Scotland starts to ask the big infrastructure questions

Train entering a tunnel, Forth Rail Bridge, ScotlandWorking on UK climate and energy policy in our office in London, it’s easy to regard with envy the politics north of the Scottish border. The Scottish government has adopted far more ambitious targets than the UK as a whole, aiming at a largely decarbonised electricity sector by 2030, almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050 and a largely decarbonised heat sector by 2050.

But it’s easier to make ambitious pledges than to deliver them, as highlighted in Scotland’s way ahead, our report for the Low Carbon Infrastructure Task Force, published earlier this week. The Scottish government has failed to meet its first four annual greenhouse gas emission targets, and reducing emissions from heat and transport will be particularly challenging.

Despite low carbon progress there’s a way to go 
Scotland does have a good delivery record in the electricity sector. The latest progress report by the Committee on Climate Change found that, in 2013, Scotland’s renewable electricity generation was equivalent to 44 per cent of gross electricity consumption. If the projects currently under construction or consented are built, the target for 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption delivered by renewables should be met, although this may be hindered by the Conservative pledge to halt onshore wind subsidies.  But the Scottish government can only claim limited credit for this achievement, as it is largely due to the UK-wide energy policy that levies funds off the bills of all British consumers.

Similarly, the recent announcement that Scotland’s last remaining coal power station, Longannet, will shut down next year is despite, rather than because of, the Scottish government’s efforts; the Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, was strongly in favour of keeping the plant open. We can actually thank the carbon price and transmission costs for that decision.

As our report highlights, the Scottish government needs to do more with the powers and resources it has, to move to a low carbon economy. Infrastructure is a critical area, because careless planning, or the absence of future-focused investment, can inadvertently lock in high emissions for decades. The government can help to drive the right sort of investment by putting in place appropriate policy frameworks and using public investment to leverage private capital.

Declaring that the energy efficiency of Scotland’s building stock was a national infrastructure priority was a positive step, which will hopefully lead the government to tackle the current fragmentation of energy efficiency efforts. All types of infrastructure should be seen through a similar system-wide lens, rather than on a project by project basis.

The need for a critical look
The task force is taking a critical look at the changes needed to reduce Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its chair, Sara Thiam, explains, “We have a duty to build infrastructure that will meet the needs of our grandchildren, make it easier to live in a world less dependent on fossil fuels and more resilient and able to adapt to the changes that climate change will bring.”

This message ought to resonate south of the Scottish border, too. The UK as a whole lacks a coherent national approach to infrastructure. Before the election, then transport minister John Hayes promised to set up a ministerial task force ‘as soon as the post-election dust has settled.’ But there’s no sign of it yet, and we’re well past the 100 day mark.

Infrastructure is a means to a politically determined end. And, as I’ve written before, such decisions must be built on a foundation of meaningful public engagement, so that there’s clarity about the purpose of infrastructure, as well as people’s preferred options for delivering it. Scotland’s Low Carbon Infrastructure Task Force is a welcome attempt to kick off this worthwhile conversation.

One comment

  • Thank you for this considered analysis.

    One thing you might perhaps have added is that it is much easier for Scotland than England to reach 100% electricity decarbonisation, given its natural resources – and, crucially, its interconnection to a southern neighbour willing to absorb intermittent Scots power from renewables into a much larger grid. Small countries can export lumpy power to neighbouring markets, but only so long as the neighbours’ grid is willing to take it.

    The Scots government seems too often to forget that co-operation is necessary for it to realise its ambitions.

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