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Opportunity to benefit from net zero must involve us all

by Kate Morrison, Strategic Lead for Fair Markets.

This column was first published in the Herald on 18 August 2021.

August brings a lot of things – the end of summer, the start of the school year, the Edinburgh Festival, a bit of sun (if we’re lucky), and on election years, reflection on the first days of the new Scottish Government. This year more so than any other.

The new government had no shortage of challenges vying for prioritisation in its first hundred days, from pandemic recovery to a housing crisis to dealing with climate change.

As all newly elected governments do, this administration pledged to hit the ground running, setting goals and laying out plans to start tackling all those problems, and more.

At the heart of so many of these priorities we can find a recurring theme, the pressing need for a just transition to net zero.

So with about 80 days until the world gathers in Glasgow for COP 26, where is Scotland in our transition to net zero?

Among the priorities for government was a pledge to invest a further £1.6 billion in the decarbonisation of heat, alongside introducing new housing standards.

I welcomed this as a priority and I am very proud of Scotland’s climate targets, which are amongst the most ambitious in the world. £1.6bn, spent wisely, will not only help us end our reliance on gas, coal, and oil, it will make homes warmer and lower fuel bills for people who are struggling to make ends meet.

New housing standards will make homes less draughty, less damp, and more comfortable. And the Government has made progress on its pledges. An additional £9m was allocated for reducing fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency last month, and consultations have been released on improving building standards and engaging with the public about net zero.

Plans are under way to revise and reform energy performance certificates (EPCs) which are a tool in making buildings more efficient and ready for low carbon heating. I applaud all this work, plus everything else that is undoubtedly going on behind the scenes.

However, I would challenge us to go further. The recent IPCC report on climate change highlighted the need to start our transition to net zero now, or risk truly catastrophic climate change.

People care about climate change – a survey we did in April found that 68 per cent of respondents supported the target to reach net zero emissions by 2045, and that 41% of respondents thought climate change should be more of a priority for the Scottish Government as the country recovers from Covid-19.

Most of those surveyed wanted to cut their carbon footprint but didn’t know where to start.

Trusted actors such as government bodies, local authorities, and advice services have a vital role to play in engaging, educating, and advising people who can make changes to their homes and lifestyles now, and jumpstart a just transition.

Clear energy efficiency standards, creative and attractive financial incentives for “early adopters” of low carbon heating and electric transport, and effective community engagement will build consumer trust and allow citizens to actively participate in the changes occurring in their communities.

No one should feel like anything is being imposed on them, but there is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to provide leadership and support communities to take control in shaping their future.

That’s the great thing about investing in a net zero carbon emissions future. A truly just transition, which puts the wants and needs of people at the heart of all the social and technological changes we must make to reach our goal also improves the standards of living in our communities through new jobs, cleaner environments, warmer homes, and lower energy costs.

People want all of these things for themselves, their children, and their communities but they need to know what to do.

Those who are able and willing to act now should be supported to do so with financial backing, access to free and impartial advice, and a good idea about how the changes they are making fit into our larger journey as a nation.

A just transition would also be an opportunity to change some of the problems we have in our economy now.

One in seven people in Scotland are struggling on their present incomes, and around 1 in 4 households are living in fuel poverty, spending more than 10% of their income on fuel costs.

Households on low-incomes consume less and consequently have far smaller carbon footprints than those with a higher disposable income.

It is essential the onus to act is placed on to wealthier households and those who are already struggling financially are supported to see the benefits not the burden of reaching net zero.

Energy costs will be front and centre of people’s minds in the lead up to COP26, after Ofgem confirmed last week another rise in the energy price cap.

Soon COP 26 will have come and gone. Scotland has set world leading climate targets that will require vast changes in the way we live, travel, and interact with our environment.

It’s a difficult puzzle to put together, and there are no easy policy answers. I commend all the work and investment the government has put into this journey so far, and everything that is currently happening behind the scenes.

However, we must have a plan that proactively levels up access and opportunity throughout Scotland rather than simply settling for “leaving no-one behind”.

That transition can start now, through setting the goal posts for people who are willing and able to act and providing them with the support and advice to cross them.