In September 2019, the Scottish Parliament passed some of the most stringent climate legislation in the world, by committing to net-zero carbon by 2045.
The legislation has forced the small oil and gas producing nation — one of four constituent territories that make up the United Kingdom — to reckon with a future where core, high-carbon emitting Scottish industries no longer fit within a zero-carbon framework, which will lead to a fundamental restructuring of the economy.
But rather than seeing environmental targets as burdensome, Scottish public servants are viewing it as an opportunity to generate growth and promote economic wellbeing for all citizens.
Although phasing out sectors critical to past GDP growth may be easier said than done, Scotland, in hopes of being a climate leader, is signalling that governments need to focus their decarbonisation efforts on existing infrastructure and industries – a core component of their strategy.
Economists are steering the nation towards a net-zero carbon future, but without cross-departmental collaboration to assist with the task, time may not be on their side.
Reframing climate change as an economic opportunity
As countries around the world strive to limit the consequences of a warming planet, Scotland is going a step further, said Martin Valenti. Valenti serves as head of climate enterprise at Scottish Enterprise – Scotland’s national economic development agency – and said the country is reframing the current, daunting climate narrative as an economic opportunity.
“The most successful outcome [for a nation] is an economy that utilises Nature-based Solutions (NBS), works with the environment and sees economic and social wellbeing as the goal – not one or the other. It has to be all or nothing,” said Valenti.
He added that few countries are identifying the social and economic benefits that transitioning to zero-carbon can bring.
Scotland is taking advantage of those opportunities with a few strategies. One is by creating carbon offset schemes – when companies invest in global environmental projects to balance their carbon footprint.
The country is using former coal and gas sites as facilities for renewable power and using landfills as sites for solar generation. Scotland is also identifying ways to bring green jobs to communities that have been affected by closures in “brown” sectors.
Dr John Rogers, executive director of research and innovation services at the University of Stirling, said Scotland’s new economic approach is driven by two principles. The first is mitigating job losses and poor economic opportunities in communities still impacted by decades of closures in coal mining and manufacturing. The second is the protection of nature as an economic asset.
Multi-generational poverty in Scotland has created a more polarised society where some citizens lack meaningful job and educational opportunities. One out of five people in the country now lives in poverty due to rising income inequality.
Both Valenti and Rogers said the restructuring of the economy with a green growth focus will create more inclusivity and economic wellbeing.
The strategy is to work directly with disadvantaged communities to bring skills programs, job opportunities and find ways to build up local economies with green industries.
Karen Turner, the University’s director of the Centre for Energy Policy said what Scotland does well is creating decarbonisation frameworks that suit the industries and the resources they already have.
For example, Scotland has a lot of offshore storage capabilities because of its proximity to the North Sea, expanding the capacity for renewables.
The Netherlands, for example, which similarly has industrialised, carbon-intensive industries, doesn’t have the same storage capabilities because they lack the natural resources for renewables, so they have to adjust in other ways.
Although Scotland is identifying new ways to use existing infrastructure to decarbonise, there aren’t always the right mechanisms in place for some industries to adequately transition, she added.
Turner pointed to Scotland’s chemical industry, refineries and whisky production as examples for how industries could use more sustainable practices, but don’t have the right infrastructure in place.
Public servants can’t apply a singular solution to complex problems, and identifying ways to maximise sustainability and economic growth is not always straightforward. Without collaborative efforts from a range of stakeholders, decarbonisation targets won’t be met.
Departments can’t work in isolation
In 2018, Valenti moved to his current role at Scottish Enterprise from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
The move was part of a strategic plan to reshape Scottish Enterprise. Valenti’s professional and educational background, which consists solely of environmental and climate-related work, was seen as instrumental in shaping future economic policy through an environmental frame.
Climate change isn’t a challenge that can be compartmentalised or sectioned off by department, so tackling it in silos will only lead to piecemeal improvements rather than achieving seismic transformations, said Valenti.
“[Public servants] need to be mindful that the challenges of climate change are complex, interconnected and cross-sectoral, so the approach and the solutions will only be found by being collaborative,” he said.
Engaging with public servants from different agencies can offer new modes of thinking and a range of perspectives.
Mounting evidence suggests the effects of climate change will impact every department uniquely, but mitigation and adaptation efforts in one area will have far-reaching benefits for the whole of government. But working across government departments can be challenging, and often, the mechanisms for thoughtful policy discussions are lacking.
Turner touted one of Scotland’s greatest strengths is that public servants frequently have cross-ministry meetings where they collaborate on complex policy problems. A process that works with ease due to the relatively small size of the country.
To ensure that all departmental priorities and the private sector are aligned with sustainability targets, several commissions and centres made up of public servants from a range of different backgrounds have been created to foster greater collaboration and help business make a more rapid transition.
Formed to co-produce new business models and strategies designed to fall under zero-carbon policies, Scotland’s International Environment Centre is one partnership that brings together academics, public servants, regulators, environmental interest groups and communities.
The centre has secured £17 million ($19 million) in investments from the Scottish government and £5 million ($6.5 million) from the UK government. In addition to having a wetlands habitat, research and innovation hubs, skills training facility, there will be a “business incubation space” to boost the development of new sustainable start-ups.
“There has always been a broader way of thinking in Scotland, but it does come back to a small oil and gas producing nation trying to decide where it’s going to be in 2050,” said Turner. — Amelia Axelsen
(Picture credit: Pixabay)