Breaking the barriers to a low-carbon Scotland


A tree showing the effects of climate change

This inquiry was originally published in 2011, the information shown here is accurate to that time.

A lot has happened over the subsequent ten years – and at the same time, not enough. While Scotland has made some progress towards meeting its world-leading emissions reduction targets, certain sectors remain in need of concerted and integrated action.

View our follow-up pieces to Facing Up to Climate Change:

Facing up to climate change: 10 years on

Preface

For some 200 years, society has vigorously exploited fossil fuels for electricity, heat, transport, food and water. This is a short period in human history, but it is one in which our lives and living standards have been transformed. We are now faced with fundamental challenges. Not only must we recognise the risk that rising greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere may have major and costly impacts on human society, but we must also recognise that fossil fuels are not a limitless resource. As awareness of the nature and urgency of the challenges grows, so does the realisation that the transition to a low-carbon society can bring opportunities at both global and local levels. The world is likely to be on the verge of a new form of industrial revolution, and it is one that has the potential to bring about a better, as well as a more sustainable, world.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh launched its Inquiry Facing up to Climate Change in October 2009, with the aim of identifying both the opportunities for Scotland and the barriers that currently prevent us from advancing towards a prosperous and fairer low-carbon society. Bringing together some of the best intellectual talent in academia, the professions and business, and across the sciences, technologies, humanities and arts, the RSE is uniquely placed to enhance understanding of such nationally- and globally important issues. The RSE’s strengths are its diversity, independence and impartiality.

We hope this report will stimulate and inform public debate, and also provide an analysis upon which policy can be based and decisions taken. The key message of this report is of fundamental importance to both policymakers and society. Climate change is not simply an environmental problem. It is a challenge to the ways in which we organise society, use our resources and live our lives. It is only through real public engagement and the involvement of all sectors of society that we will be able to make the step change needed to reap the benefits of a low-carbon society.


The Royal Society of Edinburgh, as the National Academy for Scotland, has a Fellowship containing great expertise across all the sciences, technologies, humanities and the arts. The Fellowship is elected from the worlds of academe, public and private service, commerce and industry. As a membership organisation, it has no political allegiance, nor does it represent any sectoral interest. As such, it is uniquely placed to offer informed, independent comments on matters of national interest.

Role of the inquiry and the report

Inquiry

The Inquiry Facing up to Climate Change decided to focus on this gap between the measures necessary to move to a low-carbon society and those currently accepted by the public. Time and again we were struck by the gulf between the aspiration and the reality on the ground. Scotland has high aspirations but is behind many European countries in implementation. Why is this?

We decided to engage with the public and explore both the barriers to change and the opportunities arising from a low-carbon society. Our hope is that our report and its recommendations will help policymakers to integrate their response to an overriding problem. We highlight possible barriers to change at the national, regional and local levels and also at the level of an individual citizen. Our recommendations are based on evidence collected in Scotland and are directed at policymakers within Scotland. However, we encountered many issues that are likely to be relevant to other countries and perhaps some of the recommendations will have a wider reach. The take-home message is that everyone has a part to play in seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The overwhelming impression is the need to make a low-carbon society, and its social and economic advantages, “real” for people. In other words, whilst we have a clear political direction and intent around climate change, many of the practical issues concerning energy use or coping with weather impacts are perceived by individuals and communities as having little to do with this broader agenda, and especially the vision of a prosperous future. The priority is to ground the debate and bring it into everything we do. Removal of as many barriers to change as possible will not only have immediate practical benefits but will also remove the contradictions that give life to cynicism among the public.

Report

In the first part of the Facing up to Climate Change Full Report, we try to provide insight and coherence to arguments that are well known to different groups of specialists in the wider low-carbon field but difficult to appreciate together. Thus there is coverage of climate change, sustainability and the new industrial revolution (Chapter 2) and the science of climate change and its implications at both a global and Scottish scale (Chapter 3). We then outline the underpinning economic, social and environmental issues insofar as they affect Scotland: the economics of climate change (Chapter 4), the interrelationships between climate change and society (Chapter 5) and the interaction of both with the land-based environment (Chapter 6).

