Part two: Climate action #NotinNewYork

Yesterday, I flagged the need for us to focus, not on pleasing speeches in New York, but on the ‘nitty gritty’ of making change happen in cities, in towns and in organisations around the world. What do I mean by the ‘nitty gritty’ of making change happen? Let me start with the place I call home.

Scotland is a small country and a constituent part of the UK. It will be a host of COP26 next year. In the early 2000’s, following the devolution of some powers, Scottish ministers and officials recognised that there was an opportunity to attract external investment in the subsidy-driven renewable electricity mandates in force at the time. This was as much about an economic (jobs, investment) rationale as it was about an environmental one.

This setting of bold national targets (starting with 18 per cent renewable electricity by 2010 and 40 per cent by 2020; then ramping up to 50 per cent, to 70 per cent and finally—100 per cent of electricity consumption in 2020 to be matched by renewable electricity generation) was accompanied by assorted changes in planning guidance (to support renewable developments), support for communities (receiving finance or equity stakes in local developments), and a host of actions that created an enabling political and business environment. At each point, certain experts argued that the target was both physically impossible to achieve (instability of grid, etc.) as well as economically ruinous. Yet at each point—to date—targets were met and overachieved. And, support for renewables continues to run strongly, with over 75 per cent of the population in favour.

Over the same time, and with the rise in concern about climate change, Scotland passed a Climate Change Act in 2009—within the wider multi-level regulatory frameworks of the EU and UK—which was world-leading at the time: Setting a 42 per cent emissions reduction target by 2020 and an 80 per cent emissions reduction target for 2050. At the time, those of us working on the emissions reduction scenarios could not see how we would achieve these targets: The best guess was that we might get close to 38 per cent by 2020. Yet by 2017, emissions were already reduced by nearly 47 per cent, while the economy continued to grow. This reduction was caused by a wide range of actions, policies, market changes and behavioural changes in the energy, waste, industry and land and agriculture sectors.

So what enabled one country to achieve so much in the past 10 years that it was comfortable passing this week—in Parliament—a law setting out to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045, with an interim target of reducing emissions by 75 per cent by 2030. What was the ‘nitty gritty’ of delivering real change? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Political leadership (bravery) and cross-party support were key to creating an enabling environment for business and civic society on climate change: It ensured that business was clear that a change of government would not change the rules of the game—allowing long-term planning—and it kept climate action from being a political ‘football.’
  2. Radical collaborations—particularly between civic society and business leaders—encouraging action on climate change gave politicians the support, and cover, to be bold.
  3. Serendipitous alignment of climate change goals with social and economic goals was key to gaining support for the initial renewable energy development (external financial investment in country, new jobs, new, emerging industry). In other words, make the most of aligning climate goals with a country’s social and economic goals: Good examples include the desire for clean air in cities (changing transport systems) and reducing fuel poverty (changing building systems).
  4. There is no silver bullet: These goals were achieved through the combined efforts of thousands of largely unnamed and unknown people in the public, private and civic sectors who made choices and took steps to support a clear goal.
 
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