Plans by Scottish local authorities to cut carbon pollution are “deeply insufficient” and will cause Scotland to keep missing climate targets, according to new analysis.
A report for Conservative MSP, Stephen Kerr — backed by campaigners — has accused councils of all political hues of failing to take 80 per cent of the actions needed to tackle the climate emergency.
SNP, Labour and Conservative councils are not doing enough to make travel, transport, housing, land and resource use more sustainable, the report concluded — and the Scottish Government should step in to help.
The Scottish Government described the research as “interesting” and said it had more than a hundred policies to meet climate targets. It promised “a catch-up report in the near future”.
Most local authorities highlighted the multiple actions they were taking, and stressed they were “working hard” to meet net zero emissions targets. Two attacked the report as politically biased and “ludicrous”.
Researchers asked all Scotland’s 32 councils to say what they were doing to combat climate change. Of the 20 that responded, they selected 11 and analysed their plans.
The 11 were run by the SNP, Labour, Conservatives and independents in a variety of power-sharing arrangements. They included Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Fife and Stirling.
Researchers assessed the performance of the councils against 64 tests, such as encouraging walking and cycling, the roll-out of facilities for electric vehicles, improving home insulation, managing land and resources.
Councils were given scores using a scale of zero to five where zero meant no mention, three meant there were gaps and five meant the issue was being “competently addressed”. The average overall scores of the 11 councils were all under 2.5.
The three lowest ranked were Labour and SNP controlled Dumfries and Galloway (0.9), Labour run North Ayrshire (0.9) and Conservative and independent controlled Scottish Borders (1.0). The three highest ranked councils were all run by the SNP: Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire.
Councils scored on climate action
|Council||Political control||Climate action score out of 5|
|Dumfries and Galloway||Labour/SNP||0.9|
|North Ayrshire||Labour minority||0.9|
|Argyll and Bute||Conservative/LibDem/independent||1.3|
|East Ayrshire||SNP minority||2.3|
“Over 80 per cent of areas that the researchers deemed essential requirements for delivering an effective plan were either missing entirely or were touched upon in a way that showed neither understanding nor urgency,” the report concluded.
“Local authorities are very far from strategies that will deliver what is needed. Had these strategies been in place 10 years ago, they would have been deemed a good start. As they stand, they are deeply insufficient.”
One of the researchers, climate campaigner Rachel Nunn, pointed out that councils were “pivotal” to achieving net zero emissions. “Whilst some authorities recognise this, but are hampered by lack of data, capacity and support from the Scottish Government, worryingly these plans show that other authorities do not perceive this and are not even off the starting blocks,” she said.
Stephen Kerr MSP criticised the Scottish Government for devolving responsibility for meeting climate targets to councils while only offering “meagre” support and assistance. “With Glasgow hosting COP26 it is troubling that the Scottish Government is claiming world leadership on the race to net zero yet behind the scenes, abdicating its responsibility,” he said.
According to Friends of the Earth Scotland, local authorities have a legal duty to help reduce climate pollution. “This analysis shows that most of the plans in place so far fall well short of what is needed to deliver the urgent and far reaching reductions in climate emissions that the world urgently needs,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.
“There are patchy good examples but many councils are not even covering some of the basics. The public sector ought to be leading by example but the reality behind the fine words looks more like they are well behind where they should be.”
The Climate Emergency Response Group, which brings together public and private sector leaders in Scotland, has estimated that councils can influence about a third of the carbon emissions in their areas. The group expressed concerns about their lack of resources, powers and policies in a report published in September.
“This places Scotland’s ability to respond to the climate emergency at considerable risk. The years of austerity and the Covid-19 pandemic has made this situation worse — stretching local authority resources to the limit,” the report warned.
The group urged central and local government to “negotiate and agree a joint net-zero delivery framework, identifying roles, necessary funding, and resources within 12 months.”
The Scottish Greens called on all councils to “step up their urgency” in tacking the climate crisis. “Far too often we have seen councils reluctant to make the changes required,” said the party’s climate spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
The Scottish Government emphasised the measures it had taken, including an updated climate change plan with 100 policies and proposals. “It is interesting to see this assessment,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.
“We will also publish a catch-up report in the near future, including additional measures to ensure Scotland’s emissions reductions are on track. This demonstrates our commitment to delivering upon our promises and ensuring we rapidly reduce our emissions.”
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities stressed the efforts being made to cut climate emissions. “Scotland’s councils are working hard towards net zero and have ambitious targets, many ahead of the national 2045 target,” said a spokesperson.
“They report their reductions in emissions through mandatory public sector climate change reporting and this shows substantial progress is being made.”
Glasgow City Council argued it had made “significant progress” in tackling the climate emergency. Citywide carbon emissions had been reduced by 41 per cent since 2006, it said.
“There are areas that need to be improved upon as we look to our net-zero carbon target by 2030. However, this report needs to be clearer about how information has been collected and the matrix used to reflect performance,” said a council spokesperson.
Aberdeen City Council accused the Scottish Government of being unable to work “collegiately” with councils. “Councils right across Scotland are being let down by the Scottish Government who introduce net zero legislation and then cut local government funding thereby ensuring that the targets introduced are almost impossible to deliver upon,” said the council’s Labour leader, Jenny Laing.
Scottish Borders Council said it had a “route map” but was still working on a detailed action plan. “Councils are at different stages,” added environment director, John Curry.
“Care needs to be taken to ensure that, in an exercise like this, valid comparisons are being made between plans that are trying to do the same things.”
Fife Council complained that it hadn’t been consulted on the report. “We are absolutely committed to tackling climate change with our partners, and a comprehensive action plan is being taken forward,” said service manager, Ross Spalding.
Dumfries and Galloway Council highlighted its 12-point action plan, but argued that “additional support and input is vital”. Argyll and Bute Council said its carbon emissions had been cut 30 per cent since 2014.
Stirling Council attacked the report’s authors as “well-known Tory activists” and questioned its independence. “It is not a neutral report and is little more than an exercise to kick local government,” said the SNP’s environmental spokesperson on the council, Jim Thomson.
“Stirling Council is leading the way on things like solar panels, waste energy recovery and battery energy storage. Much of the information in the report does not stand up to scrutiny.”
North Ayrshire’s Labour leader, Joe Cullinane, was similarly scathing. “This is the most ludicrous report I’ve ever read,” he told The Ferret.
“Have we reached the point where Tory MSPs are able to make up their own research and present it as an authoritative voice on an issue as important as climate change?”
North Ayrshire Council also stressed that the council “fundamentally disagreed” with the report. “We are extremely disappointed and frustrated to note the report does not take into account all the trail-blazing work the council is doing,” said a council spokesperson.
To rebut the report, North Ayrshire Council provided a 1,300-word account of its actions to cut climate pollution. The Ferret is publishing this in full, along with responses from other councils.
South Lanarkshire Council has not yet commented.
Responses from local authorities
Cover image thanks to iStock/eric1513.