Mixing ambition with risk: climate and energy policymaking in Scotland

16 Feb 2017

The Scottish Government recently published a new Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy in draft form. Mark Winskel, University of Edinburgh, examines the detail.

This is a busy time for climate and energy policy consultation in Scotland. The Scottish Government has recently published a new Climate Change Plan and a new Energy Strategy – both as drafts for consultation. The Climate Change Plan sets out a carbon reduction pathway to 2032 (akin to the UK 5th Carbon Budget), while the Energy Strategy explores developments to 2050. Alongside is a series of more specific consultations on onshore wind, unconventional oil and gas, and district heating and energy efficiency.

High overall ambition

The Climate Change Plan reaffirms the Scottish Government’s ambition in climate policy. It incorporates the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommendations for raised decarbonisation ambition targets for Scotland (66% by 2032). The draft Energy Strategy includes a new headline-grabbing target that renewables supply half of all energy consumed in Scotland by 2030, and in his Ministerial Foreword, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Scottish Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy notes that ‘progress on electricity means that Scotland’s energy challenges are different from most other countries, with heat and transport more significant than energy’, and he identifies the major long term energy challenge for Scotland as improving the efficiency of the building stock. He also refers to ‘changing choices’ about the scale of supply and consumption.

System integration

The Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy mark the pursuit of a more integrated, cross-sectoral approach to climate and energy policy making, informed by the ‘Scottish TIMES’ model. Energy systems modelling brings benefits but also some problems. It supports a consistent and disciplined approach, so that effort across the economy can be more fairly and transparently based on estimated costs and benefits. However, real world policymaking inevitably involves an iteration between such systematic and consistent methods and the practicalities of implementation across different sectors and organisations, and the alignment of resources with political interests. TIMES also struggles to assess the wider social and environmental pros and cons of climate policy initiatives, and of shifting to a more decentralised energy system – all of which are gaining attention in Scotland.

Concentrated risks

While the Scottish Government’s high overall policy ambition is welcome, it carries some risks, particularly for the electricity and heat sectors, where the Climate Change Plan focuses most of its decarbonisation efforts. In the electricity sector, the Plan anticipates the arrival of negative emissions in Scotland within a decade using mostly renewables but also Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) – a technology yet to be proven at scale. For heat, the Plan features a very rapid change in the proportion of buildings supplied by low carbon heat, on a scale similar to the UK switchover from ‘town gas’ to natural gas for buildings heating in the 1960s and 70s. 

By comparison there is only a modest anticipated reduction in heat demand, despite the designation of energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority and plans for a major refurbishment programme. Research by UKERC identified a tendency for under-ambition in heat demand reduction in UK energy scenarios, and a key issue in further development of the Plan is to consider the scope for deeper progress here. This carries implications for supply-side changes, as demand reduction weakens the investment case for new heat supply infrastructure.

In contrast with the power and heat sectors, the policy targets for industry and transport are relatively modest, relying mostly on technology-based supply-side measures rather than demand reduction and behaviour change, and on new technologies such as CCS and e-vehicles rather than more incremental steps using already available technologies and processes. While there may be an emerging case for radical change, such as decentralisation and new heating infrastructures, the overall evidence is still unclear.

UK-Scottish interactions

A key influence on the feasibility of the Climate Change Plan will be its alignment with UK Government policy, to be set out in the forthcoming UK Emissions Reduction Plan (which has been delayed but expected to be published soon). Many strategic areas of energy policy are ‘reserved’, and judging by the Committee on Climate Change 5th Carbon Budget advice (now accepted by the UK Government) the UK is likely to be less ambitious than Scotland out to 2032, especially in buildings heating and power.

To date, Scotland’s progress in decarbonisation has been enabled by the socialisation of subsidy costs across all GB energy consumers, and operational integration within the GB single market and grid. Looking ahead, a key question is whether the early actions envisaged by the Scottish Government can secure UK-level support, in key areas such as CCS and low carbon heating.

Despite their omissions and imperfections, the Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy are statements of the Scottish Government’s high policy ambition. A commensurate commitment from the UK Government is likely to be essential for these ambitions to be realised. 

Dr Mark Winskel is Chancellor's Research Fellow on Energy Innovation in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University & UKERC Scottish Policy Facilitator. He also carries out research for ClimateXChange (CXC), Scotland’s national centre of expertise on climate change, and is a CXC co-Director. Dr Winskel asserts that he writes here in a personal capacity.