the very cloud of carbon emissions it is seeking to dispel.

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Speaking to the Commission’s chairman Ian Russell this week, I flippantly compared his achievement to that of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.

What an understatement that was. Even allowing for the final brushstrokes to The Last Judgement, should the Commissioners finally meet in 2050 to review their vast work, I fear I have grossly under-estimated the scale of this project.

A zero-carbon bible

Petrol-driven vehicles to disappear, millions of domestic gas boilers to be ripped out and solar energy installed, every public project and infrastructure work tasked with the requirement to be net-zero carbon: life in 30 years will be barely recognisable to the one we know now. This is more akin to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s gigantic cathedral. Will it ever be finished? With every year, every hand-crafted gargoyle, each filigreed detail, is painstakingly added to this monument of time-defying construction.

In decades of covering the Scottish Government and all its works, I cannot recall a project more grandiose in scale, broader in ambition and one more dauntingly generative of ever more tasks, targets, goals and objectives, down to the last stakeholder engagement strategy and cross-cutting recommendation.

The remit is sweeping, with an infrastructure definition that encompasses “the physical and technical facilities, and fundamental systems necessary for the economy to function and to enable, sustain or enhance societal living conditions”. And here is the zero-carbon bible for every Holyrood minister and Greta Thunberg activist, to be lugged from one stakeholder engagement plan to another.

Do I exaggerate? To quote from the ground-setting brief, the infrastructure sectors about which the ICS sought to engage responses “include transport, energy, water, telecoms, digital and the internet, as well as housing, education, health, justice, culture and tourism, waste management, flood prevention and public services such as emergency services and resilience”.

Daunting

The £7 billion commitment is over and above existing plans for schools, hospitals, transport, digital connectivity and clean energy by 2026. It is impossible not to be overawed, both by the scale of the change in this report and the exhausting zeal with which the report’s authors have set out every conceivable figure on energy use and consumption. It is a veritable armoury of statistical munitions on everything we must do to fulfil the Great Mission of National Decarbonisation. In this, it is both the most serious programme that has been set before the Scottish government and the most urgent.

It has already started down the road of legislation to improve energy efficiency. But as a result of the 2019 increase in ambition to net-zero carbon, “much more needs to be done to accelerate the pace and scale of development and implementation across all building styles and owners”. This will, inter alia, require action to eliminate gas boilers in two million homes in Scotland and switch from natural gas to alternative heat supply.

The challenge here is of a far greater scale and complexity than the switch in the 1970s from town to natural gas. To take another example, road-based CO2 emissions are the most significant contributor within the transport sector and the aim here is for no new sales of CO2-emitting vehicles by 2035.

It will cost drivers more than simply buying an electric car. “The Scottish and UK governments”, says the report, “should immediately commit to establish charging/payment regime alternative to the existing road taxation based structure”.

There is so much here to do, it is almost impossible to know where to start. So one urgent recommendation of my own I would make for the ICS before it fulfils its own goal of self-dismantling next year is to provide a summary of no more than five jargon-free pages of practical steps for ministers and the public.

The document as it stands is daunting and runs the risk of early shelving as “too much to handle”. To get to “net zero carbon” we need a clear, succinct and practical action plan. Brevity and simplicity are now required.