Climate crisis: Scottish government must have ‘more devolved approach’ to hit net zero emissions target, experts say

Country should learn lessons from Coronavirus pandemic and empower local authorities to help reach environment goals, academics suggest

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 16 February 2021 19:20
Gardner street in Glasgow as snow blankets the city. The UN’s Cop26 climate conference is due to take place in the Scottish city in November
Gardner street in Glasgow as snow blankets the city. The UN’s Cop26 climate conference is due to take place in the Scottish city in November

The Scottish government must take a more devolved approach to the climate crisis if it is to reach its 2045 net zero emissions target, researchers have said after studying the strengths and failures of a centralised response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Academics at Edinburgh University have suggested that by allowing local authorities including city regions to take the lead, Holyrood will be able to cut emissions and reach net zero faster than the legally binding 2050 target set by the Westminster government for the UK as a whole.

Their research looked at whether lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic could be applied to improve measures to combat climate change.

The paper, published in the Scottish Geographical Journal, suggested that a key issue in how Scotland responded to the pandemic was the “failure to exploit existing local and regional health and social care institutions and infrastructure”.

Researchers went on to argue that although the central Westminster government kept making assurances when it came to supplying necessary materials to the health and social care sector, “the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from a central hub failed to keep up with constantly changing local requirements".

Applying their findings to the climate crisis, the researchers said: "There is a need to devolve powers and responsibilities, such as those for carbon budgets, to city regions, and to supply the resources necessary to manage the necessary changes.".

In order to make progress towards the 2050 net zero goal, the Scottish Government has set an interim target of cutting emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 - while both Edinburgh and Glasgow have committed to reach net zero by the same year.

As the country deals with the impacts of the pandemic, the study urges authorities to take the opportunity to decentralise power and put transformative environmentally-focused policies in place.

“Next steps for economic recovery need to ensure that local and regional governments are empowered to implement their plans for net zero emissions, refined to fit their particular circumstances.

“City regions are where most people live and thus where any changes in people’s behaviour make the biggest difference.”

One of the paper’s authors, Professor David Sugden, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “We have the prospect of a win-win solution simply by improving the way we govern ourselves.

“Cities, in particular - with their high density of population - offer opportunities to make effective reductions in emissions without inconveniencing people.”

Another of the authors, Professor Jan Webb, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, added: “We need city regions to be mandated to work cooperatively with the Scottish Government on clean heating and transport - the two areas where change is slowest.”

The publication of the paper comes after the Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government, said Scotland’s targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are “fantastic” but that the country is unlikely to achieve them.

The CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark said the 2030 interim target would be “very, very difficult to meet,” without a major policy shakeup over the next decade.

While maintaining that Scotland could still hit its overall 2045 target, he said that policy makers must introduce “tough” new legislation in order to see more rapid change, rather than depending on positive incentives designed to encourage people and businesses to change their behaviour and reduce emissions.

Additional reporting by PA.

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