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April 23, 2024

What next for climate targets?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Scottish Government’s belated admission last week that its much lauded climate targets had been ripped up was that anyone was surprised. All the low hanging fruit has long since been picked and those big, hard decisions that needed to be taken have been consistently ducked. So what should a Climate Plan look like now? It’s surely not the time to batten down the hatches, rearrange some deck chairs and kick those big decisions even further down the road. In his own inimitable fashion, Robin McAlpine suggests it’s time to change tack.


Robin McAlpine, Common Weal

If you believe in the urgency of serious climate action, today’s news is grim. Reality has finally caught up with the Scottish Government and it has dropped its climate change targets. There must be a sharp response to this, but if the response doesn’t drag us towards a real solution, things will stay grim. Let me try and work my way through to a possible solution.

Because there is such a deep cynicism in setting targets you have no credible plan to deliver that abandoning the targets (rather than coming up with a credible plan) can do nothing but deepen the cynicism further. Blaming others won’t help; everyone knew the position when the targets were set. The government has been warned again and again.

There is talk about accelerating the work actually being done just now to compensate, but this manages to be potentially worse than not accelerating it. A combination of poor legislating, poor communication and poor implementation means that accelerating this agenda (failed deposit return schemes, publicly-subsidised corporate forests dying, banning the use of log burners in rural areas – and the world of things it isn’t doing like considering district heating) could be worse than rethinking.

The whole agenda is basically collapsing, where it is being implemented it is too often failing, and in as far as the Scottish Government is communicating any of this it is managing to alienate the public. If you’re not meeting your targets but are managing to lose public support, you should worry.

There is a problem at the heart of this – there is a deep, unspoken ideological slant to the Scottish Government’s approach. It is a fundamentally free market approach. The Scottish Government claims that its limited powers require this. We’d contest that, but the result is still to privatise the response, incentivise the wealthy through subsidy, avoid challenging vested interests, reject collective action and force costs onto households.

Circular economy groups have been told that the circular economy is a purely a private sector matter; local authorities trying to take a municipal approach to house heating have been told they need to privatise the scheme instead; rewilding is being achieved through lavish subsidies to the very richest; households are being compelled to invest money they don’t have to offload the problem onto the consumer; the EV charging network has been privatised on purely ideological grounds…

There are alternatives to this, and those alternatives are contained in some of the good work of stakeholder groups like the Just Transition Commission, but it is hard to see that these have had any influence on what is actually being done. They seem to have been cynically cosmetic. Most of egregious of all was setting up a Citizens Assembly to propose solutions, and then basically ignoring the entirety of what they produced.

At the heart of all of this is a lack of vision in the Scottish Government (or worse, an unwillingness to even consider visions produced by others) and its almost complete failure to develop a national consensus on what we need to do. We have had an elite consensus forced on us, written by the corporate accountancy consultants, and it is failing badly.

As you may sense, I’m pretty angry about all of this, an anger I wouldn’t need to justify if this was being done by Tories. We have utterly wasted a decade on what has amounted to little more than an elaborate PR stunt. But anger achieves nothing without a solution.

What is clear is that arriving at any coherent solution needs a Scotland-wide approach. This current approach of ‘government by KPMG’ isn’t taking us anywhere near a solution, and (as with the ferries debacle) anyone who steps outside the government’s consensus or suggests it should do something else is shut out. That is 100 per cent true of Common Weal’s climate work.

So we need to start again. In fact, I’d go further; this is so important yet has become such a mess that we need to ‘stop the line’. For those not familiar with this concept, it was developed by Toyota. What they had been doing on their production lines was that, if something went wrong with one part of the line, they would keep the rest of it going while they fixed the problem.

But then they took a step back and realised that the real problem for productivity was what happened after they fixed the original smaller problem. Running the line with one component part down was causing snarl-ups at almost every stage in the line, and these were slowing production down more than the original problem. The solution was simple and effective; if there is a problem anywhere, stop the whole process until it is fixed and don’t start the process again until it is.

