Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Scotland’s ministers need to be more honest to achieve net zero

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Times in 27 September 2023.

The Scottish government’s ambitious approach to net zero is to be welcomed and is in stark contrast to Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to delay UK targets. However, while setting dates can help to focus minds towards a goal, at the end of the day there is little difference between setting targets you are unlikely to meet and extending deadlines.

Scotland is, and can remain, a global leader in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Nevertheless, we use more than double the amount of gas as we do electricity and both demand for domestic heat and the traffic on our roads have been increasing. Reversing these trends will be difficult: it will require clarity, transparency and honesty. Instead we have a messy policy landscape with at least 45 individual targets and 18 different visions and strategies set by devolved ministers.

Targets themselves do not guarantee delivery and without a clear route map there is a danger they become little more than a wish list. For example, one of the many aims is to decarbonise one million homes by 2030. Meeting this goal will necessitate changes to the way we heat our homes, changes that may prove difficult and potentially unpopular. Yet there is no indication of how this will be achieved in seven years’ time.

Reform Scotland believes we need to vastly improve public engagement and education around climate change and the actions needed to reach net zero. The public needs to have a far better understanding of exactly what the new regulations are likely to be, why they are needed and when they will come into force, so that they have the time and the ability to make the necessary changes to their lives.

They need to know how and where to get information and advice. And they need to know that while they make those changes, the Scottish government is also doing what it needs to do to ensure we have the skills and technology required.

Recognition also needs to be given to the varying types of housing stock and the greater difficulties associated with switching the heating system of an old tenement flat compared with a newer detached house. And while there are undoubtedly problems to overcome in relation to retrofitting existing buildings, there is no justification for allowing new buildings to install such systems now; systems which would undoubtedly need to be replaced before the end of their working lives.

Holyrood’s local government committee voiced concerns about the lack of public awareness in 2021 amid concerns that time is running out. Scotland can achieve net zero but to do so requires far more urgency, clarity and honesty from the Scottish government. Ambition alone isn’t enough.