The second part of the report deals with the findings of the Inquiry and assesses the views of a wide range of respondents on progress in delivering a low-carbon society. We focus on the barriers to change and possible ways of overcoming them. Thus we include Chapter 7 on public bodies (local authorities, education, water), Chapter 8 on economic sectors (finance, energy, other industry, heating, transport, land use), and Chapter 9 on civil society.

Finally, in the third part of the Full Report (Chapter 10), we look at the pervasive challenges arising from multi-level governance and how they may be addressed. It is the analysis in this last chapter that forms the basis for our ten Primary Recommendations that are summarised below.

It was tempting to focus on the lessons to be learned from a few selected fields, where we could be confident that we had mastered the detail. But the nature of the problem is that all activities interact with each other in a complex system and this interaction can have unforeseen and unexpected outcomes. It seemed worthwhile to grasp the nettle and attempt as comprehensive coverage as possible. We realise that we may have been overambitious but nonetheless, we hope that these views from what is a cross-disciplinary and independent committee will prove helpful. After all, we have collected a mass of evidence identifying some of the actual or perceived barriers to change among the wider population. We hope that our recommendations stimulate action by all organisations and all individuals.

Where factual information is stated in the Summary Report full references can be found in the Full Report.

Inquiry summary

In view of the challenge posed by climate change and the need to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, the Inquiry examines the barriers making it difficult for Scotland to change to a low-carbon society. We took evidence across Scotland and our single most important finding is that change is held back by the lack of coherence and integration of policy at different levels of governance. There is activity at the level of the EU, the UK Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities, local communities, households and civil society.

But there is often a disconnection between policies at different levels. This impedes progress to a low-carbon society and also leads to a lack of trust among the general public. The ten Primary Recommendations address these barriers. In addition, we make 30 Supplementary Recommendations that are relevant to specific policymakers, which can be found in Chapter 10. The take-home message is that it is important to take coherent action at all levels if Scotland is to reap the benefits of a low-carbon society. Everyone has a part to play in seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Primary recommendations

  1. The UK Government should urgently improve the infrastructure and management of the electricity grid in Scotland to optimise the development of renewable energy and to permit the export of surplus renewable energy.
  2. The Scottish and UK Governments need to retrofit existing regulation to achieve a balance with the need to reduce carbon emissions.
  3. The Scottish Government should work with local authorities and businesses to align and sharpen regulation in order to achieve a step change in energy efficiency in buildings and transport.
  4. The Scottish Government and local authorities should jointly introduce truly integrated polices in order to achieve effective reductions in emissions at a regional level.
  5. The Scottish Government should develop a spatially-referenced national land use plan integrated with regional strategic plans in order to optimise carbon sequestration.
  6. The finance industry should take a lead and work with government to create the business environment that will mobilise private finance in support of a low-carbon society.
  7. All organisations should appraise their goals and practices in the light of the urgency to achieve a low-carbon society.
  8. Local authorities should integrate and embed their low-carbon policies across all their various functions.
  9. The Scottish Government and local authorities should actively assist local communities to introduce low-carbon initiatives.
  10. Closer engagement is needed between people, civil society, market and state in the pursuit of Scotland’s low-carbon vision.
Facing up to climate change – Summary
Read the summary report

1: The UK Government should urgently improve the infrastructure and management of the electricity grid in Scotland to optimise the development of renewable energy and to permit the export of surplusrenewable energy.

