Watchdog presses for stricter rules on council climate pollution

A watchdog is using legal powers to force the Scottish Government to strengthen councils’ reporting of climate pollution, after The Ferret found many local authorities were underestimating their emissions.

An investigation by Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) accused the Scottish Government of a “failure to make effective environmental law” due to “weaknesses” in the support it gives to councils to reduce their climate impact.

In a report on its investigation, published today, ESS made five recommendations to the Scottish Government to improve councils’ performance on climate change. 

The government has agreed to four of these, including making council climate plans compulsory, introducing a specific emissions reporting framework for local authorities, and setting up a body to monitor council’s efforts to reduce their climate impacts. 

But the Scottish Government refused a recommendation to make it mandatory for councils to report the climate pollution from the things they buy – known as scope 3 emissions – which often make up the largest proportion of an organisation’s carbon footprint.

ESS –  set up by the Scottish Government in 2021 to ensure public sector bodies uphold environmental laws – has used statutory powers to force the Scottish Government to produce an “improvement plan” on scope 3 emissions to the Scottish Parliament. 

The plan must outline how the Scottish Government plans to address the recommendation on scope 3 emissions and must be produced within the next nine months. 

In May 2022,  The Ferret reported that one council saw its climate pollution quadruple after it hired external consultants to work out its scope 3 emissions.

Our findings prompted concerns among campaigners that other councils were “massively underestimating” their carbon footprints because they were not using this more “robust” method of reporting emissions.

The ESS investigation appeared to confirm the campaigners’ concerns. It argued there is ”inconsistency” in climate reporting by local authorities and claimed the emissions data reported by them is “unreliable”.

Its report added: “There is no evidence that local authorities’ climate change delivery is monitored against reported progress, evaluated or scrutinised, despite there being a legal mechanism to do so.”

ESS argued these issues “constitute a failure to make effective environmental law” by the Scottish Government which could contribute to Scotland failing to meet its overall climate change targets.

ESS’ chief executive, Mark Roberts, claimed councils have a “central leadership role” in addressing climate change and are a “major contributor to the public sector’s total reported emissions”. “There must be effective systems in place to help them in this,” he said.

Roberts added: “The changes made as a result of ESS’ recommendations will strengthen the operational and governance arrangements for climate change duties and lead to enhanced transparency, support and accountability.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government welcomes the work carried out by Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS). Local authorities are already rising to the challenge of the climate crisis and we will continue to work with them across Scotland to deliver our ambitious climate targets. 

“As recognised in the report, we have already agreed a pathway to address the majority of the recommendations. We will submit an Improvement Plan to Parliament in due course setting out how we plan to respond to the one remaining recommendation.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/eric1513.

This story was updated at 10:11 on 7th December 2023 to add a comment from the Scottish Government.

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