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Is Scotland achieving its climate targets?

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The Scottish Government’s plan for achieving net zero includes targets to reduce total emissions each year, as well as longer term goals to slash emissions across different sectors. 

Emissions data in Scotland is published annually and compared against the interim targets Scotland has set for cutting climate pollution each year. 

For our series, Scotland and the Climate Crisis, Ferret Fact Service examined the government’s performance against its own targets. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

Scotland’s overall target in 2021 was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 51.1 per cent from levels in 1990, the benchmark year. 

This was the yearly target the country needed to reach in order to be on track to achieve its long term objectives of a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, and a 100 per cent reduction – net zero – by 2045. 

The latest statistics show levels have fallen to 49.9 per cent in 2021, meaning the Scottish Government missed its yearly target by 1.2 per cent

Emissions were up 2.4 per cent from the previous year, with 41.6 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) compared to 40.6 MtCO2e in 2020.

The 2020 statistics were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw significant reductions in transport-related emissions as lockdowns took effect across Scotland, limiting the amount of travel.

Every missed target for overall emissions makes meeting the target the following year more difficult, as further cuts in emissions must take place. 

This is because climate pollution accumulates in the atmosphere. In other words, if Scotland achieves net zero by 2045, but misses all of its yearly targets in the lead up to that date, it will still have contributed more to the climate crisis than planned despite the overall target being met. 

Between 2018 and 2021, Scottish emissions were a combined 4.6 million tonnes higher than the targets for those years. The Scottish Government has committed to producing a plan to catch up on emissions. 

Scotland does not have statutory targets for each sector, but has published so-called yearly “emissions envelopes” which show the reductions required across different areas, if the overall net zero goal is to be achieved. These are contained in Scotland’s Climate Change Plan update.

Overall emissions target: Missed

Agriculture

The sector emitted 7.8 MtCO2e in 2021, which is over its envelope of 6.8. The sector increased its emissions by 100,000 tonnes of CO2e between 2020 and 2021. 

The sector has also made limited progress towards reducing the use of harmful nitrogen fertilisers. Excessive nitrogen in the atmosphere exacerbates climate change and depletes the ozone layer. 

Overall emissions target: Missed

Buildings

Emissions from buildings increased from 8.5 MtCO2e to 9.0 between 2020 and 2021, a 6.1 per cent increase. Its emissions envelope for 2021 was 7.6.

The Climate Change Plan update set a target of 1.5 million homes using low emissions heating by 2030. The latest figures for 2019 show 312,000 homes using these systems. 

Heat consumption from fossil fuels in commercial buildings is planned to reduce to 5,000 Gigawatt hours or less by 2030. In 2020, it sat at 11,170 GWh, having increased since 2016.

Overall emissions target: Missed

Electricity

Electricity generation produced 1.6 MtCO2e in 2021, which matched its sector envelope of 1.6 set out in the climate change plan update. It reduced by 100,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the past year. 

It should be noted that emissions from the North sea oil and gas sector are not included within these statistics as they are considered to be UK-wide emissions rather than linked to Scotland. 

Elsewhere, Scotland’s energy system is succeeding on its target on carbon intensity, producing under 50g of CO2 emissions produced per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed. This reduction in carbon intensity is mainly down to the closure of coal fired power stations in 2013 and 2016, and reduced reliance on gas. 

Scotland’s renewable energy consumption target is 50 per cent by 2030. In 2021, Scotland met 24 per cent of its total equivalent energy needs through renewable sources.

Overall emissions target: Met

Waste

Waste management matched its emissions target in 2021 of 1.5 MtCO2e. There was no change in emissions between 2020 and 2021. 

Scotland has significantly reduced waste emissions over the past decade, with more than 40 per cent reduction in emissions between 2011 and 2021.

By 2025, the Scottish Government aims to see no more than five per cent of all waste going to landfill. In 2021, 31.3 per cent of waste generated ended up in landfill. 

Progress has been made on targets for reductions in biodegradable waste sent to landfill, however there was an uptick in 2020 and 2021, which Scotland’s emissions report attributes to the impact of Covid-19.

Overall emissions target: Met

Industry

Industry, which covers processing of raw materials and goods across Scotland, reduced its CO2 emissions by 600,000 tonnes and was under its envelope maximum with 9.6 MtCO2e compared to a target of 11.3.

Scotland’s industrial emissions have declined by 50 per cent since 1990, and fell ten per cent between 2020 and 2021. This has been linked to reductions in manufacturing and the iron and steel industry.

However, the sector is rated as ‘off track’ by the latest climate change plan monitoring report on two key areas – industrial energy productivity, and emissions intensity. 

Compared with the 2015 baseline year, Scotland’s industrial emissions intensity has increased by 12.9 per cent. It is targeted to be reduced by 30 per cent by 2032.

Overall emissions target: Met

Transport

Transport emissions in 2021 were more than the envelope maximum of 10.2 MtCO2e, and actually increased from 10.7 MtCO2e to 11.6 between 2020 and 2021. 

This was mainly a result of increases in the sector as the country emerged from Covid-19 restrictions in 2020. 

The Scottish Government has committed the overall number of kilometres driven by cars being 20 per cent lower by 2030. 

Kilometres driven did decrease by 15.3 per cent between 2019 and 2021, but after a significant drop-off during the pandemic, latest figures show increasing car use and the 2023 emissions report states that it “is expected car traffic will continue to rise over the next 2-3 years before interventions to deliver reductions in car traffic start to make an impact.”

Overall emissions target: Missed

Land use and forestry

Land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) is included in the Scottish climate change plans. Depending on how it is managed, Scotland’s land can help to absorb CO2 in the air, and become a ‘carbon sink’ or it can be a net emitter of greenhouse gases. 

LULUCF was a net source of greenhouse gases in Scotland in 2021, emitting 0.4 MtCO2e of net emissions, marginally under its envelope of 0.5. 

According to the statistics, forestry and other harvested wood products are greenhouse gas (GHG) ‘sinks’ in 2021, removing net GHG emissions of 7.3 MtCO2e and 1.7 MtCO2e. All other types of land use are currently net emitters, including croplands, grassland, settlements and wetland showing substantial net emissions to the atmosphere.

Peatlands are an important factor in the fight against climate change. The Scottish Government targeted 20,000 hectares of peatland to be restored per year. In 2022-23 it is estimated that only 7,000 was restored – around a third of its target. 

There is a similar target missed in woodland creation, with 8,190 hectares planted in the last year against a national target of 15,000.

Overall emissions target: Met

Scotland and the Climate Crisis is The Ferret’s first fact-checking series. We asked our members and readers about climate misinformation they had encountered, and which aspects of the climate crisis they wanted to know more about. This series was developed from those suggestions. Support our journalism and fact-checking by becoming a member for £5 a month or a giving a donation at theferret.scot

Photo credit: iStock/usaid_abbasi

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