Lesley Riddoch: Scotland can lead the way on climate change if it acts now

Scottish bus firm Alexander Dennis Limited of Falkirk is building a new generation  of electric vehicles. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Scottish bus firm Alexander Dennis Limited of Falkirk is building a new generation of electric vehicles. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
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Scotland can still lead the way on climate change, but it needs to act now, writes Lesley Riddoch

Some big issues await Nicola Sturgeon and opposition leaders when they return to Holyrood this week.

One is the Climate Change Bill where Scottish Labour has joined the Scottish Greens in calling for net zero emissions rather than the 90 per cent cut proposed by the SNP. Of course, percentages tend to leave the public cold. So it’s worth trying to visualise the differences between a very sizeable cut in our contribution to global warming and an absolute end.

The SNP’s 90 per cent target means electric buses, trains and cars will be standard transport modes by 2050 and the planning system will reduce the demand for travel and bring employment closer to where people live.

To go further and reach net zero emissions, Scotland must also tackle the difficult areas of aviation and shipping and explore ideas like electric/hydrogen ferries and electric planes, which are being built and piloted in the Nordic nations now. Flights to the sun for summer holidays will still be possible – but at 2005 levels.

To make progress in agriculture, we must cut current ­levels of meat and dairy consumption and production. It was noticeable at a recent conference in Finland that the default in hotels, cafes and universities is already almond, not cow’s milk. But for Scotland to reach net zero, far more will have to change. We may need new breeds of cows and sheep, which emit less methane and a new diet for animals. Our farming and food science institutes must start that kind of experimentation now.

Industry will change dramatically under either scenario. Our oil and gas dependence must end by 2050 and there can be no new oil fields developed in the North Sea except where they supply developing nations, on the grounds that existing operations cause less eco-damage than drilling elsewhere from scratch.

Companies and investment funds will have divested from fossil fuels to avoid being left with “stranded assets” as oil-based products and services become ­economically unviable. Much energy and imagination will be needed to replace cement and plastics. Where that isn’t ­possible, Scotland will have to offset using carbon capture technology (especially if hydrogen is used for heating) and will have to get funding agreement or political ­control from Westminster.

Heating will have to be electric by default to reach the 90 per cent target so air and ground source heat pumps will have to be affordable and commonplace. That demands a big rise in insulation and some frank discussion about whether ­utilities are up to the task. Net zero emissions means more district heating, and imaginative solutions for rural areas like hydrogen generated by renewables as ­Orkney is already doing.

Tree planting will escalate rapidly because a small amount of emissions can be mitigated by planting forests to store carbon. Reafforestation demands a big debate – will big landowners be allowed to evict tenants for tree-planting grants or will the opportunity be seized to effect land reform and diversify the rural economy?

These changes can boost the economy if Scotland’s politicians are resolute. We can be ahead of the manufacturing curve and not just left buying foreign innovation. Cyclotricity is relocating from ­England to Glenrothes to manufacture electric bicycles and Star Renewables – whose heat pumps use fjord water to power the Norwegian town of Drammen – could do the same in every coastal Scottish town and city. But innovation and investment is needed now so we don’t import zero-emissions related-technology as we have imported most wind turbines.

All these changes are essential because Scotland’s success in tackling carbon emissions (down 49 per cent since 1990) is largely in energy production (69 per cent) and waste (73 per cent) while reductions in agriculture (28 per cent), residential heating (21 per cent), and transport (3 per cent) have been far lower.

The low hanging fruit have almost all been picked. If the Scottish Government still wants the most ambitious climate change targets in the world, it must tackle bigger structural issues. Norway’s Conservative-led Government has just promised to reach zero emissions by 2030, Sweden’s target is 2045 and the French target is 2050.

Does Scotland’s devolved government control enough budget, taxes and levers to deliver the same? Will the public support dramatic change or will the ­prospect of more warm, dry summers and the impending chaos of Brexit combine to let politicians off the hook?

What will change minds – food prices rising further as a downside of the dry summer? How about predictions that more melting ice could shift the Gulf Stream, which guarantees Scotland’s mild climate? This year wild fires covered the globe; an unprecedented heat wave killed dozens in Japan and thick sea ice off Greenland has broken up for the first time on record. The world is witnessing ­tipping points aplenty. Can these extreme climate events be ­written off as insignificant or mere coincidence?

Matters will come to a head during October’s SNP conference when the IPCC is due to release its latest statement on what countries must do to hold warming below the 1.5C limit demanded by the Paris Agreement. Actually, UK emissions have fallen faster since 2010 than in any other G7 nation except Italy – mostly through a switch away from coal-fired electricity.

In July, more than 100 MPs wrote to the Prime Minister calling for a target of net zero emissions by 2050. In short, there may just be the appetite for real political cooperation across borders and ­party lines. Sadly the imminent chaos and recrimination of Brexit may soon end that.

Of course, politicians are frightened of confronting voters with the scale of change needed to move from the oil to the renewables age. Scotland’s remaining oil has for too long been integral to the case for independence – will the SNP be able to move beyond Scotland’s Oil as a slogan and aspiration? Will Scottish Labour’s new enthusiasm for net zero emissions be shared by Jeremy Corbyn and will the ­party weaponise Scotland’s inevitable transition away from oil as a new way to attack independence?

It may be unduly optimistic, but focus on climate change could yet transform Scottish society – if we are all ready to raise our game.