A strategy for the development of the grid to maximise energy production from renewables and its link to potential EU export markets needs wider debate and urgent action if Scotland is to fully exploit the benefits of its renewable resources. The wide range of views we heard about the future of renewables in Scotland suggests a lack of strategic clarity. For example, the Inquiry heard the following from different stakeholders:

  • Investment in renewables is a temporary fix until the UK has a centralised grid powered mainly by nuclear energy;
  • The huge resources of wind, tidal and wave energy in Scotland are needed if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction targets;
  • No long-term development of renewables will occur in Scotland without a direct grid interconnection to continental northwest Europe;
  • The focus within Scotland should be on building a smart, distributed grid and developing storage facilities.

On the ground, we heard how renewable schemes in remote areas can find it difficult to get efficient access to the grid. The optimal exploitation of renewables in Scotland chimes with the priorities of the EU, UK (DECC is responsible for energy generation), Scottish Government and the National Grid, but we are unconvinced that the different perspectives are integrated effectively. There is a need for a coherent and agreed plan.

2: The Scottish and UK Governments must retrofit existing regulation to achieve a balance with the need to reduce carbon emissions.

We noted on many occasions and in different circumstances that existing legislation designed for particular purposes was preventing or delaying moves to cut carbon. Examples are:

  • Existing water standards inhibit catchment-scale initiatives from bringing wider environmental and low-carbon advantages;
  • Conflicts between river quality standards and micro-hydro schemes;
  • Classification of substances as waste rather than by-product, which adds cost and complexity;
  • UK standards affecting transmission of electricity on the grid that limit capacity.

Changes will involve reviewing cross-cutting regulations at the EU, UK and devolved levels, but there is also scope for changes in implementation within Scotland and, of course, influence at UK and EU levels.

3: The Scottish Government should work with local authorities and businesses to align and shape regulation in order to achieve a step-change in energy efficiency in buildings and transport.

Radically reducing emissions from buildings, transport, electricity, agriculture and waste is critical if Scotland is to achieve its carbon reduction targets. Effective energy efficiency measures would have the advantages of:

  • Cutting emissions in the short term;
  • Providing local skills and employment; and
  • Supporting community-based initiatives.

Most powers required to implement such policies are already devolved to Holyrood.

Given the importance of reducing emissions from buildings, the Inquiry team noted the need for:

  • Measures to add long-term value to energy-efficient housing;
  • Measures to upgrade the insulation of rented buildings;
  • Tighter enforcement of building standards on energy use in new build;
  • Modification of the accreditation scheme for insulation contractors in order to support community businesses (especially in rural areas); and
  • Improving the insulation of public buildings as exemplars of good practice.

Current transport investment plans roads will increase car use. Urgent policies are needed on smart road-use pricing, links to other forms of travel, especially involving travel to and from work, and at work, with the overall aim of reducing car and van use, whilst meeting the travel needs of people effectively and efficiently. The policy of concessionary bus fares is a good example in that it improves travel options, minimises car emissions and has the additional advantage of supporting rural bus routes.

4: The Scottish Government and local authorities should jointly introduce truly integrated policies in order to achieve effective reductions in emissions at a regional level.

The actions of local authorities, working at the scale most relevant to people’s lives, will largely determine whether or not Scotland meets its carbon targets. The big surprise to the Inquiry team was the mismatch between national policy and what could be achieved on the ground. We noted many examples where national planning goals conflict with regional attempts to reduce carbon. Examples are:

  • National rail priorities to reduce intercity times conflict with the commuter needs of the main city regions;
  • Transport Scotland’s responsibilities for trunk roads do not necessarily match regional priorities;
  • National grant schemes for investment in heating based on postcodes deter District Heating or Combined Heat and Power (CHP) schemes;
  • Developers play off councils against each other to lower heating standards on new housing (so-called ‘fringe’ effects);
  • Insulation standards were lowered to increase the number of new houses;
  • An inability to enforce heat efficiency gains in the rented sector.

5: The Scottish Government should develop a spatially referenced national land-use plan integrated with regional strategic plans in order to optimise carbon sequestration.

