Scotland faces a number of challenges at present, quite apart from deciding its constitutional future. These include dealing with the impacts of climate change (such as increased flooding), an on-going recession, and entrenched social problems. However, Scotland is also uniquely poised to take up some of the challenges of moving to a green economy.
Taking in its territorial waters, Scotland is six parts sea to one part land. This rich marine resource is of enormous importance for biodiversity, supporting for example 60% of the world’s gannets, and over 30% of the world’s grey seals. Marine areas also offer great potential for developing offshore renewable energy with estimates that Scotland contains 25% of Europe’s tidal power and offshore wind. Other key environmental assets in Scotland are its areas of peatlands which are of global importance. Traditionally viewed as being of low productivity, these peatlands are a huge carbon store and are becoming increasingly important as our understanding of ecosystem services grows.
One might think that in these difficult economic times, the public’s interest in the environment would wane. But, in a survey of Scottish adults this year, almost 90% think environmental issues should be a priority for Scotland over the remainder of this decade. This is reflected in the Scottish Government’s desire to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint as part of increasing sustainable economic growth. Scotland has world-leading climate change legislation, with a target of a 42% cut in emissions by 2020. So far it is on track to meet the target, doing better than most EU Member States. A significant part of this reduction has been driven by shift to renewable energy generation. Last year renewable electricity generation was equivalent to almost 35% of gross electricity consumption (up from just 10% in 2003). The government’s ambitious target is for this to increase to 50% within the next three years.
Additional actions will be needed if Scotland is to transition to a green economy which is both dynamic and resilient, and which delivers well-being for all. In order to explore what further approaches might be required and are available, Scottish Natural Heritage (Scotland’s statutory nature conservation agency) recently staged a Green Economy conference in Edinburgh. We were fortunate to have as our keynote speaker Ian Johnson, Secretary General of the Club of Rome (previously a senior economist at the World Bank). In his presentation Ian laid out the challenges to be faced in the decades ahead from a global perspective; including climate change, biodiversity loss, food and water availability, and their impacts on poverty. He suggested that tackling these slow-burning but critical issues implies a change in our basic values. But he also found hope that since these issues are anthropogenic in origin there is no reason why we cannot address them.
A move to a greener economy might also improve well-being. One presentation explored how environment and happiness can be related, whilst another, on Oxfam’s Humankind index, showed us a way of measuring society’s progress other than GDP. Other highlights included using social media to communicate green ideas, alternative ways to finance green investment, and identifying policy ‘pressure points’ for making the transition to a green economy. A panel discussion noted that while sustainable or green growth is increasingly mentioned, what it means is open to question. A green economy must, by definition, be environmentally sustainable, but it was argued this must include social sustainability and a more equitable society, tackling unemployment and under-employment.
It could be argued that Scotland is already moving ‘beyond GDP’ in assessing the success of the nation, with a wide range of national performance indicators, and Ian Johnson commended SNH for developing a measure of Scotland’s natural capital. Nevertheless, it appears that to transition to green economy, i.e. going beyond just lowering our carbon footprint, Scotland will first have to embark on a dialogue to explore what that means for us. As the panel chair, Jeremy Peat, Director of the David Hume Institute, noted:
‘We need some form of national debate as to what are our priorities for the economy and society – not just what we mean by sustainable growth but what we mean by national economic welfare.’
Ralph Blaney, Scottish National Heritage
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