Our Climate Emergency and our Climate Change Bill

Many people think the Scottish Government’s proposed Scottish Climate Change Bill is completely inadequate. Stop Climate Chaos have issued this petition urging “setting a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) and setting out coherent and immediate policy changes to deliver those reductions – especially in how we heat our homes, travel around and grow the food we eat.” Sign it here.

Here, Paul Mather puts the climate crisis in the context of: ‘historic equity’; the globalised nature of our lifestyle emissions; and in the relationship between the IPCC, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, and the Scottish Government.

On the 2nd May the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published a long awaited report in response to the IPCC’s special report on 1.5°C. The report by the CCC advises the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments on their long term decarbonisation targets in light of the IPCC’s recent 1.5°C special report. The CCC’s report is a long and detailed document, produced by some amazing, hardworking and dedicated people. What it proposes is a significant step forward in terms of trying to protect our futures and an amazing piece of work. It describes in great depth how we can completely stop our contribution to climate change, whilst not spending any more money. Because they focus on reducing all greenhouse gases to net zero, not just CO2, the pathway they have identified is clearly more ambitious than required at a global level for staying “well below 2°C” (commonly taken as a 66% chance of 2°C), and is even in line with a 50-66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, that is, if the whole world reduces it’s emissions at the same rate coupled with “ambitious near term targets”.


This greater ambition allows the CCC to acknowledge our commitment to equity; We have caused a significant proportion of the historic warming so should cut our emissions faster and being a rich nation we also have a greater financial and technical ability to decarbonise more rapidly. This greater ambition has also been used by the CCC to compensate for our lifestyle emissions which are not currently attributed to the UK as they are generated by the production of the goods we import. The CCC report also covers all aspects of the economy, including aviation and shipping. It is a major triumph when compared to our current legislation.

Yet, it is still not enough. To be fair, any scenario they proposed would probably not be enough, because as a society we have left taking climate change seriously far too late. We passed the upper limit of a “safe” level of CO2 in the atmosphere of 350ppm way back in 1987, and every kg of CO2 we have emitted since pushes us further into a dangerous and more unstable planetary system, which is harming people around the world right now. Today, in 2019, have already emitted so much CO2 that there is approximately a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C of warming, even if we were to stop emitting CO2 immediately. If we want to have a 75% chance of staying below 2°C, the whole world needs to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030. So even if we achieve global zero carbon by 2030 there is a one in four chance we will exceed 2°C of warming.



Figure courtesy of Jiang et al (2019) (https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018EF001078)

So why is the suggested pathway not enough, what is it about the CCC report which concerns me?

On a fundamental level, the CCC has a number of criteria it needs to consider when advising the government on greenhouse gas emission targets, which includes the impacts of any targets upon the economy, taxation, public spending and public borrowing. So the CCC worked on a bottom up approach to find the fastest decarbonisation pathway within this framework, but this framework binds the CCC, limiting what it can consider. It has also tried to use the metric of “world leader” status as a measure of success, thus as long as we are doing better than others we are OK. The problem with these approaches is that it ignores all the scientific research behind the carbon budget concept, finding what can be done within the current economic system, rather than what our understanding of Physics and the Earth’s systems tells us needs to be done.

The CCC report, despite acknowledging our equity commitments and our consumption emissions for the first time, has not raised the UK’s level of ambition anywhere near enough to even cover our equity commitments, let alone both equity and consumption emissions.

“Considering both the UK’s relative wealth and large historical emissions (‘Greenhouse development rights’) would require 2050 GHG emissions reductions significantly greater than 100% relative to 1990 levels (over 150% reduction relative to 1990 levels in a 1.5°C scenario). Under this allocation the UK would be removing GHGs from the atmosphere overall to compensate for its high historical emissions and would need to reach net-zero GHG emissions considerably before 2050.” (p107).

So they have included some adjustment for equity, but only a little and not enough, then also used this adjustment to cover our consumption emissions as well, making the equity contribution even smaller. On top of this, the CCC suggest that on a global level the shift from net-zero CO2 to net-zero GHGs could be used to accommodate possible problems or uncertainties with the IPCC carbon budgets, yet we have already allocated this possibility to inadequately covering our equity commitments and consumption emissions.

