Climate Change

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:29 pm on 28th May 2008.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 4:29 pm, 28th May 2008

In a climate of consultation fatigue, I join the minister, Patrick Harvie and others in paying tribute to the more than 21,000 people who took the time to respond to the Government's consultation on its climate change bill. It amply illustrates the interest in and importance of the issue. As my colleagues have indicated, the Scottish Liberal Democrats welcome the consultation and the spirit of consensus. I agree with Alex Johnstone that this afternoon's debate has provided a useful opportunity for members to contribute to the process.

However, although we welcome the proposed bill and the consultation, we share with many others a concern about the Scottish ministers' determination to walk the talk in tackling climate change. That appears to be part of a growing concern about the Government's approach on a range of issues.

Earlier this afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth treated the Parliament to a rerun of the statement that he originally delivered at Heriot-Watt University last week on the shambolic Scottish futures trust. In describing an earlier performance by Mr Salmond on the same topic, Hamish McDonnell of The Scotsman stated:

"Ministers are slowly starting to find out the difference between the superficial and the easy—the populist issues—and the deeper, detailed and complicated policies which make a long term difference—the weighty issues."

That provides a perfect illustration of the problems that ministers face on the proposed bill.

Members should be in no doubt that, as David Stewart said, the proposed bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we will see not only in the Parliament but in our lifetimes. It presents a unique opportunity to maintain Scotland's leadership within the UK and, notwithstanding Bill Wilson's rant about independence, will rightly be the focus of international attention, as Scottish Environment LINK made clear.

The proposed bill's headline target of an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 is ambitious, correct and achievable. Sadly, there is little evidence yet of how the Government will actually achieve it. For example, achieving the target will require annual reductions of 3 per cent, yet the Government U-turned on its earlier commitment to binding annual targets. That move has understandably been condemned across the environmental community as a betrayal of previous Scottish National Party commitments—an echo, perhaps, of the Scottish futures trust and other flagship policies.

The lack of binding annual targets and interim targets to map out what David Stewart called a reasonable trajectory will reduce the ability of the Government, public agencies and others to respond to events. I certainly do not advocate digging up the roots every year for an examination that could sidetrack Government from fulfilling its longer-term objectives but, as recent increases in fuel costs have demonstrated, predicting what will happen in the future is a notoriously difficult business. Not only that, but the Royal Society of Chemistry makes the valid point that the science of climate change is evolving rapidly and it is vital that flexibility remains to take account of the latest developments.

In other words, the Government needs to be ready to adapt and respond; it also needs to be accountable. Not only has it ditched its commitment to annual targets, but it is proposing five-yearly targets instead. Given the Parliament's four-year electoral cycle, that appears to be a brazen example of saying "Not in my term of office." That will do nothing for accountability and risks undermining the Government's ability to stay the course and drive the behavioural changes to which Des McNulty, Rob Gibson and others referred.

The lack of detail is a source of serious concern. In February, Stewart Stevenson admitted to the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee that the Government had

"not actually proposed any measures in the consultation".—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 5 February 2008; c 427.]

Consultations are helpful in eliciting a wide variety of views from expert, independent and other sources, but they should not be an excuse to abdicate responsibility for setting out a stall—not only a vision, but an understanding of how that vision is to be achieved. Without detail, it is not a vision; it is a fantasy.

A number of members have rightly pointed out the need for any emissions policy to be part of a cross-cutting approach. As the former future President of the United States, Al Gore, once said, it is not a magic bullet that is needed, but magic buckshot.

An energy strategy is key to achieving our objectives. In that context, it is scarcely credible that, as we approach June 2008, the Government has yet to propose a comprehensive and coherent energy strategy. In fact, although it has promised such a strategy since last summer, it is entirely possible that we will get to the summer recess this year still none the wiser about its overall intentions for meeting Scotland's future energy needs. In fact, we were told by sources earlier this year that the overall strategy had been downgraded to an overview. Since then, even that appears to have been shelved and we are being told to expect a renewable energy action plan.

Like many others, I dutifully made my way to Aberdeen last week for the all-energy conference. The great, the good and the downright curious were gathered. The minister, Jim Mather, was allocated his slot and we all sat back to be wowed by the renewable energy action plan. Never have so many been so underwhelmed by so few. To call it a damp squib would be to seriously understate the moistness of squibs. It was a sad anticlimax at a time when, in my constituency, OpenHydro successfully connected the first tidal device to the national grid in the UK.

The fact that the Government has undertaken the consultation is welcome. The opportunity for Parliament to discuss the issues that it raises is also positive. As Alison McInnes said, it is to be hoped that the bill that is planned for the autumn will not slip further. However, there remain serious gaps in the approach that ministers have set out and serious concerns about their commitment—and, indeed, ability—to deliver. I hope that the minister and Government will take on board the views that have been expressed today and by a wide range of interested and expert bodies. If they do, there is still every likelihood that the proposed bill will be able to help deliver the change that we all wish to take place.