April 27, 2021
For some years now, Scotland has surfed the wave of international acclaim for setting the most ambitious targets to tackle the climate emergency. While no longer the most ambitious, Scotland would still seek to claim a podium place. But now some chickens may be coming home to roost as serious scrutiny begins to be applied to the question of how these targets are going to be achieved. Strategies being pursued by Scottish Government are being called out as unrealistic ‘carbon unicorns’ as they rely on untested technologies and mechanisms to offset the emissions of polluters.
The Scottish Government’s climate change plan contains “false solutions” to meet its net-zero targets, a leading environmental group has claimed.
The updated government plan includes pledges to increase woodland cover across Scotland from 18 to 21 per cent, and to restore 40 per cent of Scotland’s degraded peatland by 2032.
There’s also a commitment to achieve a quarter of carbon emissions reductions through negative emissions technologies (NETs) by 2032.
The term net-zero refers to a position in which carbon emissions going into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal by carbon sinks.
But head of campaigns at Friends of The Earth Scotland (FoES), Mary Church, told The Ferret the commitment to achieve carbon emissions reductions through “unproven” NETs was “really worrying”. She also raised concerns over plans to sell Scottish woodland and peatland projects on the open carbon market.
In reply the Scottish Government said it had “the world’s most ambitious” legal framework for emissions reductions.
Church’s comments follow a report by Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) last week, which accused global governments and corporations of relying on unrealistic “carbon unicorns” to limit warming.
The report argued the current global focus on net-zero pledges, carbon markets, and NETs are “part of the strategy basket of those fighting to maintain the status quo” on carbon emissions.
Church said that framing targets around net-zero hides a “multitude of sins”, and avoids “the decision that needs to be made for a planned phase out of fossil fuels and a just transition to a renewable energy economy.”
Currently the main carbon sinking methods in Scotland are through the planting of woodland and the restoration of degraded peatland. Both trees and peat absorb and store atmospheric carbon.
One way of funding woodland creation and peatland restoration is through the sale of projects as carbon credits on the open carbon market.
Theoretically, polluting companies ‘offset’ emissions they cannot remove from their businesses by buying these carbon credits, and funding projects which absorb the residual carbon emissions.
But the FOEI report points out that any difference between the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere and that being removed by carbon sinks could lead to extra carbon dioxide in the air for “hundreds to thousands of years”.
In its updated climate plan, published in December 2020, the Scottish Government pledged to increase woodland cover across the country from 18 to 21 per cent and to restore 40 per cent of Scotland’s degraded peatland by 2032. It is noted that private investment through the carbon market will be needed to achieve these targets.
According to Church, however, there is “no evidence that existing carbon markets work, and even if they could, there is no time left to trade emissions” if warming is to be kept under 1.5 degrees, the level deemed acceptable by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Scottish Government’s updated plan lays out for the first time the role that NETs will play in Scotland’s transition to net-zero.
Negative emissions technologies capture carbon from industrial processes and then either store it to prevent it entering the atmosphere, or utilise it for clean energy production.
There are concerns, though, that NETs would have to “scale up hundreds of times compared with today’s levels” to have a meaningful impact on emissions.
Despite this, the updated climate plan predicts that NETs infrastructure in the north east of Scotland will capture and store the equivalent of 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2032. This is just under a quarter of current greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland.
Professor Pete Smith, Science Director of the Scottish Climate Change Centre of Expertise at the University of Aberdeen, said that while it made sense to “mop up difficult to abate emissions” using NETs, “plan A must be immediate and aggressive emissions reductions across all sectors of the economy”.
“There is no evidence that existing carbon markets work, and even if they could, there is no time left to trade emissions.”
Mark Ruskell, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said the Scottish Government had “taken a massive gamble” staking its net-zero plans on NETs that “don’t yet exist”.
“We must see state intervention, such as the Scottish Greens propose, to switch to low carbon industries and accelerate the lowering of emissions, not wait for the promises of those who make billions from oil and gas,” Ruskell added.
The updated plan also outlines proposals to develop a carbon storage site in the North Sea, capable of housing 20 gigatonnes of carbon which would be delivered by a repurposed North Sea gas pipeline.
Church argues this proposal “raises the prospect of the world using the North Sea as a dumping ground for carbon.”
Net-zero rhetoric and the role of carbon markets are both expected to feature heavily in the talks at the UN’s COP26 climate conference, due to be held in Glasgow in November.
In June last year the UK government, which is hosting the summit in partnership with Italy, launched the Race to Zero campaign, which aims to encourage governments across the world to set ‘net-zero’ targets before COP26.
Consensus on the workings of an international carbon market is one of the last obstacles to the ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Meena Raman of the Third World Network, based in Malaysia, told The Ferret that a COP focussed on these issues would be promoting “climate injustice”.
“Such approaches are dangerously unambitious and inequitable, as we cannot afford further emissions by the rich north in a carbon-constrained world. We must end carbon colonialism, where the poor have to sequester the emissions of the rich, which are what carbon offsets represent.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are proud to have the most ambitious legal framework for emissions reductions in the world. We have already halved emissions since 1990 and are committed to ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change in one generation. In no way does this amount to maintaining the status quo.”