This leads on to another fundamental issue, the pathways generated by the CCC are compared to the IPCC scenarios in the 1.5°C special report.

To be fair to the CCC, this is what they were asked to report on. But these budgets have come under significant criticism as being far too optimistic and underplaying the urgency of required action. In particular, the scenarios may well have underplayed historical warming so far, which would reduce the remaining carbon budgets; underplayed the significance of anthropogenic aerosol cooling, so when we stop burning coal around the world temperatures could rise a lot further; underplayed the rate of warming, with the IPCC opting to utilise the most optimistic of a range of warming rates; plus all the scenarios used by the IPCC have colossal levels of negative emissions embedded within them, which could quite easily be undeliverable on the envisaged scales; and finally the IPCC carbon budgets do not take into account natural feedbacks such as Arctic methane release which can accelerate warming. Even if we ignore all these potential issues and take the IPCC scenarios at face value (as the CCC have done), we are still only talking about a 50-66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C or a slightly equitable contribution to a 66% chance of staying below 2°C. So still significant possibilities exist that we will raise temperatures above very dangerous levels by following the CCC’s suggested pathways.

So what should we do?

There are a lot of very positive aspects to the CCC scenarios, they do advocate very rapid and large scale changes, but we could achieve so much more. They have continually erred on the side of caution to ensure deliverability, rather than consider genuine system change and doing everything, and I mean everything that is within our capacity to decarbonise as fast as possible. As the IPCC advocate, every bit of warming matters, every kg of CO2 matters and every decision matters, we now need to put this philosophy into action.

What we should have in the new Scottish Climate Change Bill:

• Net-zero GHG emissions by 2030 at the latest.
• Rapid near term decarbonisation, with net-zero carbon emissions by 2025.
• Creation of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice to hear the evidence, assess the policies and decide the necessary action to address the cause of the climate and related crises in line with the science.

Comments (9)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I’m with the project but I’m afraid we are pissing in the wind. I write here a forecast of doom in the lifetime of my great grandchildren.

    The actions needed to achieve the necessary reduction in carbon emissions will never be achieved on a global scale. Will we give up flying on holiday? Will we give up eating meat? Will we totally replace the internal combustion engine with electric vehicles run on green electricity? Will we give up our gas fired central heating and install district heating everywhere? Will we stop and reverse the destruction of the Amazonian and South East Asia rain forests? Will we reverse the global growth in population?

    We may achieve some of these in some places but on a global scale all too many want others to take the actions rather than taking personal responsibility. I fear that there are big troubles coming our way. As Sub-Saharan Africa and many other areas, where deserts are growing, become uninhabitable; as sea levels rise and places like Bangladesh and island nations are swallowed by the sea the people will move, regardless of the attempts to keep them out; violence will be the outcome. As fresh water is used and diverted those living downstream and left without will fight to recover what they think they have lost.

    What is the answer? I really do not know.

    1. Robert says:

      Hi Dougie,

      You’re right. The situation is dire, and unprecedented. Nobody knows the answers. But we have to act somehow, together.
      You could do worse than come by the Holyrood Rebel Camp next week. Hope to see you there.


  2. AlyBee says:

    Responding to Dougie’s comment.

    Hi Dougie. I understand his you feel. The size of the challenge is massive and multifaceted with articles like this adding extra pressure on our wee minds.

    We gave come to a serious fork in the road. One path is smooth and pothole free but spirals downward into a dark place none fancy going but we can free wheel all the way. The other is uneven, full of twists and turns. It’s uphill, full of boulders and has snakes but it spirals upwards to a high peak where we can sit rest and congratulate those that follow us.

    Let’s look at climate change action like this and look for the pioneers who’ve reached the peak already and have trodden the path for us to follow. Those fitting hone insulation, choosing to learn to cycle to work, changing their diets, setting up sustainable procurement policies at work, eating less meat, growing organically, planting trees, fitting solar panels, designing engineering solutions to capture the wind and wave power, decommissioning coal plants, sowing wildflowers, ending use of plastic, etc….

