Infrastructure Investment Plan: supporting Scotland’s environmental ambitions?

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The Scottish Government published its draft Infrastructure Investment Plan for Scotland on 24 September 2020. This Plan is intended to guide over £33 billion worth of infrastructure investment over the next five years, with £24 billion already committed to programmes. Around one third (36%) of this committed spend is categorised by the Scottish Government as low carbon.

A previous blog described what the draft Plan contained; this post explores the draft Plan with reference to the Scottish Government’s climate and environmental ambitions.

An environmental vision for 2045

The Scottish Government’s climate and environmental ambitions are described in its Environment Strategy for Scotland. This strategy sets out a 2045 vision:

“By 2045: By restoring nature and ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change, our country is transformed for the better – helping to secure the wellbeing of our people and planet for generations to come.”

The strategy describes six outcomes designed to achieve that vision and commits to “ensur[ing] alignment between the Environment Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment Plan.”

Why is infrastructure important to environmental outcomes?

Infrastructure investment is important to nature and biodiversity because individual infrastructure projects have the potential to impact natural habitats. More fundamentally, the ecosystem which sustains our society and economy can be seen as a natural asset itself, in need of investment.

The choices we make around infrastructure are important in tackling climate change as the types of transport, housing or energy invested in today will last for many years, and can thereby lock-in a pattern of future greenhouse gas emissions.

Similar connections were made by the Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Commission for Scotland. The Commission reported in January 2020 with recommendations on vision, ambition and strategic priorities, and in July 2020 with further advice on delivery. The Commission concluded that natural assets should be incorporated into the Scottish Government’s definition of infrastructure, emphasised the need to make the most of existing assets and recommended that:

“the Scottish Government should prioritise all new infrastructure investment decisions based on their contribution to the delivery of an inclusive net zero carbon economy.”

What’s in the Infrastructure Investment Plan?

The draft Infrastructure Investment Plan (IIP) is not a comprehensive plan for future infrastructure investment over the next five years. Rather it is a high-level framework for decision-making, with some broad plans outlined.

Elements of the draft IIP are being consulted on until 19 November 2020. The IIP states that this “will permit finalisation of the Infrastructure Investment Plan to be aligned with the Climate Change Plan update, and likely Budget 2021-22 and the Medium-Term Financial Strategy timings.” The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan update is expected in December 2020 and the Budget will be published on 28 January 2021.

While the draft IIP outlines broad programmes worth £24 billion, the final list of projects in the pipeline is not yet known. The draft IIP doesn’t define a date for this information, stating only that the Scottish Government will “publish the final Pipeline of major projects and programme for this Plan when it is finalised”.

Are the Environment Strategy and Infrastructure Investment Plan aligned?

Compared with previous IIPs, this draft Plan places a greater emphasis on the environmental impact of infrastructure investment. Many of the Plan’s elements can be seen as being in response to the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland’s first report:

  • The Plan is organised into three strategic themes, one of which is ‘Enabling the transition to net zero emissions and environmental sustainability’ (the other themes being ‘inclusive economic growth’ and ‘resilient and sustainable places’). Publicly-funded infrastructure is described as having a “critical role” to play in supporting the transition to net-zero emissions.
  • A new investment hierarchy is created by the Plan. This hierarchy places a focus on meeting future needs through maximising, repurposing or co-locating within existing assets before considering replacement or new build.
  • The Scottish Government is consulting on its proposal to update its infrastructure definition to include “natural infrastructure” such as forestry, restoring peatland, sustainable drainage or improving nature reserves and parkland.
  • A new “decision framework” is proposed for the next IIP in 2025. As part of this, external research on how to measure the IIP’s contribution to meeting emissions reduction targets is published alongside the draft Plan. The draft Plan states that “Around 36% of the projects and programmes presented in this draft Plan are in the low carbon category according to the current methodology.”
  • This IIP is the first to have an accompanying Strategic Environmental Assessment.

However, without the IIP’s final pipeline, it’s impossible to analyse what impact the draft Plan’s greater emphasis on environmental factors will have on investment decisions. When the final Plan and pipeline are available some key questions on the elements of the Plan described above may be able to be answered:

  • Will something different be built (or not built)? In other words, has the project pipeline changed as a result of the Plan’s emphasis on net zero emissions and environmental sustainability?
  • Has the investment hierarchy had an impact? Emphasising maintenance, reuse and re-purposing of existing assets could have a significant effect on the environmental impact of capital expenditure. Can this be seen in the new pipeline?
  • Does natural infrastructure feature in the new pipeline? Assuming natural infrastructure is added into the Scottish Government’s definition, how will decisions on capital allocation be different?
  • Are there more details on the “decision framework” being developed for 2025? Transport is now Scotland’s highest emitting sector and dominates the Scottish Government’s capital investment programme. Will transport’s investment guidance change in line with the Infrastructure Commission’s recommendations, and will the delayed Strategic Transport Projects Review also align with the Environment Strategy?
  • The draft Plan categorises 36% of its projects and programmes as low carbon (under the current taxonomy approach). But what proportion of projects are in the high carbon category and which projects are likely to be built first or have the greatest effect on greenhouse gas emissions?

The Scottish Government’s climate and environmental ambitions are clearly visible in the draft infrastructure plan. But delivery, balancing social, economic and environmental needs, remains the key test for all public policy.

Iain Thom
Environment, Rural, Constitution and International Research Unit

Photo by Katja Nemec on Unsplash.