Water industry watchdog attacked for climate ‘hypocrisy’ on flying

Climate pollution from travel by Scotland’s water industry watchdog has trebled after more than 200 flights to London and abroad, prompting accusations of “hypocrisy”.

Frequent flier Alan Sutherland, chief executive of the Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS), is under fire for breaching government travel guidelines and for ignoring his own organisation’s policy to cut climate-wrecking carbon emissions.

In reply, however, WICS says that it seeks to ensure “maximum cost and time efficiency” in travel in line with its own policies. It insists it is “committed to conducting our activities in a carbon neutral way”.

According to WICS annual reports, its carbon dioxide emissions from transport and travel have risen from 28 tonnes in 2014-15 to 92 tonnes in 2018-19. Emissions peaked at 108 tonnes in 2017-18.

The trebling of travel emissions caused overall carbon emissions from WICS – including energy, waste and water – to nearly double from 66 tonnes in 2014-15 to 123 tonnes in 2018-19.

Climate pollution by the Water Industry Commission for Scotland

YearCarbon dioxide emissions from transport and travel (tonnes)Total carbon dioxide emissions (tonnes)
Source: Water Industry Commissioner for Scotland annual reports

A spreadsheet released under freedom of information law revealed that Sutherland and his staff have taken 100 domestic and 122 international flights, as part of 70 journeys by air to meetings between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2020. WICS said that “several” flights referred to “more than one person”.

Forty-two of the flights were to and from Edinburgh or Glasgow and London airports, without international connections. There were also long haul flights to Sydney, Adelaide, Auckland, Tokyo, Cape Town, Mexico City, Delhi and Philadelphia, as reported by the Daily Record.

The total cost of the flights was £95,860. The environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham said in September 2020 that WICS had paid £1,780 to offset its air travel emissions “which was equivalent to 138 trees being planted in Scotland”.

Scottish Government internal guidance on travel published by The Ferret in September 2019 urged staff to “avoid domestic air travel where trains are available”. It pointed out that carbon emissions from train journeys were about a quarter of those from plane journeys.

The finance secretary, Kate Forbes, told MSPs in July that “the presumed method of travel for staff going to London on official business is rail”. Guidance to public bodies urged cuts in travel emissions but agencies set their own policy for flights, she said.

Forbes also said in August that carbon offsetting could be an important way of mobilising private investment “as long as offsetting projects for carbon credits are in addition to action to reduce emissions, rather than instead of it”.

Sutherland has been strongly criticised by Scottish Labour’s finance spokesperson, Jackie Baillie MSP. She has asked a series of parliamentary questions about his flying.

“The jet setting habits of the WICS chief executive are in direct contradiction to the Scottish Government’s policy to reduce emissions,” she told The Ferret.

The frequency of Sutherland’s overseas trips were “highly questionable”, she argued. “There really is no excuse for the number of shuttle flights taken between Scotland and London,” she said.
“Not only are these flights deeply damaging to the environment, they come with a huge price tag at a time when water charges are at an all-time high.”

Baillie accused ministers of endorsing WICS flying instead of condemning it. She called on the Scottish Government to set a good example in the run-up to the world climate summit, which is now due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021.
“Instead, ministers seem to be endorsing practises that support the doubling of emissions through the regular and extravagant use of air travel, against their own policy,” she added.
“The Scottish Government and its many agencies, of which WICS is one, really must start to practise what they preach when it comes to reducing emissions and slowing down climate change.”

The Scottish Government and its many agencies, of which WICS is one, really must start to practise what they preach when it comes to reducing emissions and slowing down climate change.

Jackie Ballie MSP

Like all public bodies, WICS is required by law to “contribute to carbon emissions reduction”. According to its last annual report for 2018-19, its staff travel policy “guides employees to make the most economic and efficient decisions relating to business travel”.

The transport campaign group, Transform Scotland, attacked WICS for failing to fulfil its legal duty. “It’s simple hypocrisy to see this organisation treble its emissions from transport, said the group’s director, Colin Howden.

“With transport the largest of source of emissions, and aviation the most polluting form of transport, it’s impossible to ramp up one’s transport emissions while posing as being climate-friendly.”

Howden added: “It’s long overdue for Scottish ministers to make an example of the leaders of those public bodies who continue to flout their responsibilities. Failing to do so discredits their own climate commitments.”

Friends for the Earth Scotland called on WICS staff to take the train to London. “WICS seems not to have got the message that flying is particularly bad for the environment,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“With a declared climate emergency, there is no excuse for continued high levels of domestic flying, let alone increasing these levels as the WICS has done.”

The Water Industry Commission for Scotland argued there was no “specific guidance” from the Scottish Government on travel. “However, all travel undertaken by our staff is in line with our own policies and procedures,” WICS said in a statement issued to The Ferret.

“While our staff regularly travel by train, we do seek to ensure maximum cost and time efficiency in our mode of travel. Our policies are reviewed regularly to ensure they meet business need and are consistent with Scottish Government guidance.”

WICS was “committed to conducting our activities in a carbon neutral way” and “offsets its carbon footprint by contributing to woodland being planted in Scotland”, the statement added.

“We will continue to seek out ways to reduce the carbon impact of our activities, whilst delivering on our duties as effectively as possible.”

WICS also pointed out that it was supporting the Scottish Government’s “hydro nation” initiative for water resources “to bring the maximum benefit to the Scottish economy”.

It said: “We help water industry stakeholders across Europe and internationally to build capacity in economic regulation and water sector governance. This work has required our staff to undertake regular international travel.”

The work had brought “considerable benefit” to Scottish customers, WICS stated. “The revenue generated from this work makes a significant contribution to our overheads,” it said.

“In the past five years, WICS has returned £250,000 to Scottish Water and £250,000 to licensed providers. This is money that would otherwise have had ultimately to come from customers in higher bills.”
The Scottish Government stressed that it took its responsibility for sustainable travel “very seriously”.

A government spokesperson said: “It is the responsibility of all public agencies, including WICS, to determine their own travel policies.

“The Scottish Government expects everyone to play their part in helping to address the climate emergency and expects the commission to keep its travel policies under review.”

Cover image thanks to iStock/mauricallari.

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