Scotland’s world leading climate legislation needs world leading action

This is a crucial year for the planet as world leaders meet in Paris in December to thrash out a new international agreement on climate change. As Lord Stern, and others, warned last month, pledges made to date in advance of the UN talks will not be enough to keep global warming rises below the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. Scotland, with its claimed world-leading legislation, must step up its efforts to ensure future targets are met.

Action in the public sector and the energy industry will be particularly significant for UNISON Scotland members.

We are pleased that the Scottish Government is now introducing a statutory duty for public bodies to report on climate change duties, something UNISON Scotland urged at the outset. However, it is disappointing that the delay has meant the loss of several years in establishing a consistent and reliable reporting regime. The new reporting format could also be stronger as set out in our submission to the consultation.

As we also warned, voluntary reporting has fallen considerably short of what is needed. Some local authorities have not reported at all, others report in different year, or choose what categories of emissions to report on (even in different years). This means aggregation of emissions data and comparison from one to another is not reliable.

Reporting is of course only the first step – public bodies need to take action. One way they could do this is by supporting trade union Green Representatives. The current public sector duty is far too ‘top down’, relying on outdated heroic leadership models. We need to win over the workplace and Green Reps can be part of that. Where it has been tried, it has also helped spread the message into local communities.

Another issue the public sector can help with, particularly through pension fund investment and planning, is the carbon bubble. A carbon bubble is inflating because the value of fossil fuel companies continues to be based upon the assumption that all their known fossil fuel reserves will be burned. Yet the scientific reality is that to avoid catastrophic climate change, we cannot afford to burn more than one third (perhaps less) of all known fossil fuel reserves. This risk is not even being assessed in Scotland yet.

Then there is procurement. UNISON Scotland and the ‘Ten Asks’ coalition have set out a number of ideas to strengthen the procurement regulations on environmental issues. With some £11bn being spent in the private sector this could have a big reach.

The public sector reporting delay has coincided with four years of missed emissions reduction targets. In March, the UK Committee on Climate Change said for the fourth time that more action is needed in Scotland to meet future targets, particularly in low-carbon heat, energy efficiency, the public sector, transport, and agriculture and land use sectors.

The Scottish Government’s own reporting is better than the UK government and more transparent, but actions can still be a vague and data fudged. For example, carbon assessment is only done on direct spending like bridges and roads, instead of also looking at the consequences such as car use on these links.

To meet long term targets in a country like Scotland we need to make transformational changes in sectors like agriculture. A quarter of emissions come from agriculture. Land management practices like fertiliser use should be linked to subsidies and greater effort made to meet forestry planting targets.

In the energy sector we should ensure that environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand. For example, energy subsidies for renewables and other forms of energy are paid for by consumers irrespective of ability to pay. Renewable heat projects and community energy are at a small scale and need national incentives to promote at the scale required. Community energy needs to be made easier with council involvement, loan guarantees and expert help.

The big shift is needed in transport, even if that is possibly the most difficult. There is a nervousness in government about public reaction to this, but there is growing evidence that the public gets it. Climate challenge fund projects may not have resulted in much emission reduction, but has been helpful in raising awareness. We need to think about reducing the need to travel, creating sustainable communities without any need for commuting. The real lesson from countries like Denmark is that they join up their thinking on these issues and produce integrated solutions.

An obvious concern for our members will be the impact on jobs. Many are right to be sceptical about just transition arrangements as renewables have delivered fewer jobs than promised, particularly in manufacturing and the supply chain. Despite industry claims, fracking is unlikely to provide more than a handful of jobs, certainly compared to energy efficiency. The new Fair Work Convention could take a sectoral approach to education and skills as well as just transition.

In Scotland we have ambitious targets to tackle climate change, but not always the joined up thinking and vital action to achieve those targets. World leading legislation needs world leading action.


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