Big lifestyle changes needed if technology fails to deliver Scottish climate targets

Scots would need to halve the amount of meat and dairy they eat and make other big lifestyle changes if Scotland is to reach its climate target without significant help from unproven technologies that absorb pollution.

The findings come from a trio of new ‘energy scenarios’ commissioned by the Scottish Government which show possible pathways for the energy system to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. The scenarios will inform the government’s upcoming energy strategy which will outline the future of the sector in Scotland. 

One of the scenarios relies on a huge roll-out of new wind power and controversial carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The second requires major changes to people’s lifestyles, while the third is a mixture of the two.

Both the technological and mixed scenarios require significant growth in electricity production in the coming decades – mostly from onshore and offshore wind farms – with CCS and direct air capture (DAC) absorbing and storing the remaining emissions that the country produces.

Meanwhile, the lifestyle change scenario has minimal reliance on technological innovation but requires a decrease in Scots’ demand for energy. This would mean big shifts in habits, including vegan and vegetarian diets becoming mainstream, people driving far less, and taking fewer international flights. 

Even under the mixed scenario – which still relies on a sizable amount of CCS and DAC – there would need to be behavioural changes, including a 35 per cent reduction in the amount of meat and dairy Scots eat by 2050.

Some environmental activists warned that the Scottish Government should not “over-rely” on emerging technologies like CCS which have a history of underperforming in reducing emissions to avoid making difficult decisions to change people’s consumption habits. 

They claimed that the scenarios show “we could do little and hope that technical fixes might save us” or proactively encourage lifestyle changes and nature restoration projects which will “reduce emissions consistently and over the long term”.

Other campaigners argued that none of the pathways to net zero would be successful “on their own” and were instead rehashed versions of the approaches that “have brought us to the present crisis”.

The Scottish Government described CCS as a vital part of the energy transition and said that the scenarios were among a “suite of tools” which are “shaping discussions” around the energy strategy. It is due out this autumn and will provide details on how the Scottish energy system will look in the future.

The scenarios were produced by researchers at ClimateXChange which provides independent advice to the Scottish Government on the climate crisis.

These scenarios show that we could do little and hope that uncertain technical fixes might save us, or we can get on and make the changes in our daily lives that we know really will reduce emissions consistently and over the long term.

Dr Richard Dixon

All three pathways expect renewable energy to be the “workhorse” of the Scottish power sector. Onshore and offshore wind capacity would have to grow most under the technological scenario, but also increase significantly under the mixed pathway. 

Hydrogen is expected to play a role in industrial processes and transport as well as to back-up renewable electricity generation. It is also expected to become important in heating peoples homes, as part of a “hybrid hydrogen-heat pump system”. 

There is no place for new nuclear plants in any of the pathways, while fossil fuel-powered energy generation is also ruled out unless it is equipped with CCS to absorb the emissions it produces. 

Each scenario includes a role for the proposed CCS-enabled Peterhead gas-fired power station, which activists fear will “lock in” the continued use of expensive natural gas for decades to come. 

Techno-fixes, lifestyle changes, or both?

The Scottish Government will publish its energy strategy this autumn. It will provide a long-term vision for Scotland’s energy policy aimed at giving the country the best chance of reaching the targets set in its climate change plan.

The current climate plan, which was updated in late 2020, has faced criticism this year for a lack of detail on how emissions reductions will be achieved, as well as for leaning too heavily on CCS.

The energy scenarios see no role for new nuclear power stations after the closure of Torness in East Lothian in 2028 (pictured).

CCS is the process of capturing carbon from processes which usually pump it into the atmosphere. This carbon is then transported from where it was captured and stored in a safe location, often deep underground.

Recent analysis found that several of the world’s biggest CCS projects are underperforming, while others have been abandoned altogether. The main Scottish CCS project also failed to land UK Government funding last year.

In both the technological and mixed energy scenarios outlined by ClimateXChange, CCS is required to capture excess emissions from the power generation and industrial sectors as well as a burgeoning bioenergy industry. 