    Two pathways. Up is challenging but much more rewarding and hopeful. The time has passed to sit at the split in the road contemplating our choices. The road downhill is pointless to follow.

    Take action. Do whatever you can as an individual as a family as a street at work etc.

    Let’s join the pioneering hill climbers. Yes it will be hard work but stay positive. Those that want to find new steeper pathways to the top should lead the way by all means. New path changes will appear as we climb but for now there’s a binary split. Take as much action as you can or don’t bother. Open your eyes and ears. There’s a line of people already heading to the top. Join them.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      I agree with much of what you say. I, personally, have done most of what an individual can do and continue to seek improvements but we who do are in the minority.

      We all wring our hands and agree that “something must ne done” but the majority wait for others to do it for them.

    2. Alasdair Macdonald says:


      Thank you for injecting a sense of the possible into the discourse. The Climate Change projections are, indeed, very concerning, but, too often amongst campaigners and in the media the presentation is of doomsday. It is Project Fear.

      The introduction to Mr Mather’s article uses the phrase ‘completely inadequate’ in the opening sentence. Words have meaning. There might well be ways in which the strategy can be improved, but, to use words, like ‘completely’ implies that nothing has been effective. This then evokes the response in some, “So, it has all been a waste of time, therefore since we are all going to die, I might as well enjoy things while I can.”

      This is the kind of attitude which is fertile ground for the climate change deniers.

      I can recall over the years at trade union and other meetings of experiencing finger-jabbing, self-proclaimed ‘radicals’, decrying every proposal, in phrases which usually began, “Fundamentally, basically, this is totally and completely, the wrong approach ….” and went on to set out some vision, where the entire oppressed class would be mobilised and the oppressors would simply crumble. It is not easy to get a consensus on action, but, when we obtained one, the self proclaimed ‘radicals’ would immediately oppose it as “a waste of time”, and would withdraw. Nearly all actions end with some kind of compromise, which the ‘radicals’ then decry as a ‘sell out’. The Miners’ strike of the 1980s is a paradigm example of an uncompromising attitude being met with an even more uncompromising and cold-bloodedly nasty one. It was a total defeat, an unconditional surrender, which stripped people of dignity, destroyed lives and communities.

      Over the centuries there have been many very successful campaigns, involving huge numbers of committed people and which had transformative and lasting beneficial effects on the lives of many people and their descendants. Constructive, collaborative action can and, I believe (hope?), will succeed over years to slow down, halt and, probably reverse the malign changes.such collaborative actions also require us as individuals to do the right things. What I do, as an individual, will have a minuscule effect, but with millions, probably billions, of people making lifestyle changes we will make a difference. But, it will have to be allied to political, economic and legal actions by organisations and also by developing the kinds of technologies which will facilitate change.

  3. Topher Dawson says:

    For about the last three years I’ve thought we are going to miss the 2 degrees target, and the ice caps are going to melt. For a Green this asks the question, “What does the superior person (see the I Ching for context) do when they lose hope that humanity will avert disaster?”

    It is probably true that the positive actions we do take, while insufficient, will lessen the impact. But if we are telling the truth we cannot say “recycle your cardboard and cycle to work and all will be well”. Many will just give up on the whole ambition to limit global warming. In the rich West we can for a time ignore the result of our consumption, especially while distracted by Brexit, Trump and independence. But the climate is not waiting for us to sort those problems.

    I think honesty compels us to admit that we may be too late, and consider what that means for our future actions.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      Reading your response within this thread has been enlightening. I had never heard of I Ching but looked it up and read an essay on what it is and is not. I am now intrigued and might pursue it further.

      We probably will miss the 2 degree target because I suspect we are already too late and cannot make enough meaningful change to our behaviour in time. On the other hand the unusual weather this year is concentrating minds. All across Europe we are up to or over record temperatures; in France their previous record was broken by a long way; the other day Cambridge enjoyed a marginal increase in the UK record; Edinburgh had its warmest day.

