We can move forward now: time for Scotland to act on climate change

COP24 logoLast weekend, the yearly climate change talks came to an end in Poland. Amid Brexit headlines, you may have missed the news: the world’s leaders agreed a new ‘rulebook’ for how countries will deliver on the promises made in the Paris Agreement in 2015. While this is certainly good news – as the EU Climate Commissioner said “we can move forward now” – the summit showed disturbing shifting geopolitics, with a growing bloc of influential countries blocking progress, spearheaded by the US, and including Brazil and Australia.

In this light, it is absolutely unacceptable that the Scottish Government are still dithering about setting a binding net-zero target for Scotland.

The latest IPCC report is crystal clear: we have just a dozen years to drastically curb global emissions, and by 2050 the total of every country’s emissions must be neutral – i.e. our forests, oceans, and soils must absorb any remaining emissions we might have at a planetary level. Failing that, millions of people will die or be forced to migrate, uncountable species will go extinct. To quote David Attenborough, we are facing “the collapse of our civilisations”.

As a rich country, with fantastic natural and technical resources, and an undeniable shared responsibility for the increased CO2 in our atmosphere, Scotland has an overwhelming moral duty to lead the way to ‘climate-neutrality.’ Yet, the draft Climate Bill only proposes 66% reductions by 2030 (only 15% more than what we have already achieved!) compared with 1990, and 90% by 2050. Why such spineless ambition?

The Scottish Government’s explanations have for a great part focused on food. According to the Cabinet Secretary, setting a net-zero target would threaten our food security and our rural economy.

  • “The total reduction of emissions in agriculture would mean, in effect, no food production”[1]
  • “In particular, committing to substantial further reductions [beyond 90%] in agricultural emissions would imply livestock farming, for both meat and dairy production, becoming unviable in Scotland.”[2]

This narrative is not only counter-productive, it is incoherent.


Creative Commons Flickr Jessica The Hun Reeder

A net-zero emissions target for Scotland does not mean ‘zero across the board’, it only means that we need to cut all the emissions we possibly can, and maintain and enhance our rich natural sinks – forests, peatlands, pastures, and agricultural soils – to compensate for the emissions that will remain. Some agricultural emissions will remain, of course, but they must be smaller than they currently are. What does it mean in practice?

First, it means the Government needs to provide long overdue leadership and support to help the farming sector cut its emissions. Most of our farmers can cut their footprint by 10 to 30% quite simply, by being better at their job. They will still be producing as much food, and will have more profitable businesses. That means an investment in knowledge exchange and continuing professional development, as well as a smart mix of regulation and incentives to deliver the necessary changes.

Second, we need to start thinking more fundamentally about how we use our land and how we build a more resilient rural economy. Not just for today and tomorrow, but for the next decades. Where are we going to plant the yearly 15,000 new hectares of woodland promised by the Government? How will we ensure this benefits the wider rural communities, not just land-owners and the forestry industry? Will some trees replace sheep? How do we reconcile ambitious – and necessary – tree planting targets with the need to use land to produce food?  These are only a few of the thorny and urgent questions we need to address as a country.

Cows and calves at Whitmuir Organic farm. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Cows and calves at Whitmuir Organic farm.
©Lorne Gill/SNH

Finally, our agriculture – just like our diets – will need to change. The rise of flexitarianism and veganism are giving us a clue as to what’s to come. More and more people are turning away from meat, because they want to reduce their environmental footprint, and they identify livestock as a key culprit. This is an extremely challenging environment for our farmers, for most of whom animal farming has been their life-long dedication and source of income.

The only winning strategy is to take the bull by the horns (forgive the pun). Scotland is well suited for livestock production, we have plenty of grass and water. So why do we use almost half of our scarce arable land to grow cereals to feed livestock? And why do we import soya from Latin America, where it is causing catastrophic deforestation and soil erosion, to feed our livestock?

Our farmers need to decisively prove and improve their green credentials. In collaboration with the Government and our excellent research institutes, they need to adopt best practice and innovate, to genuinely become the ‘greenest’ producers of meat and dairy. The competition is fierce: Ireland, Denmark and New Zealand have already embraced that path and they are eying our domestic and export markets.

The failure to respond to the double challenges of climate change and shifting consumer demand is a real threat to our agricultural sector. Taking decisive action to mitigate climate change, and building a strong and credible green brand for our livestock products is the only solution.

It is inexplicably timid and inconsistent of the Scottish Government to hide behind pretences that our agriculture cannot cope with action on climate change to delay setting a net-zero target. Climate change is the biggest challenge ever faced by our civilisation. With growing forces against us, it is paramount that Scotland demonstrates true leadership, not just in words, but in actions. We know how to get started, and we will learn more as we go, there is no time to waste.


Nourish is a membership organisation and our members are hugely important to our success. If you share our vision of what a healthy and sustainable food future looks like, please consider joining us as a member today.


We are working with Stop Climate Chaos Scotland to campaign for higher ambition, matched by action on climate change. We need your help! Can you please take a minute to email your MSP to ask them to push for a net-zero target by 2050 at the latest?


[1] Ministerial Statement: Scottish Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2016, 12 June 2018: http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=11595&mode=pdf

[2] Scottish Government, When To Set A Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions Target Year: Information and Analysis to support discussion of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill May 2018 https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/publication/2018/05/set-net-zero-greenhouse-gas-emissions-target-year-information-analysis/documents/00535763-pdf/00535763-pdf/govscot%3Adocument