A Low Carbon Scotland – Pipedream or possibility?

In December 2015, world leaders reached a new global agreement aimed at tackling climate change.  The commitment includes a goal of seeking to limit temperature rise to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels.  The agreement also states that in the second half of this century we need to achieve ‘net-zero emissions’ i.e. the amount of emissions we produce must balance with the amount that can be absorbed each year.  Many countries have adopted specific greenhouse gas reduction goals and the UK and Scotland have passed legislation that commits them to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

To date, Scotland’s emissions have reduced by 38% since 1990 (Scottish Government 2015). However, progress across sectors varies considerably as reflected in the figure below. Emission cuts of 30% from energy and 70% from waste contrast with reductions of just 2% from transport and 12% from homes.  Cuts in emissions to date have been attributed not only to specific policies (at a Scotland, UK and EU level) but also the economic downturn and the closure of Ravenscraig steel works. Whilst on track to hit an interim target of 42% emissions reductions by 2020, Scotland has missed annual targets for the past four years.

Emissions by sector, 1990 – 2020

Air quality

Source: SPICe, data from Scottish Government 2015

Some of the reductions to date have been achieved by focusing on the ‘low hanging fruit’ – changes that are most cost effective or publicly acceptable.  Making Scotland’s long term climate goals a reality is likely to involve some more wide-ranging changes to our transport, energy, buildings and land use systems.  As an indication of the kind of outcomes that would be required, the Scottish Government’s climate advisers have already suggested that scenarios compatible with our climate goals would see:

  • An electricity system powered solely by renewables, or generation fitted with carbon capture by 2030.
  • Two-thirds of new cars and vans sold being electric by 2030.
  • Nearly a fifth of our homes fitted with heat pumps by 2030 (430,000 heat pumps installed); and
  • 16,000 hectares of land planted with trees each year (Committee on Climate Change 2016).

Such scenarios would require the equivalent of an 8-fold increase in the amount of energy generated from wind compared to 2013, a 65-fold increase in the proportion of new vehicles that are sold being electric and a doubling of the rate of tree planting.   While ambitious, examples elsewhere in Europe should provide some confidence in achieving such goals.  In 2015, nearly 30% of all cars sold in Norway were electric (Gas2 2016), in 2014, Austria generated renewable electricity equivalent to 70% of their gross electricity use (REN 2014) and in a number of European countries sales of heat pumps now exceed 100,000 each year (European Heat Pump Association 2015).

Achieving a low carbon Scotland provides opportunities to replicate approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere and to develop new approaches in areas where Scotland faces distinct challenges (for example associated with improving the energy efficiency of our many solid wall properties) or has a particular niche (for example maximising Scotland’s significant marine energy potential).  There are also significant opportunities to use approaches that offer benefits beyond cutting climate emissions, for example:

  • Transforming the energy efficiency of our housing stock offers opportunities to cut fuel poverty and create green jobs across Scotland.
  • Reducing our reliance on petrol and diesel vehicles can help cut air pollution and the associated threats this poses to public health,
  • Boosting the amount we walk and cycle could help tackle obesity,
  • Cutting the amount of meat and dairy in our diets and replacing this with alternatives could help reduce cancer and heart disease.

The previous Scottish Government had started developing the next plan setting out how Scotland would meet its forthcoming annual climate change goals and remain on track towards the 2050 targets.  For the last iteration of the plan, a number of parliamentary committees took evidence and reported on progress across a variety of sectors. In the next year, the Scottish Parliament will have the opportunity to consider a draft of this plan and input to the Scottish Government as they finalise the plan.

Dan Barlow


Scottish Government (2015) Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2013. Available at – http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0047/00478796.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2016]

Committee on Climate Change (2016) Scottish Emissions Targets 2028-2032 – The High Ambition Pathway Towards A Low Carbon Economy. Available at – https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/scottish-emissions-targets-2028-2032-the-high-ambition-pathway-towards-a-low-carbon-economy/ [Accessed 27 April 2016]

REN21 (2014) Renewables 2014 Global Status Report. Available at – http://www.ren21.net/Portals/0/documents/Resources/GSR/2014/GSR2014_full%20report_low%20res.pdf [Accessed 4 May 2016]Gas2 (2016) Electric Car Sales Surge in Norway During 2016. Available at – http://gas2.org/2016/01/21/electric-car-sales-surge-in-norway-during-2015/ [Accessed 4 May 2016]European Heat Pump Association (2015) European Heat Pump Market and Statistics Report 2015 – Executive Summary. Available at – http://www.ehpa.org/fileadmin/red/07._Market_Data/2014/EHPA_European_Heat_Pump_Market_and_Statistics_Report_2015_-_executive_Summary.pdf [Accessed 27 April 2016]