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Developing a model for parliamentary scrutiny of climate change

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Scotland’s climate change legislation sets a target date for net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 – all the more important as the UN warns of climate change making the Earth ‘uninhabitable’. The Scottish Government regularly publishes Climate Change Plans – required by law – setting out how emissions will be reduced across key sectors of the economy and society. Sectoral emissions in Scotland are currently mapped out until 2032 via the Climate Change Plan update in 2020, and a new draft Climate Change Plan is expected in autumn 2023 covering the period 2024 – 2040.

Legislation also requires the Government to set out how it will take action to adapt and build resilience to the impacts of climate change in Scotland that cannot be avoided, such as flooding. In 2019, the Scottish Government published the second Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019 – 2024, focusing priorities on the natural environment, buildings and infrastructure networks, and society. The third five-year plan is due to be published in Autumn 2024.

Ahead of these, the Scottish Parliament is ramping up efforts to develop a model for more effective parliamentary scrutiny of climate change (the issue) and net zero (the policy response). This blog provides a brief overview of why the Scottish Parliament is prioritising this work, what has already been achieved through Session 5 and how we are developing this work further in Session 6. More on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ shortly, but first to the ‘why’.

Coherence of climate change policy and spend: why does it matter?

The idea of ‘policy coherence’ is one which can be used when thinking about how to deal with complex and systemic issues. In the 2021 Programme for Government, the Government committed to reconvening its Ministerial Working Group on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development. In response to a parliamentary question in March 2023, the Government confirmed that the group was reconvened and met on 29 June 2022, although it has not met since.

There are different definitions, but policy coherence is ultimately about joined-up thinking. Scotland’s International Development Alliance defines it as “different parts of government (or society more broadly) working together to find the most effective outcomes… while ensuring the work of one part does not undermine the work of another.”

Why does it matter when we’re talking about climate change? Well, we already know that climate change is an amplifier of many of the challenges illustrated by the global Sustainable Development Goals. For example on good health, access to water, rich biodiversity or gender equality. Related, the Scottish Government has committed to deliver a just transition, to not just meet Scotland’s climate change targets, but to do so “in a way that is fair and leaves no one behind”. Research by Audit Scotland indicates that alignment of policy – and spend – are required across a vast number of policies to achieve a just transition.

This is a significant challenge as most policy areas contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, or are impacted by climate change. How we can better understand these inter-relationships is key.

‘Scrutiny coherence’ is a less widely used term. But it’s about how more effective and impactful cross-cutting scrutiny can influence law and policy. In this case, how Parliament can strengthen its work to hold Government to account on designing, implementing and monitoring integrated policies to ensure that emissions targets are meaningful and met, and that appropriate adaptation measures are built into policy and law. Equally, it’s the kind of thinking which can help monitor whether external calls, for example by citizens through Scotland’s Climate Assembly, are being addressed.   

Seeking to be an exemplar: a journey through what has been achieved in Session 5

Now to the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Considering how to improve scrutiny on climate change has been a challenge over the last two decades for many parliaments. In the Scottish Parliament this thinking was crystallised in the Session 5 Legacy report of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee – which set out a detailed set of recommendations to improve climate change scrutiny across the Parliament, including that any climate change or net zero committee should take a leading role in coordinating scrutiny across committees on climate mitigation and adaptation.

Alongside, the Session 5 Legacy Report of the Conveners Group – which is made up of all the conveners of committees – highlighted the challenges of “scrutiny of complex and systemic issues” and highlighted the use of a “sustainable development lens” to enhance such scrutiny.

As part of the response to such challenges, the Scottish Parliament began to roll out our Sustainable Development Impact Assessment Tool – produced primarily as a result of a co-sponsored PhD with the University of Stirling – to help leaders from across the organisation to make better decisions and consider the bigger picture, and think about policy and scrutiny coherence in all areas across the Parliament.

How we are strengthening cross-cutting scrutiny of climate change in Session 6

Right at the start of Session 6 the Conveners Group identified climate change and net zero as key strategic cross-committee issues where more work was required. In November 2021 the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) was held in Glasgow. Ahead of COP 26, Alison Johnstone MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament blogged that the Parliament “must be an exemplar” – both in how the parliamentary estate is managed and in how we scrutinise complex systems and improve participation in such issues. Updates on progress can be found in the Parliament’s annual Sustainable Development report.

The Scottish Parliament engaged heavily at COP26 – all on the theme of Code Red: the role of parliaments in the climate emergency. This work included hosting a Global Legislators Summit, working with partners to deliver activity in the UN ‘blue zone’ and elsewhere in Glasgow. This work – on which more can be found in a Scotland’s Futures Forum and Scottish Parliament report, and at the SPICe Spotlight COP26 hub – allowed for sharing learning between parliamentarians, advisers, climate justice advocates and academics.

Alongside, Parliament has been working with Government and stakeholders on the Joint Budget Review on matters related to climate change. Informed by research undertaken by the Fraser of Allander Institute, this concluded in December 2022 and proposed three strands of work to deliver meaningful improvement to processes and transparency.  Implementing these remains work in progress, and we’ll be blogging on this specifically soon.

In June 2022 the Conveners Group agreed a package of proposals to strengthen cross-cutting scrutiny of climate change, as part of Session 6 strategic priorities.

Image showing the Conveners Group proposals to strengthen cross-cutting scrutiny of climate change and net zero. Image shows seven proposals: One, annual updates to the Conveners Group from the UK Climate Change Committee. Two, commission research to illustrate how climate change impacts on policy areas across subject remits. Three, liaise with the Scottish Government to access emissions data by committee portfolio. Four, consider ways to strengthen parliamentary processes and procedure. Five, recruit a climate change/net zero adviser. Six, continue to rollout the Sustainable Development Impact Assessment tool. Seven, capacity building for MSPs, their staff and staff of the Parliament on sustainable development and net zero.

Delivering the Conveners Group priorities, diversifying evidence and engagement, and establishing new partnerships

Work is underway to deliver these proposals and to continue at the forefront of innovative climate change and net zero scrutiny. But to achieve the desired outcomes of scrutiny coherence, we will need to extend and diversify our use of evidence and experts and form new collaborations with academics and other partners in Scotland, across the UK and internationally. This work will build on the activities already offered to individual academics and higher education institutions through the parliament’s Academic Engagement programme, strengthening capacity in the area of climate change knowledge exchange. This includes working closely with the UK Parliament and other devolved legislatures to support the pilot of Thematic Research Leads, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to strengthen networks and connections with the wider research community.

The Scottish Parliament also needs to deliver parallel Session 6 strategic priorities, to increase the diversity of people engaging with us by reducing or removing barriers. The Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into how people’s voices are heard in the work of the Parliament. To inform its work it set up a Citizen’s Panel of 19 people from across Scotland to make suggestions as to how improvements can be made. The final report is due to be published in September 2023 and will be used to update the delivery plan for the Scottish Parliament’s public engagement strategy and to inform the Conveners Group’s participation, diversity and inclusion strategy.

We will be creating a new hub on the theme of climate change to keep you easily up to date with all our work in this area. And to kick it off, we have four blogs providing an overview of key areas for Parliament:

We will publish further blogs on this work as it develops, but in the meantime, if you want to find out more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for blog alerts. Or if you have ideas you want to share on how we can develop our knowledge exchange activities around climate change, do get in touch with us on

Abbi Hobbs, Senior Analyst – Climate Change Scrutiny

Graeme Cook, Head of Research and Sustainable Development Scrutiny

Featured image by the Scottish Parliament.