Scotland’s leadership in climate change: Is it still going strong?

Last year, when world leaders gathered for the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, the Scottish government proudly proclaimed that their emission reduction targets were among the toughest in the world. This year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon traveled to Egypt for COP27, where she called on other leaders to fulfill the climate pledges made in Glasgow. So, what exactly are Scotland’s commitments to addressing climate change, and how much progress has been made so far?

In 2011, the Scottish government set a target to generate the equivalent of 100% of their gross electricity consumption from renewable sources by the year 2020. Although they narrowly missed this target with a total of 98.6% consumption from renewables (excluding net exports), it is still a significant increase from the 90.1% achieved in 2019. In fact, renewable energy output in Scotland has tripled over the past decade. However, the government no longer reports against this specific gross consumption target. Instead, they now aim for renewable energy generation to account for 50% of total energy demand across electricity, heat, and transportation by 2030. This expanded target includes not just electricity, but also gas for heating and fuel for transportation.

Data published by the Scottish government in September shows that renewables accounted for 26.7% of all energy consumption in Scotland in 2020. The largest contributor to this renewable energy mix is onshore wind, which provides approximately 70% of the capacity, followed by hydro and offshore wind. Large-scale offshore wind projects, such as the recently completed Moray East development and the Beatrice offshore wind farm, have significantly contributed to the increase in green energy output. For instance, the Moray East development consists of 100 turbines and is capable of generating enough power for 450,000 homes. Additionally, Scotland has reduced its reliance on fossil fuels, with the closure of the last coal-fired power station in 2016, leaving only one remaining gas-fired power station at Peterhead, which has plans to incorporate carbon capture and storage technology.

The Scottish government has set a legally-binding target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the target set for the UK as a whole. Net-zero means that any emissions produced will be balanced out by schemes that either offset the same amount of greenhouse gases through activities like tree planting or capture and store carbon dioxide using technology. Scotland’s climate change targets are considered to be among the toughest worldwide, although countries like Sweden, which passed similar legislation two years prior to Scotland, have set even earlier milestones. One notable difference is that Scotland’s targets also include emissions from sectors like aviation and shipping, unlike the Swedish legislation. Furthermore, Scotland does not rely on international credits, where countries can pay for emissions reductions elsewhere instead of reducing their own.

In terms of progress, greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland, particularly carbon dioxide, have been reduced to about half of what they were 30 years ago. According to the latest available data for 2020, Scottish greenhouse gas emissions fell by 12%, thereby allowing the government to meet its adjusted emissions reduction target of 56% since 1990. However, it’s important to note that this reduction occurred during a year heavily impacted by Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, which significantly altered people’s daily routines. For instance, international aviation emissions decreased by 67.7% due to flight cancellations and travel restrictions. There are concerns among environmental groups that emissions may rebound in the future, and they emphasize the need for a clearer breakdown of how annual targets will be achieved.

Following the COP26 summit, there has been significant controversy surrounding the future of the oil and gas industry. While international climate scientists argue that fossil fuel projects should be phased out, the UK has opened a new licensing round for companies to explore nearly 900 potential oil and gas locations in the North Sea. This decision has made future projects, such as the Cambo oil field off the west coast of Shetland, a controversial topic. The field is estimated to contain around 800 million barrels of oil, and its development has garnered attention and differing opinions. While the UK government claims that new exploration and licenses will enhance energy security and support employment, Nicola Sturgeon has expressed her skepticism and emphasized the need for evidence justifying such expansion.

Transportation accounts for about a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts have been made to reduce emissions in this sector, but the majority of vehicles on the road still rely on petrol or diesel engines that emit greenhouse gases. The Scottish government is aiming to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. They also aim to reduce overall car usage by 20% in an effort to encourage alternative modes of transport. The number of new electric and hybrid cars registered in the UK is rapidly increasing, and there has been a corresponding increase in publicly available charging points in Scotland. Cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dundee have established low emission zones as part of their strategy to improve air quality, banning polluting vehicles from entering city centers. Although these rules are not yet enforced, motorists could face fines in the future.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on travel patterns, with public transport journeys falling by 70% in 2020/21 compared to the previous year. ScotRail, Scotland’s national rail service, has announced that peak-time commuter services will not return to prepandemic levels, and bus services have also struggled to recover. Road traffic saw a 22% decrease in 2020-21, while air passenger numbers fell by 76%. However, air travel has been gradually increasing as more people venture overseas.

Approximately 13% of Scotland’s emissions come from housing, with the majority of homes still relying on gas central heating systems. The Scottish government aims for 50% of all homes to transition to zero or low-emissions heating systems by 2030, replacing gas with renewable energy or other low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps. Soaring energy prices have led to increased demand for renewables among those who can afford it, causing solar firms to struggle to meet the demand. Approximately 20,000 households have benefited from improved insulation and more efficient heating systems funded by the Scottish government. However, criticism has arisen regarding proposed budget cuts to energy efficiency schemes, amounting to nearly £133 million.

Tree planting remains the most effective method of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. To meet targets, the UK needs to increase woodland by 32,000 hectares each year for the next 30 years, which is equivalent to around 1.5 billion trees. According to updated figures, the majority of trees planted in the UK were in Scotland, with 10,480 hectares planted out of the target of 13,500 hectares in 2021-22. This falls short of the target primarily due to severe winter storms like Arwen. By 2024, the Scottish government aims to create 18,000 hectares of new woodlands annually, with the ultimate objective of having 21% of Scotland’s land covered by forest by 2032.

Scotland’s leadership in climate change: Is it still going strong?
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