A Low Carbon Scotland – Progress, Plans and Paris

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Next week the Scottish Government are due to publish their latest climate plan charting a path to cutting Scotland’s emissions over the next 15 years.  The development of the plan has been the subject of considerable parliamentary scrutiny.  Four committees took evidence from over 50 stakeholders, heard from five Cabinet Secretaries or Ministers and drew on in excess of 200 written submissions to produce detailed recommendations on the draft version of the plan published over a year ago.  The document builds on two previous similar plans aimed at delivering Scotland’s 2020 and 2050 climate change goals as set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.

This post outlines Scotland’s progress to date in cutting emissions and reflects on some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Scotland’s emissions have reduced by around 40%, compared to 1990. This reflects both changes in Scotland’s industrial landscape (for example the closure of Ravenscraig steel works), and the implementation of specific approaches aimed at cutting emissions from a number of sources.  On the latter, the interventions comprise a mix of picking off some relatively ‘low hanging fruit’, for example boosting loft and cavity wall insulation in our homes, and decisive policy changes, for example the rapid escalation of renewable electricity generation.  As shown in the figure below, the overall cut in Scotland’s emissions of 40% over the period 1990 – 2015 masks significant variation between sectors. Reductions of 46% from energy and 76% from waste contrast with reductions of just 1% from transport.


Building on progress to date, the Climate Change Plan will describe how Scotland intends to meet an overall 66% reduction by 2032. Achieving this goal is likely to involve achieving significant policy changes across many areas, as illustrated by the following examples included in the draft plan published last year:

  • Negative emissions from electricity generation by 2030 as a result of operational carbon capture and storage alongside the use of bioenergy.
  • An increase in how much of Scotland’s home heating needs are met from low carbon sources from 18% in 2020 to 80% in 2032.
  • 40% of new cars sold being ultra-low emission by 2032 (since overtaken by a Scottish Government commitment to phase out the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles by 2032).
  • A 50% increase in the amount of woodland created each year from 2025 onwards and doubling in the rate of peatland restoration from 2018.

Achieving this next phase of emission reductions has the potential to bring greater challenges, whether as a result of the scale of investment required, limits of what can be achieved through voluntary approaches alone, the need for participation from sectors and interest groups not previously involved, and the requirement to secure social and political buy-in for potentially contentious decisions. Overcoming these barriers will require new levels of climate leadership.

Despite these challenges, there is considerable scope to secure many wider benefits by developing and implementing solutions that not only offer emission savings but also a broader range of positive outcomes.  Such opportunities could include the potential to:

  • Improve air quality and secure public health benefits associated with a move away from fossil fuel vehicles.
  • Help tackle fuel poverty through improving the energy efficiency of our housing.
  • Create jobs through product reuse or refurbishment rather than sending waste to landfill.

With the Scottish Government frequently referring to Scotland’s role as a global leader in tackling climate change, much now rests on putting the latest climate plan into practice. At the same time, the implications of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement are filtering into new domestic legislative commitments around the globe.  Recent legislation passed in Norway commits the country to become carbon neutral by 2030, Sweden’s Climate Act sets a goal of zero emissions by 2045 and the Australian state of Victoria has agreed legislation that commits it to net zero emissions by 2050, albeit many of these efforts rely to some extent on buying carbon reductions elsewhere to offset a portion of their domestic emissions.

The Scottish Government have started the process of developing new climate legislation to increase Scotland’s ambition with a proposal to increase the current 2050 emission reduction target from 80% to 90%, set interim targets in line with this and make provisions for a net-zero greenhouse gas emission target to be set a later date. A lively debate is set to ensue as to how such goals fulfil Scotland’s climate leadership ambitions, and in particular whether targets should be based on what is deemed to be technically feasible, scientifically required or symbolically and politically important.

Dan Barlow, Senior Researcher – Climate Change and Resource Use