By Fabrice Leveque, Climate and Energy Policy Manager at WWF Scotland
We know Scotland has high ambitions when it comes to tackling climate change – but how well are we actually doing?
We got a sense check recently when the latest emission figures for 2020 were released – and they tell two contrasting stories.
The stats revealed a record fall in carbon emissions between 2019 and 2020. Good news, I hear you cry, and you’d be right. However, they also showed that the reduction was almost entirely due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, rather than the longer-term changes to behaviour and policies that are needed in how we use and produce our energy and food.
For those who are interested in the numbers, Scotland’s climate emissions fell 12% between 2019 and 2020, the first time we actually met our legislated annual target for emissions since 2016. The Scottish Parliament has set targets limiting the amount of carbon pollution we can emit each year, on a pathway to significant cuts by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2045.
Delving deeper into the stats suggest that measures brought in to protect public health during the Covid-19 lockdowns played the biggest part in this eye-catching result, with more people working from home, travel restricted and parts of industry shut down. Indeed, these changes account for the vast majority of the reduction, with domestic transport (vehicles and trains) the single biggest factor, accounting for nearly half of the reduction.
So, we know that the falls in emissions were caused by these temporary measures, not because of long-term changes in behaviour and policies. It follows then that as these restrictions were lifted, emissions would rise back to their usual levels. Initial figures for emissions from the whole of the UK show that this is already happening, with emissions returning near to their 2019, pre-pandemic levels.
Why is this? Put simply, we’re still too dependent on fossil fuels to get us from A to B and to heat our homes. On top of that, we’re not making fast enough progress to reform how we produce food and use our land.
The good news is that we’ve already made some remarkable changes. We should feel inspired by our success in transitioning to renewables, almost entirely removing fossil fuels from our electricity generation. And largely thanks to this, Scotland’s emissions have fallen by 25% over the past decade.
Going forward, we need to replicate that progress in those parts of the economy that have yet to make big reductions. Particular laggards include transport, heating and agriculture, where emissions have fallen far more slowly, if at all.
For this we need the Scottish Government to treat climate change as the emergency it declared it to be back in 2019, securing long-term, ambitious reductions to emissions, while delivering a green recovery. Without this, the post-covid rebound in emissions will ensure that we miss our targets for 2030 and 2045.
We know people have a lot on their plates and are rightly worried about food and fuel costs and recovering from Covid-19. But it’s worth remembering that with the cost-of-living crisis largely driven by fossil fuel prices, action to reduce our reliance on them can help protect us from such volatility in future. There are many things that we can do from insulating homes to investing in walking and cycling infrastructure and public transport, all of which cuts energy use, carbon and deliver other benefits like cleaner air and healthier, more liveable communities.
Polling from earlier this year showed that the public see renewables as the best way to improve our energy security, and that many people are actively looking to reduce their own dependence on fossil fuels. It’s therefore disappointing that the UK Government’s recent ‘Energy Security Strategy’ focuses on false solutions such as enhancing domestic fossil fuel production, over ways guaranteed to cut energy use – insulation, electric and active travel and heat pumps.
With further energy price increases on the way, supporting more households to adopt these measures would provide more immediate help with energy bills and help contain the expected post-pandemic rebound in carbon emissions. Then ambition would truly match up with achievement.