Land use and soils can be managed in such a way as to sequester carbon quickly and effectively. Adjustmentsto the CAP regime in 2013 will be one way of linking land use to ecosystem services more effectively. But there are also issues within Scotland. At present, it is difficult to integrate land use, especially in forestry and agriculture which are served by separate institutions and cultures, but also in the wider environment and recreation. Without integration it will be difficult to optimise results.

For example, the Inquiry heard that there is almost a one-for-one overlap between land used for beef production and that needed for growing additional forest. Again the Inquiry team were struck by the way estate owners, who take a long-term view by nature, were uncertain how best to balance requirements for recreation, agriculture and forestry in the future. Indicative land use plans would help land use to be integrated within regional strategic plans and would be a way of incentivising the sequestration of carbon.

6: The finance industry should take a lead and work with government to create the business environment that will mobilise private finance in support of a low-carbon society.

Given the confluence in Scotland of both leading financial institutions and the huge potential for energy-efficiency measures and renewables, there is a clear opportunity for the finance industry. There are two particular bottlenecks:

  1. The need for instruments to finance the small-scale improvements in energy efficiency for households, returns on which may take a decade or more; and
  2. Investments tailored for renewables which involve high start-up costs and relatively low running costs, and take up to a decade to bring financial returns.

The new Green Deal and the reforms to the Electricity Market that are currently under consultation at the UK level could be a step in the right direction in addressing these problems.

Importantly, given the state of national finances, we suggest that public finance is best used to lever additional private finance, rather than for multiple, short-term and small-scale grant schemes, which add complexity. We look forward to proposals being brought forward by the Finance Committee of the 2020 Group.

7: All organisations should appraise their goals and practices in the light of the urgency to achieve a low-carbon society.

This recommendation follows the Inquiry’s experience that the existing priorities and traditions of many public sector and voluntary organisations were often unintentionally discouraging a change to a low-carbon society. The forthcoming Public Sector duties under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 will require public bodies to comply and report on their trajectories to a low-carbon future. This is commendable, but the challenge is to make it work on the ground. Other organisations, including environmental NGOs, civil society groups, the professions such as planning and law, business, and academic institutions who can teach professional skills, will also need support as they reconsider their priorities. The guiding principle should be how best a certain organisation or charity can act to ensure a step change towards a low-carbon society.

8: Local authorities should integrate and embed their low-carbon policies across all their various functions.

The Inquiry team concluded that, in general, no single person within a local authority ‘owned’ the problem of transition to a low-carbon/sustainable society. Instead, there was a tendency to excuse inaction by blaming a lack of leadership shown by other departments, the lack of powers, or the low priority in practice given to climate change mitigation and/or energy saving. We noted actions to reduce carbon within sectors such as transport, health, education, housing, fuel poverty, but these initiatives were rarely integrated, leading to delay, lack of action or even conflicting outcomes.

Examples are:

  • Delay in introducing district heating schemes in Edinburgh;
  • The continued building of out-of-town shopping centres;
  • New environmentally commended public buildings located out of town;
  • The Clyde Gateway project which could achieve greater cuts in emissions if it had been developed as a whole rather than sub-zone by sub-zone.

A surprise was that the role of planning officers seemed sidelined. The Inquiry team expected planners to be playing a leading role in creating and implementing strategic regional plans. Perhaps too, thought should be given to the best way of achieving effective leadership within local authority regions.

As a matter of urgency, the Scottish Government should integrate into the terms of reference of the Commission on Public Services (due to report in 2011) the requirement to recommend means of restructuring public services to integrate action on energy efficiency, carbon management and the low-carbon transition.

9: The Scottish Government and local authorities should actively assist local communities to introduce low-carbon initiatives.