Bioenergy is produced by burning natural materials like wood. It is considered to be carbon negative because trees absorb emissions from the atmosphere which are then captured and stored underground when they are burned for fuel.

It is unpopular among some environmentalists not only because it relies on CCS, but also because it requires a lot of land which could instead be used for agriculture. This could mean more food needs to be imported from abroad, which could cause an increase in emissions.  

Plantations are also needed to produce enough trees to provide fuel for bioenergy power plants. These plantations are often monocultures – meaning only one species of tree or plant are grown – which can threaten biodiversity

Both pathways also assume that Scotland will have a commercial scale direct air capture (DAC) plant capturing and storing the equivalent of a million tonnes of carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere each year by 2030. 

There are currently 19 DAC plants operational around the world which only capture a combined 10 thousand tonnes of CO2 each year. 

These approaches – micro-actions or a commitment to the ‘magical thinking’ of techno-fixes are proven failures that have brought us to our present crisis.

Mike Small and Bronagh Gallagher, Enough! Collective

Holyrood committees have warned that the government must produce a ‘Plan B’ in case negative emissions technologies like CCS and DAC fail to deliver as expected.

According to the energy scenarios, an energy system which does not rely on the technologies would require extra efforts by individuals to change their behaviours. 

Gina Hanrahan, head of policy at WWF Scotland, told The Ferret that the Scottish Government should not “over-rely” on CCS and DAC to deliver when developing the energy strategy. 

“We know we need both massive transformation in technologies alongside meaningful shifts in behaviour”, Hanrahan said. 

“The energy strategy must prioritise what we know works at scale – investing in nature’s recovery and reducing emissions in our homes, our industries, our food and our electricity production”. 

Dr Richard Dixon, the former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, argued that less driving and flying, a shift in diets away from meat and dairy, and more tree planting and peatland restoration were needed if the government is to meet the net zero target. 

Dixon said: “Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity. These scenarios show that we could do little and hope that uncertain technical fixes might save us, or we can get on and make the changes in our daily lives that we know really will reduce emissions consistently and over the long term.

“These changes might actually make us healthier and happier as well as cutting climate change. 

“But changing behaviour isn’t just about slick TV ads and websites listing suggestions to reduce your carbon footprint. It means using grants, loans, subsidies, levies, taxes, regulations and bans to strongly guide people in the direction of the right choices.”

You can read more of The Ferret’s coverage of the environment here

Bronagh Gallagher and Mike Small from the Enough! Collective – which argues for a degrowth approach to reduce Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis – claimed the scenarios “fundamentally fail to engage with the depth of change truly needed to achieve net zero by 2045”.

They said: “None of the proposals from the ClimateXChange project will allow us to reach Net Zero by 2045 on their own. These approaches – micro-actions or a commitment to the ‘magical thinking’ of techno-fixes – are proven failures that have brought us to our present crisis.

“A degrowth approach to energy would focus on the need for an energy descent plan, and not just an assumption of endless energy output increases. This would stem not from individual domestic actions but from wholesale structural changes that would benefit all.

“An Energy Strategy that truly matched the severity of the crises and delivered net zero by 2045 would also be an economic strategy and a social strategy. This might seem too big, too unrealistic (and outwith the bounds of an energy scenario) but it is the only choice we have if we truly respond to the times we are in, in a way that is just, fair and ecologically balanced.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scotland has legislated for some of the world’s most ambitious climate change targets and we will be a net zero nation by 2045. We are already more than halfway to net zero and continue to decarbonise faster than the UK average.

“The Scottish whole system energy scenarios are helping shape the discussions we are having with energy stakeholders as we continue to co-design our Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan. They are one of a suite of tools that will help us unpick the challenges and identify the opportunities of decarbonisation across the energy sector in the coming years.”

Main Photo Credit: iStock/munro1

Torness Photo Credit: iStock/versevend

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