The roads, bridges, electricity networks and homes we build today will be with us for decades to come.
If we choose the kinds of infrastructure that lock us into continuing our current high-carbon lifestyles, we will fail to meet our own targets on climate change and fail to make a fair contribution to international efforts to keep temperature rises below 1.5C. On the other hand, if we choose to invest in low-carbon infrastructure we can not only reduce climate emissions but also create jobs and improve people’s quality of life.
There are several ways that you can judge how the Scottish Government is doing on climate change. Ministers say the right things about climate change and the need for a low carbon economy. Policy documents, like the plan that spells out how we will meet climate targets, include some good policies and appear to add up. But a key test is to look at where the money is going. In the coming year’s Scottish budget there is £820m going on major roads. Meanwhile less than 2% of the total transport budget is going towards walking and cycling. That imbalance clearly shows we haven’t got our priorities right yet.
The 2009 Scottish Climate Act cleverly specified that every year the proposed budget should be scrutinised for its impact on climate emissions.
But the civil servants even more cleverly made sure this doesn’t work properly.
So Members of the Scottish Parliament do get a report about the carbon implications of proposed spending plans and parliamentary committees spend time discussing the issue. But the official report doesn’t actually tell them what they need to know.
One of these reports seemed to show that the Borders Railway would be really bad for the climate while, in comparison, the new Forth Bridge would be two and half times better!
That’s because the boundary of the assessment is drawn too narrowly. Railways need lots of concrete and steel - materials with a high carbon cost - so they appear bad for the climate.
But no account at all is taken of the positive side - all the cars that will be taken off the road because there are lovely new trains on a brand new rail commuting route. The Bridge uses less concrete, steel and gravel so appears better, but there is no mention of all the extra traffic that will be generated by having a new bridge. So the current way of doing these carbon assessments fails to provide the full picture and can give exactly the wrong answers.
The next government needs to fix this and make sure MSPs get a clear assessment that says how much better or worse a particular draft budget, and the individual infrastructure proposals it contains, is going to make Scotland’s climate emissions in the future. With clear numbers they can work on improving the good and whittling away the bad.
In the absence of a proper analysis we can of course apply common sense about the direction of travel. It is pretty obvious that if you build roads, subsidise air travel or allow fracking, your emissions are going to go up. On the other hand, if you insulate homes, help people walk and cycle more, invest in renewables and reduce waste, your emissions are going to be heading downwards.
Making the right choices for the climate is also likely to be good for people. Insulating our homes creates more and longer-term jobs than slinging up another inefficient office block, and it lifts people out of fuel poverty.
A recent analysis suggested that while 50 per cent of the £11bn the Scottish Government has invested in infrastructure in the past three years counts as low carbon, like railways, around 30 per cent is high carbon, like road building.
Even if we weren’t interested in the huge emissions reductions possible, we should be investing in low-carbon infrastructure because of the benefits to local economies and people’s health.
l Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland and a Board member of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland