Climate change

Devolution, climate change and the climate emergency

Published: 8 August 2019

Dr Antje Brown of St Andrew’s University reflects on the Scottish Government’s climate change agenda at a time of climate emergency. She argues that like in 2009, the conditions are right for ambitious action on climate change.

2019 is an important year for Scotland’s climate change policy.  This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, one of the most ambitious and innovative legal acts encompassing a range of far-reaching targets. It will also see the introduction of an even tighter successor of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act.  Introduced as a Climate Change Bill in May 2018, the forthcoming Act is destined to move beyond its predecessor’s ambitions. The timing for this Act in view of the current public mood (as seen demonstrated by Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes) could not be better. 

Climate change involves polycentric decision making at several levels of governance and with legal devolution of 1999, Scotland shares policy making powers with Westminster and indeed the EU (for the time being). While the UK level overviews the meeting of international obligations such as the Paris Accord, Scottish Parliament enjoys devolved powers to set climate targets and flesh out climate strategies. Since 1999, Scotland has developed a distinct, ambitious and even pioneering approach towards tackling climate change. What is noticeable about Scotland at the moment is that the Scottish Government is utilising the current public mood as a facilitator which enables the Government in introducing a major and significant shift in policy by declaring a Climate Emergency. This is a significant step, not just in terms of choice of words and framing of the climate discourse but also in terms of commitments made in the legislation. The emergency declaration brings with it a number of policy targets such as becoming a net-zero carbon country by 2045 as well as some notable U-turns such as the scrapping of the air tax allowance for Scottish airports which the Government had previously been reluctant to reverse.

From a researcher’s perspective, the recent developments are interesting in so far as they confirm the conceptual notion of contextual windows of opportunity that can open up to allow for policy innovation and meaningful policy shift. To illustrate this policy opportunism, we can again point to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act of 2009: back then, this innovative collection of policy ambitions was adopted at an opportune time when conditions, coalitions and public opinion were just right to push ahead with the Act. As confirmed recently to me and a group of students during a guest talk, a prominent environmental NGO representative shared the view that stakeholders involved during the consultation and framing of the 2009 Act knew that this was a significant if not historical moment in time to shift Scottish policy in the right direction. 

When looking at the climate change discourses of 2009 and 2019, we may conclude that the Scottish political system is particularly susceptible to progressive environmental policies whenever factors and policy actors are favourable. These go beyond a strictly environmental or climate change agenda, and include political considerations. The latter include mobilisation around national identity which spurs a desire to outpace Westminster in ambition as well as institutional and political structures within Scotland which allow for an arguably closer and effective engagement between policy-makers and stakeholders in Scotland. 

However, Scotland may struggle to reach the ambition targets set by the government. Looking at the 2016-2017 period, while greenhouse gas emissions decreased, it did not meet its annual target.  There are questions over how these performances are defined and quantified and one could also argue that a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions is better than no decrease at all. 

In any case, the Scottish Government must be careful not to fall into an expectation-implementation gap and must maintain this momentum. They will be aided in doing so by the engagement of actors and activists and the greater public demand for action. 

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