An overview of climate policy and political changes – Spring 2024 

  • 03 May 2024
  • General News

Following announcements about climate policy and political changes, we summarise some of the key events and what this means for climate action.

  • What changes will be made to climate legislation?

We are waiting for full information about the changes. In a speech to Parliament on 18th April the Cabinet Secretary has said the intention is to remove the 2030 target to reduce emissions by 75% from the 1990 baseline, and annual interim targets, and switch to 5 yearly carbon budgets. 

In the announcement it was promised that amendments will be ‘narrow’ and SCCS has called for any changes to be both forensic, and robustly justified. First Minister Humza Yousaf pledged not to budge ‘by a single month, a week or even a day’ from the 2045 target, which remains five years ahead of both the UK Government and many other nations. However, we know that it is early action in this decade that is most crucial. While the Climate Change Committee says that longer-term goal still remains feasible, that hinges on immediate action. Without it, we risk hearing the same excuses a decade from now. 

A carbon budget is a means to set the maximum amount of CO2e that can be emitted, from all sectors, over a set five year period. Thus, this shifts the aim of climate policy from seeking a set reduction in emissions (such as the 75% reduction by 2030) to seeking to not exceed a set budget. In effect, these are the same – as they both require emissions reductions – the main difference, however, is that the budget approach allows for some year-to-year flexibility/averaging to ‘smooth out’ the impacts of especially hard/warm winters etc.

  • What is a carbon budget system?

A carbon budget approach is used by both the UK Government and Welsh Government under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, respectively. The 2008 Act requires the UK Government to set legally-binding carbon budgets to act as stepping stones towards its 2050 net zero target. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policy-makers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare. The CCC advises on the appropriate level of each carbon budget. The budgets are designed to reflect a cost-effective way of achieving the UK’s long-term climate change objectives. Once a carbon budget has been set, the Climate Change Act places an obligation on the Government to prepare policies to ensure the budget is met. The current UK carbon budgets run until 2037, with a 7th Carbon Budget (2038 to 2042) to be set in 2025.

When the legislation is introduced, SCCS will assess it against a number of crucial tests, including:

  • Will the budgets be required to be set so as to provide a credible pathway to net zero by 2045?
  • Will the budgets be set in accordance with expert scientific advice and take into account our fair share towards historic emissions?
  • Will the current system of annual reporting and scrutiny remain?
  • Will the new Climate Change Plan (CCP) be required to set out policies that demonstrably deliver the new budgets?
  • What will the scrutiny and approval process for the new CCP look like, and role will there be for independent scientific advice?
  • Are Scotland’s emissions too wee to matter?

Scotland’s emissions are estimated to be just 0.1% of global emissions, with some people therefore suggesting the decisions taken by the biggest polluters, whether the United States, China or beyond, are more important. In this zero-sum game, a megaton of carbon dioxide created in Scotland is somehow seen as being less damaging. Yet there would be nothing climate just about Scotland expecting other countries to do the heavy-lifting of emission reduction. We’ve also seen examples of how climate leadership from Scotland can inspire others to act, so even though Scotland’s emissions are small, strong action could lead to others stepping up too.

  •  Is Scotland a (credible) global climate leader?

When the UN climate talks COP26 took place in Glasgow in 2021 Scotland showed climate leadership by being the first government to commit money to addressing the irreversible impacts of climate change. Although the funds committed were small, positively, momentum grew, and last November, a new global Loss and Damage Fund was created.

Scotland can’t take all the credit, with Global South activists working for decades to secure such a Fund, but the Scottish Government’s leadership certainly helped, and it showed how a small nation can catalyse global progress. 

However, it’s impossible to escape the deep incoherence of Scotland providing much-needed funding to clean up the mess of climate change, whilst simultaneously failing to reduce our emissions at the scale and speed required. Missing 8 out of the last 12 climate targets and then weakening them is not credible global climate leadership. 

At COP26, countries brought forward their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) towards meeting the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. At the same time, the Scottish Government submitted a so-called “indicative” Nationally Determined Contribution (iNDC), with the 75% 2030 target as its headline. Countries are expected to bring forward more ambitious NDCs to COP30 in Brazil. However, the decision to change the Climate Act will in-effect mean that Scotland will be bringing forward a less ambitious plan to COP30, which would be a clear breach of article 4.3 of the Paris Agreement

  • What is Scotland’s “fair share” of climate action?

As one of the countries with the greatest means to address climate change and the responsibility to do so (based on historic emissions), Scotland is obliged under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) principles to reduce emissions faster than other countries. Alignment with these UNFCCC principles is explicitly stated in the Scottish Climate Change Act. CCC advice suggests that Scotland reducing emissions by 70% by 2030 is slightly ahead of average and therefore consistent with the Paris Agreement. However, this figure is significantly less than what independent analysis suggests is fair – with some analysis of this putting it as 100% reduction in emissions by 2030 in addition to offering increased climate finance payments to help reduce emissions in other countries.

  • A target too far or a case of ‘must try harder’?

