climate change

Climate change: the ‘devastating’ risks facing Scotland

Major parts of Scotland’s vital infrastructure are under threat from coastal erosion and flooding, according to the latest government assessments of the dangers of climate pollution.

Thousands of homes and businesses and long stretches of roads and railway lines are at risk. So are power stations, wind farms, sewers, bridges, farmland, golf courses and many other crucial facilities.

Seabirds, fish and plants are endangered, as well as butterflies, food crops and peat bogs. Scotland can expect more rain, more droughts, more storms, more wild fires, more landslides, more pests and more diseases – and snow is disappearing from the mountains.

As evidence mounts of the multiple risks climate change poses to people and wildlife, 2017 is predicted to be another record hot year. And one of Scotland’s leading climate experts is warning that the world is facing the catastrophe of “runaway” climate change because pollution is damaging nature.

A study earlier this month for the Scottish Government warned that the rate of coastal erosion around Scotland has doubled since the 1970s. Researchers identified 30,000 buildings, 1,300 kilometres of roads and 100 kilometres of railway lines “close to potentially erodible coasts”.

The impact of climate-driven coastal erosion was “potentially devastating”, they said. By 2050 at least 50 buildings, seven kilometres of roads and railways, airport runways, wildlife and archaeological sites could be damaged.

According to the government conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, more than 20 coastal golf courses have already acknowledged erosion problems. These include golf links in the Western Isles, Highland, Dumfries and Galloway – and Donald Trump’s controversial resort in the sand dunes at Menie in Aberdeenshire.

Another report for the UK Committee on Climate Change highlighted the threats posed by climate change to infrastructure, farming and wildlife in Scotland. An estimated 180,000 residential properties are currently at risk from flooding, with the number predicted to rise as the climate deteriorates.

The report warned of a 50 per cent increase in sewer flooding over the next few decades as the system is inundated by heavy rain. It flagged up risks to electricity generation, transport and other key networks.

About 150,000 hectares of arable farmland were said to be at high risk from river flooding, and an estimated seven per cent of Scotland’s prime agricultural land was within flood risk areas.

Paradoxically, there could also be water shortages. Up to half of Scotland’s prime agricultural land will be at moderate to severe risk of drought by the 2050s, particularly in Tayside and Fife, the report said, and water use is likely to be restricted.

Higher temperatures could boost the spread of livestock diseases, including foot and mouth, bluetongue and liver fluke. “Serious epidemics predicted to become the norm by the 2020s, especially in the north and west of the country,” warned the report.

It forecast a big increase in forest fires, as well as major impacts on migratory birds, fish and mountain plants. There was a “significant risk” for iconic species such as ptarmigan and mountain hares and “the possibility of no snow cover below 900 metres by the 2080s.”

The report predicted that mean summertime temperatures in Scotland would rise by up to 4.5 degrees centigrade by the 2050s, while winter rain could increase by up to 30 per cent. The sea level around Edinburgh is expected to rise by between 20 and 40 centimetres by 2090.

Experts are predicting that 2017 will end up being one of the world’s hottest. “Though we only have global observations to June, it is likely that 2017 will be globally one of the warmest three years since 1850,” said Simon Tett, professor of earth system dynamics at the University of Edinburgh.

According to NASA, 2016 was the world’s hottest year since records started, with the next two hottest being 2015 and 2014. Scotland’s hottest year so far was 2014, and last winter was the fourth warmest on record.

The ten hottest years

The world since 1880
Scotland since 1910
sources: NASA, Met Office, Friends of the Earth Scotland

“Globally 2017 looks like being even hotter than 2016, and so could be the fourth year in a row to be the hottest ever,” said Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“Our weather is becoming more extreme and more unpredictable, all of which is bad news for people trying to get on with their lives and brings major challenges for Scotland’s wildlife.”

Dixon urged Scottish ministers to toughen their target to cut climate pollution to zero by 2040 instead of by 90 per cent by 2050. “This would not only help protect people here at home but aid the global struggle to stop climate change reaching catastrophic levels,” he said.

Dr Sam Gardner, acting director of WWF Scotland, pointed out that extreme weather events had been breaking climate records around the globe. “Climate change is already having real and serious impacts on people, places and nature, both in Scotland and around the world,” he said.

‘Nature is damaged’

One of the biggest fears is that complex feedback loops could accelerate changes, and make climate disruption impossible to control. Scientists say this would lead to more floods, droughts and heatwaves threatening millions around the planet.

Evidence that this is already happening has been uncovered by Professor James Curran, a renowned climate scientist and the former chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. He thinks that nature is losing its ability to store carbon and slow global warming.

He has studied data from the world’s best record of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere at Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii. He looked at the annual drop in CO2 concentrations every spring and summer in the northern hemisphere to estimate how effectively trees and plants were capturing carbon.

Leaves absorb CO2 as they grow and feed carbon compounds into the soil, a vital natural process that helps store pollutants that would otherwise disrupt the climate. It had been thought that additional growth triggered by carbon emissions might help reduce climate change.

According to Curran, this happened until 2006 but since then natural carbon capture has been in decline. “Excessive heat, droughts, wildfires, pests and diseases, wind storms and floods can damage natural vegetation and crops to such an extent that their ability to absorb carbon begins to decline,” he said.

“This is a possible early warning of very serious and concerning positive feedback. This is what may, ultimately, create runaway or uncontrollable climate change.”

Curran has published two peer-reviewed studies in the UK Royal Meteorological Society’s journal, Weather. He concludes that the declining ability of natural vegetation to absorb carbon is responsible for 30 per cent of global emissions.

He pointed out that carbon dioxide levels were rising faster than ever, despite man-made emissions flat-lining for the past three years. “It’s because nature is damaged and can no longer absorb as much as it used to,” he said.

“Ecosystems across the world are failing and are no longer so capable of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Climate change will begin to accelerate, despite our best efforts to reduce emissions, unless we urgently rebuild and reinvigorate our natural systems.”

A recent analysis by the conservation group, WWF, concluded that there had been a 58 per cent decline in world populations of fish, birds, mammals and other animals between 1970 and 2012. Another study showed that 700 species of endangered mammals and birds had already been negatively impacted by climate change.

Curran is calling for Scotland to take a lead in restoring nature by joining up its two national parks around Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms. Ministers should consider reconnecting natural habitats “all the way from Balloch to Grantown, then look, beyond that, to link across to Lochaber and the Tummell and Tay valleys,” he said.

“It’s really urgent and I think Scotland has the knowledge, the will, and the potential to do it.”

The Scottish Government accepted that the impacts of climate change were intensifying. “Our climate change adaptation programme is ensuring that Scotland is well prepared and resilient to our changing climate,” said a spokesperson.

“Our proposals for a new climate change bill include an emissions reduction target of at least 90 per cent by 2050, strengthening Scotland’s place as a leading low-carbon economy.”

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 27 August 2017. Photo thanks to pxhere via CC by 2.0.

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