This week could determine whether Scotland will rise to the climate challenge or not, with the publication of a new report from the official advisors to the Scottish and UK governments, the UK Committee on Climate Change.
Last year’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change transformed the media and political discussion of climate change ambition, looking at what a world with 1.5C of warming would look like and how much worse things would be at 2C. The scientists on the Panel said that staying below 1.5C would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented action in all sectors of society”. We are past 1C now and heading for a catastrophic 3.5C.
Since then Greta Thunberg has started the global school strikes movement, Extinction Rebellion has blockaded London and Edinburgh, and David Attenborough has called climate change “our greatest threat in thousands of years”. Politicians, including those in Scotland, have made some fine statements on climate change. Our First Minister has been eloquent on the need to keep the world below 1.5C. But so far action does not match the scale of the challenge. We have a climate bill making its way through the Scottish Parliament right now, so we could be one of the first countries in the world to put increased ambition into law.
The target we set for the middle of the century is symbolically very important. It is a statement of long-term intent, a message to the world about how serious we, in the country that virtually invented the Industrial Revolution, are about tackling climate change. But the target which shows whether we are serious about reducing emissions soon is the 2030 one.
Because of some changes in the past figures, the current bill would actually result in higher emissions in 2030 than the targets in the 2009 Climate Act. That’s right, we would actually have to try harder at reducing emissions over the next 11 years if we just scrapped the new bill and stuck with what we first thought of a decade ago. Not exactly the spirit of this weekend’s official declaration of a “Climate Emergency”.
Fortunately, the goal posts are about to shift significantly. On Thursday the UK Committee on Climate Change will publish new advice requested by the UK and Scottish governments. For the UK, they will say when to aim for net-zero emissions – any remaining emissions from, for instance livestock farming, are absorbed by planting trees, restoring peat bogs or crazy techno-fixes.
For Scotland, they will advise on both net zero and what the 2030 target should be. Ministers have repeatedly said they will obey the advice of the committee if it shows a credible path to greater emissions ambition.
For the UK, it is widely expected that the committee will say net zero is achievable by 2050. Because we are already further ahead and have greater potential in a number of areas, you would expect the committee to be saying something sooner for Scotland, perhaps 2045, perhaps even edging towards 2040.
On what we do in the next decade, the committee will have been able to do less work, largely because they were not asked to do the same calculations for the UK Government, who seem not in the slightest interested in doing more in the short term. I’m not expecting the target for 2030 to move by more than a few percent, when it really needs to move by more than 10 per cent. Any movement will be welcome but the committee’s recommendations need to be seen as the absolute minimum.
A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 30th April 2019.