It is so effective this is now widely used – and it is an approach I think we need to apply here. We need to stop, step back and think this through as if the priority wasn’t to keep pushing harder on big snarl-up of failing initiatives to get them out the door, regardless of the impact that pushing on this snarl-up is having on the big picture.

How would I go about ‘stopping the line’? First, since nothing is working properly, I’d just stop doing it for now. Maintain initiatives like grant schemes where they are supporting households that want to install heat pumps, but otherwise just pause.

Then the Scottish Government should set out what it thinks the big challenges are, and then it should invite proposals for serious, practical, costed, achievable solutions. It doesn’t matter how many come in – what we need are ideas back on the table. These may need some sifting to ensure only implementable ideas with have a proper business plan and are legislatively competent remain.

And then I’d set up a Citizens’ Assembly in each subject area. Let the people with the ideas present them. Challenge those people on why their idea is better than others. Have a proper debate. Let people who know about these things explain why they don’t want Passivhaus standard in Scotland (which involves wrapping a house in a plastic bag, which is not a good idea) and why a ‘naturally passive’ standard would be better.

Let others who disagree make their case. Really thrash out what is possible, what it means, what it would look like. And let the public decide through the Citizens’ Assemblies. There would need to be a firm commitment from the Scottish Government that, this time, the Assemblies would be listened to and their plans implemented.

We’ve got lots of ideas for them – please read the Common Home Plan if you haven’t (buy the book or download). The Scottish Government can’t borrow much and it can’t own energy generation – but local authorities can. We believe there is a solid business case for decarbonised heating through a municipal district heating approach, but it would need national support (which, as I pointed out above, is not forthcoming). 

We believe a ‘National’ Energy Company could be set up as a consortia of municipal energy firms. We believe that you can rewild on the back of UK carbon credits by setting up a mutual fund to support investment by ordinary people rather than giving it to the already rich – but that would also need some land reform. We think you can make rapid strides on the circular economy with what would really be a pretty modest investment in tool libraries in every community.

Others also have ideas. I want to hear and discuss them. I want to utterly prevent civil servants and pliant ministers from handing all of this to the corporate sector without a second thought. I happen to know that there is strong public support for the approach Common Weal proposes, because I saw the previous Climate Assembly back almost all our ideas. (I suspect this is why it was ignored.)

Then we’d have a plan, but that’s not enough. The aloof, hectoring, lecturing from the Scottish Government on why anyone with doubts is a reactionary climate change denier is doing great damage. Respectable, knowledgeable people with great sympathy for this agenda are deeply concerned about much of this. Manufacturing Green culture wars to distract from government failure is beyond unhelpful.

We need the public to want action on climate change. Tolerating that action isn’t enough. We need to persuade them that this will be better for them, that it will improve their lives. If we do it properly, it will. Let’s let them see that.

Frankly I’d commit now to running a sort of ‘Climate World’s Fair‘. You know, like an expo from a more optimistic era. Make it fun. Make it interesting. Make it real. I can think of one or two ‘retail villages’ which are sitting empty and could be converted into mock-up communities. People could visit the expo and see what district heating is like, touch and use bioplastic, visit an aerobic digestions system and watch green LPG being produced.

Let them try out a zero-carbon transport system. Let them wander round a first-rate tool library and let them realise how useful it would be. Be respectful and let them see, sense, feel, understand this whole agenda. Fund every school to do a school visit. Invite every club, society or group in the country to make a trip. Put on a show. Stop lecturing, start to persuade.

The Scottish Government proposes the opposite. It proposes a ‘climate assembly’ to explain to the public why they’re totally wrong not to support the Scottish Government’s privatisation agenda. They seem to have learned nothing. They seem still to think they are the solution rather than the problem

I’m not angry that the targets have been dropped – doing so was a crucial step towards ending denial and waking up to the urgency of our collective need for a plan. No, I’m angry at the setting of targets in the first place which now seem designed to trick us into not paying attention to the dearth of meaningful action really taking place. This has been an absolute disgrace and there should be resignations (though most of those responsible have now gone anyway).

There won’t be, but what there must be is a concerted civic society challenge to the government to atone for all of this by showing some humility, stopping the blame game, admitting fault and asking for help.