We cannot afford to keep delaying climate action 

  • 15 Mar 2024
  • General News

Blog by Mike Robinson, Chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland

This week’s Scottish Fiscal Commission report “Fiscal Sustainability Perspectives: Climate Change”  follows others from a range of organisations, which all make it clear that the cost of damage from climate change is going to grow exponentially unless we take greater steps to avoid it, and that we are still not acting sufficiently quickly or at scale. If we keep ignoring it, or delaying action to tackle it, it will cost a lot more money. The Scottish Fiscal Commission report makes the point that this a responsibility shared between Scottish and UK governments, and analysis from the Committee on Climate Change shows that the UK cannot deliver its net zero ambitions without Scotland playing a significant role, especially within the land-use sector.

However, it does not assess the existing and anticipated damage from climate change, acknowledging that the costs of damage are going to get unaffordably high, and is mostly concerned about who is going to pay for it. It’s like we’re in a boat that is sinking, arguing about whether to try and stop it sinking, and who should pay for it. We need to see beyond differences and get on with it.

The cost of damage from climate related floods, drought, heat and other damage will far outweigh any cost of trying to tackle it, and will, if unchecked, eventually spiral out of economic control and become altogether unaffordable in every sense. If anyone reading the report thinks the cost of tackling climate is unaffordable, then they should be paying more attention to the cost of not tackling it! Even a delay of 5 years could double the cost of damage, and could also make adaptation impractical, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility last year.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission’s new report explores the potential costs of adaptation – measures needed to protect existing communities from the worst of this damage – things like building flood defences (natural or otherwise); improved drainage; subsidies to help fill skills gaps and deliver a just transition; and measures to avoid sea level rise impacts, drought or heat. It also considers the costs of doing what we can to prevent further damage by cutting emissions. It reaffirms the point that the more and the quicker we cut our emissions, the less the cost of damage to our homes, infrastructure and our lives there will be and the more our ability to adapt will remain in reach practically and financially.

It does not necessarily mean we have to find new money, although that might well help, but it reinforces the fact that we need urgent and significant action. Although governments seem convinced they cannot deliver much of this without private investment, the totality of public spending is already a very significant proportion of total GDP, and if directed appropriately could go a long way to funding the right actions. 

The report leaves a lot of questions to be answered, such as who will fund the necessary land-use changes needed, but what it does tell us is compelling, and leads to some obvious conclusions. 

Climate action deserves far more political attention. It needs better joined up thinking across disciplines, geographies and sectors, a shared approach and strategic plan of how we respond and adapt, written and committed to by both Scottish and UK governments. We urgently need appropriate budgetary commitments and better assessment of public spending, to ensure it is appropriately targeted. We need to stop funding damaging activities and properly fund positive ones.

Inaction is a completely false economy – and the most costly path of all. If we keep putting it off, and treat climate action as somehow optional or irrelevant, the price we will pay is only going to get bigger and bigger – and not just in monetary terms.

We know we need to do it. Recent surveys show the public want more action on tackling climate, yet it feels like governments and businesses are rolling back on commitments and refusing to fund action.

A report from the Office of Budgetary Responsibility last year it showed that if we funded all or most of the transition to net zero by redirecting existing public spending, we will actually grow the economy. It also outlined that if we keep delaying and allow climate impacts to worsen we will spend increasingly large sums simply recovering the damage caused or in trying to adapt our infrastructure to survive and be more resilient. 

In case you still think this latter course of action is preferable, it is worth quoting the UN’s 2022 Climate Impact Report, which reminds us that we can adapt, but only up to a point: “Ultimately, unless the emissions that are driving climate change decline rapidly then the options for societies to adapt will become increasingly limited.” In other words, as climate worsens we will simply not be able to afford the adaptation measures necessary. 

What this report, and previous OBR reports reaffirm, yet again, is that there really is only one credible course of action. Morally we need to tackle climate change before it gets worse. Scientifically we need to tackle climate change before it escalates. And economically the sooner we cut emissions the better off we will be.  

Climate change is not optional – it is already causing significant damage.  That’s why governments the world over declared climate emergencies.  It’s well past the time we actually started acting like it was one.