When RSGS was founded back in 1884, atmospheric CO2 sat at around 292 parts per million (ppm). At that time it was already the highest concentration of atmospheric CO2 in human experience. By the time I was born it was sitting at around 321ppm and by the time my son was born it had increased again, to 371ppm. As the eyes of the world look to COP26 for action on this all-encompassing issue, it is now over 415ppm and rising.
We ever more urgently need to embrace the solutions to this issue and enact them at pace. To do so would not only create great scope for ingenuity, and a clear path of opportunity, but it would move much of the narrative around this difficult issue, and inject more optimism, energy, enthusiasm and innovation.
It may not feel like it, but, over the past decade or more, the UK has been the most ambitious of the G7 countries and a strong advocate within the EU. Some will see this as a reason to celebrate, others perhaps to despair, but in 2008, Westminster created some of the first legislation to establish a 2020 target of a 34 per cent reduction in emissions. In 2009, Scotland took this further, in part in response to the largest civil society coalition ever formed (Stop Climate Chaos Scotland). As Chair, I helped bring together around 60 organisations, from churches, to unions, to humanitarian NGOs and community groups, representing around two million people, to push for the most ambitious legislation to date. In the end there was much to celebrate in the Climate Change Scotland Act 2009, but it was the headline target of 42 per cent reductions which set the tone for urgency, and caused palpitations among civil servants for being ‘seemingly’ impossible.
The minister for finance and infrastructure, John Swinney MSP, said after the Stage 3 debate: ‘Many of the NGOs... have worked together under the Stop Climate Chaos banner to send to Parliament and the people of this country a coherent and co-ordinated message that we should consider and, frankly, be inspired by... we can rightly and justifiably claim that the Scottish Parliament will today pass world-leading legislation on climate change.’
While Scotland can in no way claim to have done enough – nobody has – it can justifiably claim some leadership. In 2013, responding to SCCS, the Scottish Government launched the first Climate Justice Fund to support adaptation in the poorest, most vulnerable countries. Because of the 2009 Act, day to day commitments cascaded through to many in the public and private sector. This might be its greatest legacy – empowering the many people who want to drive sustainability to actually begin to do so. It established a high-level business forum to drive action (the 2020 group) and the legislation empowered people to act.
Despite reservations, Scotland hit its 42 per cent target six years early, and in 2019 it adopted new, more challenging targets – of 75 per cent reductions in emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2045. We still have much to do, and the clock is ticking, but as governments the world over begin to take more purposeful and necessary steps, Scotland is keen to share its expertise and experience, and we hope that others may draw some inspiration from our climate journey to date.