It is here! After over a year of consideration, consultation and debate, the Scottish Government has published their third Climate Change Plan. This hefty 222-page document (henceforth the Plan) outlines Scotland’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a sector-by-sector basis from now until 2032. In some areas it is very ambitious. In others… not so much. But I am not here to provide a point by point analysis of the pros and cons of the Plan, not least because this has already been done by others (notably, the Carbon Brief whose excellent analysis is available here).
Rather, I am going to focus on what the Plan reveals about Scottish leadership in the fight against climate change. A core aim of the 2050 Climate Group is to equip Scotland’s future leaders with climate change knowledge and leadership skills, so that our generation can lead the way to a prosperous, sustainable, low-carbon society by the year 2050 (hence our name). To this end we are creating a Leaders Network, full of awesome alumni from our Young Leaders Development Programme, the success of which is demonstrated by our getting an explicit mention in the Ministerial Foreword of the Plan as an example of young people leading the way to a low-carbon future. But enough self-congratulation. Let’s focus on the Plan itself.
A quick internet search for ‘leadership qualities’ turns up millions of pages detailing the qualities of a good leader. Those with more tend to pick out the nuances of those with fewer, but they fundamentally cover very similar things. To keep things short and simple, I’ve opted here for a list of 7 key qualities of good leadership:
It is hard to fault Scotland when it comes to vision on climate change action. The Scottish Climate Change Act was the most ambitious climate change legislation in the world when published in 2009. Even now, Scotland is behind only Sweden and Finland when it comes to reducing emissions (and may even be ahead, as Sweden does not account for international shipping and aviation emissions, and also allows a certain proportion to be offset through purchased carbon credits, which Scotland does not). By 2050, Scotland has legally bound itself to reducing emissions by 80% against a 1990 baseline and the Scottish Government is intending to publish a new Climate Change Bill which proposes to increase this target, 2050’s consultation called for a target of net-zero emissions. When it comes to vision, Scotland is certainly a world leader.
When it comes to strategic planning, Scotland also shows significant leadership. The very existence of the Plan is testament to this. The Plan outlines key emissions reductions targets up to 2032, with decisions made in line with the 2050 target. Furthermore, each year Scotland takes stock of progress and sets annual emissions reductions targets, ensuring that we stay on track to meet our climatic obligations (compared to the UK Government, which meets every five years).
That being said, while the Plan outlines the milestones we must reach and when, it is lacking in specificity. The destination has been determined but not the route to get there. Rather than a map, the Plan offers guidelines on our options of travel. On the one hand, this is a good thing as it gives us flexibility going forward and will allow us to take better advantage of new opportunities as they arise. On the other, it fails to provide the assurance needed by some to take action and to make the necessary preparations for the journey ahead. After all, nobody wants to invest in a technology or approach without sufficient reassurance that such action will prove fruitful. But more on this later.
Scotland has achieved world-leadership status on climate change action due, in part, to the fact that Holyrood is focused on achieving significant emissions reductions. The Climate Change Plan is not the only piece of climate change policy that Scotland has. Rather it complements the Energy strategy (published in 2017), and various other more sector-specific policies (e.g. heat). The Plan itself provides targets for individual sectors, tailored to their own decarbonisation potential and needs. In all these regards, Scotland is demonstrating focus on tackling climate change.
I mentioned earlier that Scotland has world-leading ambitious legislation for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It takes courage to stick your head above the parapet and to publicly commit yourself to something that has never been done. However, a courageous ambition requires courageous decisions to be made in support of achieving it, and here the Climate Change Plan finds itself lacking. This is partly because of a reluctance on the part of the Scottish government to commit to any one path, when lower-cost, less disruptive paths might become available. However, transitioning to a low-carbon society is going to require taking risks.
