Missed Climate Targets Shows Need for Urgent Action
A climate emergency declaration, a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2045 and a scrapped tax cut for the aviation industry; over the last month we have seen the Scottish Government setting out their climate credentials. So the news this week that they had missed their climate target for 2017 is a reminder of the need for strong, early action alongside commitments.
The Scottish Government’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2045 is a welcome improvement to our long term ambition and will see us taking in more emissions, through forests and peatlands, than we give out within a generation. A positive signal that has now been followed by both the UK and Welsh governments.
This scaling up of long term ambition is meant as a response to our deeper understanding of the reality of climate change, illustrated most clearly by the UN’s climate scientists in their report on global warming last October. The difference of half a degree, beyond the 1.5°C threshold to 2°C warming, will mean huge increases in the numbers of people facing drought, a near total destruction of coral reefs and an ice-free arctic once every ten years. If we carry on as we are today, estimates see us going beyond that threshold in a decade.
That’s why a missed target for 2017 reveals an awful lot more than a positive commitment for 2045. As the UN’s scientists said, the next decade is the crucial one and a closer look at the stats in the Government’s report reveals where we are currently off course.
If we take the example of transport, it’s easy to see the problem of failing to act in a nutshell. How we travel around makes up the largest single source of emissions in Scotland, accounting for over a third. In the same year as the Scottish Government heralded the Queensferry Crossing, emissions from road transport became the largest single source having increased by 11% since 1990. Plans for a tax cut for the aviation industry have already been scrapped but even at current levels, emissions from flying went up in 2017.
In many ways, travel patterns are getting worse for our planet. According to Dr Andy Cope, Director of Insight of Sustrans (an SCCS member), there is significant traffic growth in the motorway network. And the baby boomers who are entering retirement now have higher car ownership levels and drive more.
But in major cities, according to Dr. Cope, “traffic levels have reduced and more people reach the centre by public transport. Young people are learning to drive later and are making fewer trips by car. These trends suggest that, through our continued investment in huge road programmes, we are building a transport system which will not stand the test of time. Worse, we risk locking in the most damaging aspects of travel by continually developing the road network, rather than investing in the alternatives which are both better for the planet and meet the demands of future generations”.
The Government has committed to ‘phasing out the need’ for fossil fuel vehicles by 2032 – but this has yet to be set in legislation, and not enough steps have been taken to invest in alternatives like public transport, active travel, and low emission vehicles. The building of a major, well-connected network of walking and cycling routes in our major cities alongside a targeted public information campaign could deliver a mode shift from cars to cycling or walking that would make a really meaningful dent in our emissions. There is no need to wait till 2032, this can be done within a five year period – if the political will is there.
A closer look at emissions from the transport sector demonstrates the wider problem we face. The recent emissions statistics, and the Government’s declaration of a climate emergency, must come as a wake up call that we need to change our approach. It really is black and white, urgent action is needed to tackle pollution. If we act now we could put out the fire that Greta Thunberg speaks of, but the window to do so is getting narrower. A declaration of emergency has to mean rapid action now, before it is out of our hands. Fortunately our MSPs have the perfect opportunity to respond, matching up their promises with policies, in the Climate Bill currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament.
To look at the positives, emissions in Scotland fell by over 3% between 2016 and 2017, largely driven by the closure of Longannet and smaller falls in agriculture and residential emissions. However there are sectors of Scottish society where we have barely scratched the surface but where policies to slash emissions are needed now. And it’s important to remember that many of these changes bring with them huge benefits for all of us. A better, more connected public transport system will cut emissions and clean up the air we breathe. Better insulated homes mean fewer people struggling in fuel poverty. Supporting farmers to grow our food more sustainably and to use resources more efficiently would also help. A just transition for those in the fossil fuel industry that ensures all workers and communities benefit from the move to a zero emissions economy will cut our emissions. The action we need to take is totally necessary but it’s also full of opportunity for people in Scotland.
We need to see higher ambition for the crucial next decade, and we need to see the policies to help us get there today.