The target to reduce Scotland’s emissions by 75% from the 1990 baseline was always stretching, indeed the Climate Change Committee (CCC) always warned as much; at the time the target was created, the CCC recommended a 70% cut. Yet the target was an important statement of political intent, one that was meant to drive sustained and deep action that simply hasn’t materialised, and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) campaigned for it based on climate science and equity.

While we’ve seen major success in decarbonising electricity production in Scotland through a switch to renewables, that success has not yet been replicated in other key high-polluting sectors, like the way we heat our homes and buildings, the way we travel, and how we farm and use the land. 

If the Scottish Government had treated this as the emergency they declared just before setting the targets, taking action to reduce emissions from the highest polluting sectors earlier  and still fallen short of the 2030 target, then we could at least have said, with sincerity, that they’d tried their best. But they haven’t; there are numerous examples of delays to key policies, such as the Heat in Buildings Bill, route map to reducing car km by 20%, and on changing the farm support system. SCCS encouraged humility in the announcement about scrapping targets, with an acknowledgement of a failure to deliver the action needed, but this did not happen, with the Cabinet Secretary instead blaming the UK Government. 

  • Is the UK Government to blame for Scotland’s missed/scrapped climate targets?

Yes and no!

In the Scottish Government statement on 18th April, much attention was focused on matters that are the responsibility of the UK Government – including the overall UK fiscal situation that has knock-on consequences for the Scottish Government budgets and recent changes/rollbacks to climate/energy policy in some reserved areas. These issues have undoubtedly made the Scottish Government’s work harder – but they are in no way the sole cause of the difficulty.

The 2030 target was always ambitious and challenging (when it was set, it was higher than the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommendation, but Parliament wished to be ambitious). However, the key reason that this target is now considered, by the CCC, to be unachievable is due to lack of action, to date, in the key devolved areas of heating, transport, agriculture and land use.

  • What about opposition parties and the media?

Scottish Ministers – past and present – must accept responsibility for the slow rate of progress. But this failure isn’t the Scottish Government’s to own alone – the other parties at Holyrood cannot escape criticism. Too often they’ve acted not to accelerate climate action, but to stall it by opposing the means of delivering it. Some would say ‘well, that’s just politics’ – particularly with a UK General Election looming, and the 2026 Scottish elections fast approaching too – but it’s not without consequence, and this continues to constrain action. 

Policies have also regularly been negatively portrayed in the media, with misleading or extreme views presented as the dominant opinion. However, research by Climate Outreach shows substantial public concern about climate change along with people in Scotland more motivated to act on it than elsewhere in the UK. A strong majority believe that reaching net zero will be good for the country and some 58% of people say they want their politicians to put politics aside and work together on a cross-party approach. 

  • Will the recent policy announcement make an impact?

Alongside the announcement about scrapping the 2030 target, the Cabinet Secretary announced details of an ‘ambitious new package’ of climate measures. However, the Scottish Parliament’s impartial Information Centre (SPICe) says that many of the proposals in this package “appear to have been previously discussed, proposed or committed to in one form or another”. Recycled commitments and promises of route-maps to future delivery falls significantly short of the changes needed. SCCS has gathered a summary of our member and SPICe views of the policy package.

We already know what’s needed – with no shortage of ideas in the SCCS Climate Manifesto produced last year. These include:

  • fewer car miles and flying, incentivised by better and cheaper public transport         
  • climate and nature friendly farming and land use – incentivised by tax policy and compelled through better regulation
  • turbo-charging the switch to clean heating in our homes
  • What will the end of the Bute House agreement and the resignation of the First Minister mean?

In the short-term, the main effect is that the Scottish Government is now a minority SNP Government, and is now led by a temporary/outgoing First Minister. It is understood that the Ministerial responsibilities of the two former Green ministers will be “absorbed” by other ministers (primarily Màiri McAllan and Jim Fairlie) but this is not yet confirmed.

In the longer term, depending on the outcome of the SNP leadership contest, there will be a new First Minister and this may be followed by a Cabinet reshuffle and new Ministerial responsibilities. However, the overall nature of the government as an SNP minority administration is likely to remain until the next Scottish election.

  • Time to show us the money

If we’re serious about driving fast emission reduction, political leadership must be matched with significant new investment. The Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that transitioning to net zero will cost the Scottish Government, on average, more than £1.1 bn more per year – a figure that may feel big but which represents just 1.9% of the existing £59 billion annual budget. There’s no doubt that investing early will minimise the economic damage from, and the costs of adapting to, a hotter world. Crucially, it’ll also fast-track the co-benefits that many climate measures will create, benefitting us all more quickly. Action to make our homes more energy efficient will reduce emissions and household bills. Investment in public transport and active travel have the potential to do the same, while boosting health.Of course, maximising the impact of existing public spending is critical, but new resources will be needed. Given the location of powers, investing more will need action at both UK and Scottish levels. We need to use the tax system to raise the money needed to invest while protecting the worst off and incentivising polluters to clean up their acts. Public support for climate action cannot be taken for granted, people must see it being delivered fairly. We also need fair tax reforms in Scotland. The Scottish Government needs to clearly align its devolved tax strategy to its climate ambitions, with a refresh looming.