It is going to require trying new technologies and innovations, some of which might not work. It is going to require the Government to make definitive decisions that will serve to reassure investors that the foreseeable future will follow a certain path. Yes, we have to be open to new developments and should not act in such a way that they cannot be explored. But for this to be the case we have to be open to trying new things. We cannot only focus on ‘low- or no-regret’ options, as preferred by the Scottish Government, because such options will keep us tied to the status quo. I fully commend Scotland’s ambition to transition to a low-carbon society at the lowest possible cost and disruption to society, but we must beware of being over-cautious and missing opportunities for fear of making mistakes. As we have committed to ambitious targets, we must commit to ways of achieving these. Here, the Plan is lacking.
Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have both emphasised the fact that we have a moral duty to fight against climate change. This is as true for Scotland as it is for any developed country that has benefited from the exploitation of fossil fuels. Indeed, it was a Scot – James Watt – whose inventions helped usher in the Industrial Revolution and the burning of fossil fuels on a massive scale. Acknowledging that we bear some blame, and committing to playing our part to right these wrongs shows integrity.
However, integrity also requires that we act in accordance with our public commitments and Scotland’s choice to position itself as a world-leader in climate change action. One area where this is questionable is the government’s attitude to Scotland’s fossil fuel reserves. If international climate change targets (such as limiting temperature change to a maximum of 2°C) are to be met, a significant proportion of global fossil fuels will have to be kept in the ground. It is therefore concerning that the Scottish Government wants maximum economic exploitation of North Sea oil and gas reserves. While an argument can be made that North Sea recovery is more heavily regulated than elsewhere and therefore results in lower lifetime emissions for these fossil fuels, without carbon pricing this is unlikely to have market-wide effects.
I mentioned earlier that Scotland must have the courage to make tough decisions. Fossil fuels are one area where such courage is going to be necessary. Scotland should lead the way in helping those working in these sectors to transition towards renewables, as many of their skills are highly transferable. It should also lead the way in acknowledging that, while transitioning to a low-carbon society comes with many opportunities, it also comes with costs. Integrity requires that we don’t financially exploit our fossil fuel reserves if doing so will compromise our ability to meet climate change targets.
The Plan has been heavily criticised for being less ambitious in many sectors than in its first draft. Whilst this could demonstrate a lack of courage on the part of the Government, it also demonstrates a degree of humility. While I fully support ambitious targets and strongly believe that we need to be taking immediate action in all sectors to drastically reduce emissions, it is important that these targets are achievable. It is certainly debatable whether the targets have been reduced too much, but the fact that they have been altered following consultation with the sectors that will be affected (and who arguably have a much better understanding of what is achievable) shows that the Government is willing to listen. Even when, as in this case, the result casts them in a less positive light. This, at the very least, shows the targets that have been set are meaningful and not merely a vanity project of an administration paying lip-service to a carbon-conscious constituent base.
Scotland’s climate change ambitions cannot be met without the support of businesses, communities, households, and individuals across Scotland, a fact highlighted in the Plan. Everybody has a role to play and we are all going to have to work together if the targets are to be achieved. For example, much of the Plan is dependent on decisions made by the Westminster government, especially with regard to leaving the EU and future access to energy markets and the EU Emissions Trading System. The Scottish government is therefore working alongside their Westminster counterparts to be included in these discussions and ensure that a viable solution for all can be reached. The Plan shows the minimum role that each Scottish sector must play and the Scottish Government must now work to support them as they go through this transition, as must we.
2050 is our future and it is up to us to shape it and create the world we want to see. Scotland’s Climate Change Plan points towards this world. The 2050 Climate Group is determined to do our part by creating future leaders empowered with the knowledge and skills that they need to be part of the solution and to drive it forward wherever needed. No action is too small, no ambition too great. Now it is up to us to lead the way. 2050 starts now!
Kitty Dutton is an operational volunteer with within the policy subgroup of the 2050 Climate Group. The policy team work to help provide a vital youth voice in Scottish climate policy. She also works for Delta Energy & Environment as an Analyst and fits in rockclimbing and korfball on the side, too.