Our overwhelming discovery was evidence of local communities bursting with energy and local solutions that felt unsupported and impeded by the complexity of local government administrative procedures and financial arrangements. Since effective solutions require local knowledge and local buy-in, there is a case to be made for sweeping away tiers of regulation and episodic grant schemes and to instead introduce policies to release private initiative and finance. On the basis of our discoveries, there are clear opportunities for communities to take a lead in:

  • Installing community wind turbines;
  • Housing improvement;
  • Local transport;
  • School energy savings;
  • Micro-hydro;
  • Bio-fuel heating;
  • Waste recycling;
  • Building local businesses; and
  • Growing local food and planting woodlands.

The risk is that Scotland is missing an opportunity to use the move to a low-carbon society to invigorate local communities. Policies could be designed which, at a relatively low cost, bring both carbon reductions and increased local prosperity. Effective policies would remove local resistance to large outside schemes, bring profits of wind energy to local communities and help finance improvements in housing, schools and other community assets. Above all, the cost of such policies would be modest if the power of private finance is harnessed.

10: Closer engagement is needed between people, civil society, market and state in the pursuit of Scotland’s low-carbon vision.

Civil society (ordinary people, their organisations, neighbourhoods, and communities of interest) is potentially a powerful force for change. At present, however, concern about climate change and understanding of the relationship between routine consumption and carbon emissions is patchy. Every activity, at home, at work, travelling, shopping, holiday-making or volunteering, affects our carbon footprint, and many people would welcome clear and consistent leadership from their elected political representatives about how they can best contribute to the transition to a low-carbon society. Most people want to understand the reasons for change, to be sufficiently informed to act knowledgeably and to act with others as part of a bigger social change with a meaningful impact. They also want to see politicians and businesses leading by example.

One important step forwards will be achieved when businesses, NGOs, faith groups, other voluntary bodies and public bodies, are all focused on the central issue of how best to change society to achieve sustainable wellbeing for all. A priority would seem to be an open and mature debate to build support for joined-up policies, openly grasping such awkward nettles as the balance between economic growth, wellbeing and the environment. Progress would be aided by building community partnerships, access to predictable, accessible finance at a local scale, and courageous political leadership.


Read the full Inquiry Report:

Facing Up to Climate Change

Committee membership

Chairman. Emeritus Professor of Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.
Deputy Chair. Emeritus Professor of Physical Geography, School of the Environment, and UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, University of Dundee.
Mrs Erica Caldwell
Hon. President Scottish Association of Geography Teachers; Senior Examiner, SQA; Director, RSGS; former Faculty Head, Carnoustie High School.
Science Leader, Soils Group, The Macaulay Institute; Visiting Professor Dept. Soil and Environment, Swedish Agricultural Sciences University (SLU).
Dr Andrew Dlugolecki
Former Director of General Insurance Development, Aviva; member of the UK Adaptation Sub-Committee on Climate Change.
Professor Nicholas Hanley
Professor of Environmental Economics, University of Stirling.
Dr Andrew Kerr
Director of the Edinburgh Centre on Climate Change.
Professor Janette Webb
Professor of Sociology of Organisations, Institute of Governance, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

Secretariat to the committee

Dr Marc RandsEvidence and Advice Manager, Royal Society of Edinburgh
Susan LennoxPolicy Officer, Royal Society of Edinburgh
Michael GeogheganRoyal Society of Edinburgh

Activities

Lord Turner and Professor David Sugden discuss what the challenges are relating to climate change and what the future may hold.

Facing up to climate change: 10 years on

In 2011, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) undertook a comprehensive and influential inquiry on climate change and the barriers
In the 10 years since the RSE inquiry, “Facing up to Climate Change: breaking the barriers to a low-carbon Scotland”,
RSE advice paper, facing up to climate change: 10 years on, climate change and environment (261KB, PDF) Climate change poses
Ninety per cent of Scotland’s territorial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stem from energy production and consumption; ending the unabated use
This paper compares the key findings from the RSE’s 2011 Report section on Land Use and Climate Change with those
The challenges posed by climate change require unprecedented changes in our society and economy. This will necessarily require higher levels