45537-wind-farms-jackson-carlaw-has-outlined-his-concerns-over-the-governments-attitude-to-wind-farmsScotland has achieved its 2020 emissions reductions target six years early. The figures for 2014 are now published, emissions have fallen 45.8% from their 1990 level and by 12.5% from the previous year. This is the first time that the annual targets have been met.

In the previous few days and over the last number of years there have been attacks from opposition parties that the targets have been too ambitious- particularly given Scotland has struggled to meet annual targets. Attacks have also come based on the notion that the targets are not ambitious enough.

What’s interesting about these attacks on emissions targets is that these targets were agreed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in June of 2009 for the Climate Change Act. Were the targets too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, they wouldn’t have been voted through by all parties.

That’s not to say the Scottish Government comes out shining. Roseanna Cunningham, the new Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, has stated that a reduction in emissions may be due to small measures taken by many such as turning down heating: “this underlines that small individual actions, if repeated on a large scale, can have a big impact in tackling climate change.”

The fact is, people turned down their heating because we had a warm winter. Comments such as these trivialising the efforts that need to be made are good politics but don’t reveal the full scale of the challenges that we actually face. One of the late Professor David Mackay’s most famous and best quotes is worth noting in response: “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”.

Some politicians, such as Patrick Harvie of the Greens, say that much of the reduction is due to changes in the European Union Emission Trading Scheme. It’s worth noting here that failed annual targets in previous years have been due to revisions and improvements in baseline statistics and methodology used in attributing Scottish emissions to UK baseline data. Last year’s announcement would have met the targets had we not seen some of these changes. Picking and choosing revisions from year to year to score political points ignores the general trend of lower emissions.

Revisions in how we handle emissions accounting are a good thing, and naturally this is going to lead to small changes here and there, and missed or met targets here or there. Parties and individuals can bicker over this but it’s hard to argue that achieving very ambitious targets early isn’t a laudable achievement.

What can be agreed on is that reducing the remaining 34.2% by 2050 is going to be a much bigger challenge, particularly given the challenges facing the heat and transport sectors. Electrification of more of our energy needs will also put more pressure on a system that the Scottish Government has put much effort into decarbonising.

The future of Scotland’s renewable electricity sector remains promising. In 2018 we will see the emissions targets for 2016, the year Longannet closed. The following year we might see the effect of electricity exported from the Beatrice offshore wind farm and Atlantis Resources MeyGen tidal stream project together with continued onshore wind capacity.

The positive stories also do not hide the setbacks: subsidy cuts across the renewable sectors, the RSPB’s scuppering of the Neart na Gaoithe offshore wind farm; and a wave energy industry struggling to meet expectations. In some of these respects the Scottish Government can claim to be helping to drive down emissions.

Wave Energy Scotland continues to work away in the background, and Moray Firth Renewables Ltd are just waiting for a contract for difference from the UK Government which will hopefully keep momentum going.

What can be agreed on is that reducing the rest of the emissions is going to be a much bigger challenge, particularly given the challenges facing the energy sector. There will come a point where the “easy gains” from energy – the closing down of Longannet comes to mind – have been used up and much more difficult emissions vectors have to be tackled – namely heating and transport.

Because of the nature of Scotland’s population and rural development, much of the Highlands and Islands, in particular, already has electrified heating because there is sparse mains gas infrastructure. To reduce CO2 more widely, heating will have to be electrified across Scotland, and the generation used to provide heating decarbonised: but with the loss of carbon-intensive, controllable generation plant like Longannet this presents a major challenge to power distributors and suppliers. Imagine the network going from being a lump of clay you could mould and shape slowly transforming into a heap of jelly and trying to attach it to a wall while the floor’s spinning beneath you.

As with any positive news concerning the environment, each victory comes with dozens of caveats; but this doesn’t mean those victories aren’t worth celebrating. Scotland’s renewable energy sector and environmental progress are laudable successes, though harder work is still to come.