Inadequate climate action helped fuel Scotland’s political turmoil: here’s how credibility can be rebuilt

Jamie Livingstone Climate Change, In the news, Influencing

Ditching a supposedly legally binding emissions reduction target helped to drive Scotland’s First Minister out of office. Whoever is in charge next must rekindle the leadership that, just two years ago, saw Scotland become the first nation to commit funds to address losses and damages caused by climate change, says Jamie Livingstone.

Hadija Jillo (left) walks with others to get water in northern Kenya, which has now been hit by floods. (picture: Muiru Mbuthia/Oxfam)

A storm has engulfed Scottish politics, sinking the political career of the First Minister.

Humza Yousaf’s resignation came as little surprise after he unceremoniously ended the power-sharing agreement between his own Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Greens last week.

While multiple factors contributed to Mr Yousaf’s decision, the delivery of robust climate action was core to the deal, which gave the Scottish Government a majority within the Scottish Parliament.

His Government’s recent decision to axe the legally binding climate target of slashing emissions by 75% by 2030 had angered the Scottish Greens, helping push the deal towards breaking point.

Ditching this target and simultaneously announcing plans to remove annual targets is a breach of trust with the people of Scotland and one that tarnishes Scotland’s reputation on the global stage. Tearing up a key page of Scotland’s climate rule book stands in stark opposition to the ‘ratchet mechanism’ in the global Paris Agreement that requires countries to accelerate their climate ambition every five years.  

So, from the political ruins, how can the next First Minister rebuild Scotland’s global climate leadership?

The human cost of climate inaction

The political turmoil in Scotland will matter little to Hadija Jillo in northern Kenya. After years of devastating drought, her world has been turned upside down by floods that tore through her town, sweeping away her home, as well as her community’s school and hospital.

As the waters rose, Hadija fled with her family while the village’s elderly people were carried to safety on donkeys. Not everyone made it.

The stark reality is that the collective inaction of rich, polluting nations – like Scotland – isn’t merely shameful, it’s lethal. With each fraction of a degree of warming, the stakes rise.

The suffering endured by Hadija and her community, and the recent catastrophic heatwave in West Africa, deemed ‘impossible’ without climate change, are a harrowing testament to this truth.

Scotland’s emissions may make up just 0.1% of the global total, but every megaton of carbon dioxide matters, and history shows that small nations can be powerful agents of change.

Whatever happened to Scotland, the climate leader?

A little over two years ago, during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland showed genuine world leadership as the first government in the world to commit money to addressing the irreversible impacts of climate change. 

Momentum grew, and last November, a new global Loss and Damage Fund was created.

The Scottish Government has sought to boost understanding about how the new Fund can deliver tangible benefits for communities in low-income and climate vulnerable nations.

Oxfam is proud to have received funding to work with communities, like Hadija’s, in northern Kenya, where repeat droughts and floods, have damaged infrastructure, destroyed livelihoods, and fuelled conflict.

But it’s impossible to ignore the incoherence of Scotland providing much-needed funding to clean up the mess of climate change, while simultaneously failing to reduce our emissions at scale and speed.

Yes the target was tough – but ditching it sends the wrong signal

Scotland’s 2030 target was always stretching, but it was an important statement of political intent, one that was meant to drive sustained and deep action that simply hasn’t materialised.

While we’ve seen a major success in decarbonising electricity production in Scotland, that has yet to been replicated in the way we heat our homes, the way we travel, and how we farm and use the land.

There have been some major distractions, like Covid-19. But you can’t press snooze on the climate crisis.

If we had strained every sinew to reduce emissions and still fallen short of the 2030 target, then we could at least have said that we’d tried our best. But we haven’t, so we can’t.

Even when the warning lights were flashing, with eight out of 12 annual targets missed, the significance was too often downplayed in favour of celebrating that Scotland has already halved emissions since 1990.

Resting on our laurels is a luxury we simply cannot afford.

Inaction and blocking at Holyrood and Westminster

The bleak truth is that the Scottish Government has dilly-dallied on actions to reduce emissions, even though a strong majority of the public back the drive towards net zero and a cross-party approach to climate policy.

No party at Holyrood can escape criticism. Too often they’ve acted to hinder rather than hasten progress: supporting the long-term goal but opposing the means of delivering it. That must end.

Politicians at Westminster also cast a long shadow: the Chief Executive of the Climate Change Committee rightly criticised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for overseeing dwindling climate ambition and “setting us back” on climate change. The UK Labour Party has also back-pedalled on green investment plans.

Scotland is at a climate crossroads

Of course, axing the 2030 target won’t mean climate action in Scotland will come to a screeching stop: we’re told the target of being net zero by 2045, five years earlier than the rest of the UK, will remain in law. But without immediate action, and rebuilt trust, we risk hearing the same excuses a decade from now.

Scottish Ministers appeared to recognise this when they published an ‘ambitious new package’ of climate measures. But appearances can be deceiving: in fact, we’ve heard many of these promises before.

Take the commitment to develop a new integrated ticketing system across all modes of public transport, a step first announced 12 years ago, yet still not implemented.

The urgent action we need now: on transport, heating and greener land use

Announcing recycled commitments and route maps to future delivery, simply lays bare the Government’s inaction to date and falls significantly short of the common-sense changes needed, including:

  • Ambitious action to make public transport better and cheaper and walking and cycling easier.
  • Greener farms and land use, incentivised by taxes and compelled by regulation.

Scotland’s climate coalition, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland has set out a manifesto packed with policies.  

Whoever becomes next First Minister cannot allow misplaced fears of a political backlash – and a lack of funding – to continue to constrain action. They must instead quickly review and strengthen the Scottish Government’s new package of measures.

There’s no denying that accelerated action carries a hefty upfront price tag, with the bill for the transition to net zero forecast to cost the Scottish Government, on average, more than £1.1 billion more per year – but that’s just 1.9% of the existing £59 billion annual budget.

Investing early will make the economy more productive and, if coupled with global action, cut the cost of clean ups, like that needed in Brechin after Storm Babet. Smart spending on things such as energy-efficient homes and active travel aren’t just eco-friendly choices; they’re economic and health no brainers.

Tax polluters and the better off to accelerate change

Of course, maximising the impact of existing public spending is critical, but new resources will be needed, so we need to use the UK and Scottish tax systems to raise the money needed to invest, while protecting the worst off and incentivising polluters to clean up their acts. 

Oxfam has shown how UK-wide fair taxes on the biggest polluters – including fossil fuel companies – and the wealthiest, could have raised up to £23bn last year, a share of which would have come to Scotland.

The new First Minister should also use the Scottish Government’s planned tax strategy refresh to tackle blatant injustices, such as private jet use; its long-planned Air Departure Tax has yet to leave the terminal, far less be ready for take-off.

Welcome but tepid commitments to “consult” on taxing landowners who fail to reduce emissions from their land and to “consider” incentivising greener businesses through Non-Domestic Rates aren’t enough.

As the soon-to-be former First Minister, rightly, said: “The time for talking is over; what we need now is action.”

The litmus test for his successor won’t just be the strength of the actions they now take, but whether millions of lives such as Hadija’s are saved, or shattered, in the future.


Jamie Livingstone

Jamie Livingstone is Head of Oxfam Scotland