      Maybe we can do something if we get together and make the effort to halt the changes happening. It will probably not be by the major changes to our life styles that would be necessary but perhaps by finding a technological way to manage the greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.

      A long time ago I read a story that it was possible to reclaim the Sahara from desert; it may have been nonsense but sounded interesting. It involved building large structures off the west coast of Africa and evaporating seawater using the heat from the sun to make rain clouds and then plant in the wetter land. Provided there is a continuing supply of fresh water these plants grow and they then transpire more water. This in turn creates more rain clouds and the vegetation can be expanded further east. In ancient prehistorical times, before man cut down the forests, there was greenness across northern Africa. Timbuktu was a centre of culture and learning before it was swallowed up to become a fly speck in the Sahara desert on its march southward.

      Just now we are cutting down the South American and South East Asian rainforests faster than they can regenerate and great plans will come to nothing is we allow others to wreck them. What are the chances of saving the forest for the orangutan and the South American Indians as a first step in global regeneration?

      These are random thoughts based on the ideas of I Ching, probably impractical, but if mankind makes radical enough changes to our mindset we can change the future.

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        After writing I thought it sensible to put in a link to the essay I read.


  4. Graham Ennis says:

    OK, I was for some years, a climate specialist. I took part in the founding of a key climate group, that was freestanding, but incorporated the leading scientists, so that we could not be silenced. We did the outing on the Arctic ice disaster, which is now about 70% in Summer.Climate change is now irreversible, for all practical purposes. All we can do is try and slow it down, as best we can, and make preparations for what is to come. The problem is that the climate disaster is speeding up. It is an accellerating curve that will rapidly outpace any attempt to cut carbon output back. We have gone past the point of no return. I say all this as someone who was involved in the basic research.
    What we now need to do:
    Firstly, switch as fast as possible to a zero-emissions electric grid, and synthetic fuels from biomass, to there is a recycling and net zero carbon. (It can be done. )
    This will keep the lights on, as Scotland enters into the late 2030’s. (Absolutely no chance of this happening, of course). The SNP does not have any scientists or high tech people in the leadership, or, as far as I can see, any climate experts among its MSP’s. The SNP MSP’s are like all the others, in other parties. They are scientificly and technically illiterate. (Yes, really). Some are interested in the issue, and do their best, but although well meaning, are totally out of their depth. Sigh.

    It gets worse. The short-termim of the Scottish political class, and the need to pacify the real power holders, in Scotland, the Oligarchs, means no land reform, a vast area of Scotland is sterilised from being ecologically repaired and converted to forestry, (at both huge economic and eco loss) and there is no plan for running down the oil industry, most of which will be “Stranded assets” fairly soon, as the rest of the planet demands shut-downs and climate treaties take effect. Also, Scotland i not food sovereign . (It imports food, cannot feed itself, in a climate emergency.) There are no plans for forcing the Scottish generator companies to switch from gas to green, or any understanding that as an interim, the existing power stations can be converted to biogas and hydrogen. (from water.) thus zero emission. Much else, also.
    What I am really worried about, is that the present Government are utterly clueless about the scale and speed of what is happening, and the fact that in 20-30 years time, the climate emergency will have changed into a climate disaster. They have absolutely no plans for civil defence and sustainment, and survival of the civil population. They have no plans, beyond the outdated plans that are 50 years old, for nuclear war, which are meant to be “COG” (Continuation of Government) in a national emergency. There is not even a realisation that in 10 to 20 years time, there will be a need for emergency food stockpiles, radical transformation of Scottish agriculture, and much else. Or that strategic plans need to be in place for keeping the technical base of the Scottish economy and a basic technical economy ongoing.
    Readers by now will think that I am a bit mad, but I assure you, I am not. I am being horribly truthful and sane. Its the politicians that are being mad. They have a “Titanic fixation”. (That the ship will not sink, that its unsinkable, etc). Nope. The one thing I am sure of, is that the coming scottish climate bill, if it actually gets through Holyrood un-mangled, does not really address any of the key issues I have written about here. Comments welcome. We all need to start thinking seriously. Thanks.

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