Scotland in 'dangerous' moment for climate goals

Scotland is in a "dangerous moment" as it tries to establish new climate plans, an expert has told MSPs.

Chris Stark of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) was speaking at Holyrood days after the Scottish government ditched its emissions targets.

Ministers had been committed to reducing greenhouse gases by 75% by 2030.

They insist the long-term target to reach net zero by 2045 remains.

The Scottish government announcement came after Scotland missed eight of its annual targets, making the legal obligation for the 2030 goal unachievable.

Speaking at Holyrood's Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, Mr Stark said a nine-fold increase in decarbonisation would have been needed to reach that legal target and it was "beyond credible" that the Scottish government could have achieved that.

Reaching net zero means no longer adding to the total amount of greenhouse gases - such as carbon dioxide and methane - in the atmosphere. The Scottish and UK governments are bound to this target by law.

The CCC is a statutory body that gives independent advice to ministers and assesses progress on targets.

It warned in 2022 that Scotland had lost its lead over the rest of the UK in tackling the issue.

Mr Stark, the outgoing CCC chief executive, said the organisation had been "damning of the Scottish government's performance" in their last progress report.

It pointed out that Scottish targets had been missed eight times and the 2030 target to reduce emissions by 75% from 1990 levels was "beyond credible".

He said there was no policy package that could deliver anything close to the nine-fold increase in decarbonisation levels needed to hit that goal.

'Consultations and promises'

However, Mr Stark gave credit to the Scottish government for taking the "difficult step" of admitting to parliament that the target could not be met.

"The essential concern I have is that policy really matters in this area," he said.

"If we want to reduce emissions we need policy to steer what happens in the private sector and steer the incentives to decarbonise the Scottish economy. And that is extraordinarily difficult when all we have is consultations and promises.

"These are very dangerous moments," he said. "This is the first part of the United Kingdom that has felt it has to withdraw targets under any of the climate change that we have."

He said there was now an "empty vessel act" with a 2045 net zero target in law but no policies set to meet it, and that vacuum could be filled with "nefarious voices".

Mr Stark said the next 12 months would be a test of how serious the Scottish government is on its climate credentials.

"Policy matters more than targets," he added. "But incredible targets cannot be met and I'm absolutely sure that that has been part of the problem. We've had a target for 2030 that could not be met in any practical sense, and therefore a legal obligation on ministers that could not be discharged.

"We must not find ourselves in this position again because there is a credible path to net zero by 2045."

Edward Mountain, the Conservative convener of the committee, asked whether ministers had misled the committee and the CCC that a new climate change plan was coming despite knowing "that they couldn't meet their targets".

Mr Stark said: "I can't answer for them but I do know that the legal obligation is very clear in the act so the minister must produce a plan that meets the targets."

He said they were still expecting a new plan in order to produce a Scottish progress report in the second half of 2023.

"Frankly, we were annoyed for all sorts of reasons about the fact that we didn't get that plan," he added.

He said he was pleased the government would no longer be giving annual targets, which are "at the mercy of events" such as cold winters, and had moved "towards something that looked more like carbon budgets" similar to the UK government's approach.

Climate change protestors in Glasgow in 2021
Climate change protestors called for global changes when COP26 was held in Glasgow in 2021 [PA Media]

Mr Stark said he fully understood why ministers did not take up some of the options needed to meet the 2030 target, such as removing all petrol and diesel cars from the roads.

"These are not palatable options and they are very expensive as well - it was purely because the target is too high, " he said. "These are things that we didn't recommend for the other parts of the UK because they are so far out of kilter with the steps we feel the country needs to take over all."

He said other domestic measures that could be implemented include removing fossil fuel use in homes.

However, he said, a smooth transition to this would involve a change of heating system when a property is purchased, which should be factored into the cost of houses, and this would tap into the "increase in property wealth we've seen over the last decades".

Prof Keith Bell, Scotland champion for the Climate Change Committee, said the pathway to net zero was "absolutely critical".

"It's not just about public sector action, as important as that is, it's also about setting the scene for private sector action," he said. "Even if there isn't a target in the interim relating to 2030, policy has to be delivered as if there is."

He said gradually replacing older equipment with low carbon options over time was more cost effective.

The Scottish Conservatives net-zero spokesman Douglas Lumsden said Mr Stark's evidence suggested "abject failure" from the Scottish government.

He added: "The SNP-Green government need to heed these warnings, stop deflecting blame elsewhere and actually deliver on their climate change promises this time."

Earlier this week, Mr Stark told the BBC that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had "clearly not" prioritised the issue as much as his predecessors and said the UK had made enormous progress towards reaching the climate target of net zero by 2050 under Theresa May and Boris Johnson.