Low carbon Scotland is ahead of the rest of the UK, but still has a long way to go


At the moment most political matters in Scotland are being framed by the independence debate. The decision on 18 September could make a very big difference when it comes to Scotland’s future on so many issues. But whichever way the vote goes, I’m hopeful that Scotland will continue to lead when it comes to driving the transition to a sustainable, low carbon future.

The wind will still blow and the tides will still turn. Scotland will continue to have abundant renewable energy resources, including some of the best potential for wind and marine energy in the world. And the country remains committed, on a cross-party basis, to taking world-leading action on tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

This commitment was clearly demonstrated in the latest figures from the Committee on Climate Change’s Scotland 2014 Progress report, showing a 9.9 per cent annual reduction in emissions. This is over 40 per cent higher than reduction in the UK as a whole. Yet although what has been achieved to date represents good progress, Scotland’s own ambitions are set very high, and meeting them will not be easy.

There needs to be an increase in the rate of renewables deployment, so that the 2020 target for generating the equivalent of 100 per cent of all electricity from renewables is achievable. There are enough projects in the pipeline, but it is not clear that these will all continue to be financed and built at the required rate. For example in 2013 investment in offshore wind farms dropped to £28.9 million, a decline of 55 per cent on the previous year.

Energy efficiency is one area where Scotland is not far ahead of the game compared with the rest of the UK, and there are still significant and critical opportunities. Improving buildings with measures such as better insulation, upgraded lighting, or new boilers may not be as visible or totemic as a wind turbine with a 100 metre long blade, yet reducing demand for energy must go hand-in-hand.

When it comes to saving money from energy bills there is still so much low hanging fruit to be taken, particularly for smaller businesses. These are projects that typically require relatively small investments, have quick paybacks, and provide long-term value.

Perhaps some of the largest carbon cutting opportunities are related to heat. This includes implementing district heating schemes in urban communities, as has already proven successful in places such as Aberdeen. There also needs to be significant increases in the use of biomass and heat pumps to provide heat in rural communities off the gas grid. The Scottish Government is supporting this with its District Heating Loan Fund and Warm Homes Fund. This will help to address fuel poverty as well as climate change, with targets to connect 40,000 more homes to heat networks by 2020.

The Carbon Trust has been involved in the key project to produce a heat map of the whole of Scotland, which will help planning authorities and developers to identify where projects could be suitable. Biomass heating, meanwhile, is becoming more established, often supported by locally supplied sustainable fuel from Scottish forestry. However, even if all the heat projects currently in the pipeline were implemented and up and running by 2020, the target to produce 11 per cent of heat demand from low carbon sources would be unlikely to be met.

So, while we should celebrate that positive things are happening there is still much to do. Scotland may be ahead of the rest of the UK in a number of areas; yet, with high ambitions and the urgent need to address global climate change, we cannot be distracted from the importance of continued action.

Regardless of what happens in the independence debate and referendum, the message must continue to be the same – a low carbon transition is going to be difficult but it is essential, will deliver substantial economic, social and environmental benefits – and Scotland is up to the challenge.