The US election result looks like being a nail-biter, and there is little value in speculating, so we will come back to that in tomorrow morning’s Source Direct.
If the pandemic had not intervened, the UN Climate Summit would be just about to get underway in Glasgow. As it is, COP26 has been pushed back a year. The issue has been somewhat buried by covid-19, but this crisis really should be a wake-up call – the pandemic is a window into our future, where these sort of disasters become more regular and all-encompassing, if we don’t fix our unsustainable relationship with nature.
Scotland’s progress in that respect has slowed, to the point that emissions actually rose by 1.5 per cent from 2017 to 2018, the last recorded year, with the target of a 54 per cent reduction on 1990 emissions missed. That “world leader” tag that Scottish Government ministers love to pin on themselves is looking increasingly tatty; not a good image ahead of COP26.
It’s critical to understand that Scotland’s emissions reductions up to now were the easy bit; the “low-hanging fruit”, according to the Committee on Climate Change. The hard stuff is decarbonising existing infrastructure, most importantly heating, transport and agriculture – that’s a lot more costly and disruptive.
The pandemic is therefore an opportunity – at a time of generalised disruption, disruptive changes become easier to make. One obvious opportunity is in remote working, which offers the prospect of massive reductions in car travel if it can be made into a more permanent shift in how we work. The gains of this are partially off-set by fears of using public transport in the context of the pandemic – train travel is still down about 80 per cent on last year, while bus travel is down by 55 per cent. But that will not last forever, and overall car travel is still 20 per cent down despite public transport reductions. The Scottish Government should be planning now for a permanent modal shift from private to public transport, and to make remote working as easy as possible for people by improving internet quality and accessibility.
Another area where the economic crisis could provide an opening is in construction and engineering, where the furlough rate has been significantly higher in Scotland than rUK – 73 per cent versus 59 per cent. This is a large pool of workers who could be drawn on at the moment to do the labour-intensive work for establishing district heating schemes to replace gas boilers, upgrading the electricity grid and installing local battery storage, building electrolysis plants and hydrogen storage, and more. This is the sort of heavy-lifting that is needed, and it needs to start now. The Common Weal’s Common Home plan suggests the direct investments needed in decarbonisation would alone create 40,000 good quality jobs. 89,200 workers in the Scottish construction sector had been furloughed as of September.
Of course, it is more complicated than that. Questions of finance, planning permission, training and so forth are all key, but if the Scottish Government was serious about a green recovery, this is the sort of scale it would be thinking about, and it would be thinking in months rather than years in terms of assembling the different parts which are needed for government to deliver this. What is required is a bit of ambition about what is possible and a bit of bravery to re-write the rules and break with market-driven orthodoxies.
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Obama’s ex chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. “And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Is there anyone in the Scottish Government thinking along these lines when it comes to climate action?
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