Duncan McLaren reviews today’s Scottish Government budget and new climate change plans.

Today in Holyrood pretty much all eyes were on the Scottish Government’s budget.

Would John Swinney pull off a difficult balancing trick between Westminster cuts and Scottish aspirations?

Would the other parties make him look manipulative for publishing just a one year budget, rather than a multi-year outlook, with an election coming?

Would anyone other than the Greens complain about the ludicrous waste of hundreds of millions on an unnecessary new bridge?

Politically the budget may yet prove another success for the minority SNP Government, but environmentally it was probably the worst this Government has proposed, despite the claim that delivering climate policy was one of three key objectives alongside creating jobs and protecting front-line services.

Why do I say that?

Capital spending on roads up, and on rail down.

Spending on home insulation cut.

Only a tiny fraction of the new renewables infrastructure fund released.

A few million extra for active transport, but still less than 1% of the travel budget for the one mode of travel we almost all use: walking.

Extra money for the climate challenge fund, but the same amount taken away from the sustainable action fund.

And even initial thinking on green tax reform, well-being indicators or a just transition nowhere in evidence.

But the Budget wasn’t the only business of the day. There were two other environmentally important reports published by the Government today. One on power generation, which I hope to write about tomorrow, and one on the Government’s proposals for tackling climate change.

The ‘Report on policies and proposals’ (RPP) is probably the single most important document to arise from the Climate Change Act last year. It sets out how the Government intends to deliver on its targets and sets the benchmark against which they will have to raise effort if they fail to deliver cuts in future years. It has been published for 60 days of parliamentary consultation alongside the Budget

While there are some important improvements needed, of which more later – in the round the draft RPP takes a serious approach and provides a good basis for progress.

Implementing all the existing policies and potential new measures together, would get close to delivering our annual and 2020 targets – as finally approved by Parliament in September – even if the EU does not step up to a higher target (which would increase the contribution we could expect from the European emissions trading scheme (ETS)).

Such an increase is not in Scotland’s control, and anyway, the ETS has serious shortcomings as a fair and effective policy tool, so its important to show that Scotland can manage without relying on more European action. The Labour Party seem to agree, criticising the RPP for apparently relying on an uplift in the ETS.

And if Europe does eventually step up, and deliver real additional cuts, that would help Scotland exceed its targets and come closer to a genuinely fair and safe cumulative emissions budget (the agreed targets still fall well short of such a goal, even though they comply with the letter of the Act only because the Climate Change Committee failed to provide timely advice on what a fair and safe cumulative budget would look like).

If all the proposals in the RPP were formally adopted, as well as the policies, there would be enough potential to come close to the 2020 target with effective implementation. Just two changes would be needed to get there.

First to raise ambition on improving the energy efficiency of homes, and second to bite the bullet on measures to raise the costs of car parking. Each could save more than an additional 300,000 tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020.

The car parking measures – for on street and workplace parking – were apparently considered by civil servants, but rejected by Ministers. They are particularly important because they help multiply up the effectiveness of other transport measures such as travel planning, or support for active transport.

More effort in improving housing would be a big win for health and equity too, paying back far more than it costs, in lower household bills. But Ministers seem to be afraid of the short term costs, even though evidence suggests a more ambitious universal street by street scheme could be delivered at a much higher cost benefit ratio than current plans.

If they really can’t afford it (not especially plausible when they can still afford hundreds of millions for road-building), they could take a regulatory approach, requiring minimum standards to be met when a home is sold or let. That would draw in private funding to deliver the same lower bills, and would require government funds only for a safety net for those who could not even borrow to make improvements. But they fear public opposition.

The same fear of backlash against regulation is undermining proposals in other parts of the RPP, such as agriculture and waste.

It’s important that we use policy tools that are effective and efficient, rather than being guided by ideology. Sadly resistance to regulation risks making policies less effective and less fair.

In the same spirit Ministers need to insist that local authorities pull their weight, rather than letting COSLA claim it will cost too much to deliver the 42% target.

As well as committing Ministers to using the powers and influence they do have, the final RPP might win wider cross party support more

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easily if it concentrated less on the powers that remain with Westminster.

Yes, Scotland deserves and needs more devolved powers, especially in areas like energy and finance. And additional powers might allow us to deliver even more of the associated health and social benefits from cutting emissions. But this report shows we can deliver our climate targets on existing powers, so let’s make sure we are using those appropriately too.

There are two further specific changes we would make to the RPP, given a free hand. That would be to rely much less heavily on biofuels in transport, given all the evidence that suggests they don’t actually save emissions, but increase them overseas where land is taken for biofuel production. In the RPP biofuels therefore account for an illusory saving of around half a million tonnes a year.

Fortunately with an aggressive programme of peatland restoration, we could save almost five times that amount, while protecting biodiversity and improving water quality.

Far from it being true – as COSLA scaremongering would have it – that Scotland can’t afford to deliver its climate targets, the opposite is actually the case: we can’t afford not to.

Done the right way, climate mitigation is a powerful tool to support health improvement, social equity, environmental quality and job creation.

We need to take the choices now that should allow us to maximise the those benefits.

All MSPs need to pull together to improve the RPP, and ensure that all its policies and proposals are properly funded in the final Budget.

That way we can deliver the best outcomes for Scotland and for those around the world watching our example.