Scotland’s net zero targets are the driving force of our domestic climate policy. We need to transform our energy and transport systems to cut our national emissions to zero by 2045. This is a huge and necessary task and if it’s successful it will greatly reduce Scotland’s environmental impact. However, there is a loophole in this plan which means Scotland is not taking responsibility for its true global climate change impact.

The impact of imported products

In our globalised economy, a product, like a mobile phone for example, might be designed in the USA, made with material from China, sold to consumers in Scotland and recycled in the EU. When each country only counts those emissions which occur within their geographic borders, the country where the materials were extracted, in this example, China, will be assigned the majority of the emissions associated with the mobile phone. Material extraction is the most carbon intensive stage of the life cycle of most products, but actions at other parts of the life cycle – design, consumption and disposal – have great potential to reduce the impact of the product as well.

In Scotland, the emissions from this material extraction are invisible to us, so policy has focused on things like electricity use which is included in our domestic targets. 

In fact, over half of the greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland’s consumption come from goods and services imported from other countries – and there are no policies designed to reduce this.

By ignoring the impact of imported goods, it is possible to meet our targets by buying more products from abroad, rather than cutting emissions in Scotland, which wouldn’t actually reduce our impact at all. In addition, the extraction of resources to make imported goods, and the environmental and social damage which is caused by this, is not factored into our policy plans. Scotland’s climate policies do not give any thought at all to the materials required to make them happen. 

Taking responsibility for our consumption

The solution is to make these materials and the greenhouse gas impacts associated with their extraction more visible. A Scottish target for reducing our global impact, as well as our domestic one, is the first step towards valuing these materials properly. The proposed circular economy law aims to reduce Scotland’s material consumption to sustainable levels. That is why Friends of the Earth Scotland is calling for consumption targets for both the material we use and the carbon footprint associated with it.

There are now several examples of consumption-based goals being adopted into policy making. In 2022, Sweden became the first country to declare it will set consumption-based targets. The Netherlands set a material-based target to become waste free by 2050. The European Parliament voted in 2021 to create science-based binding targets for material use and consumption footprinting.

Scotland’s material footprint was found to be double the sustainable limit when measured for the first time last year. As the Scottish Government is currently developing a circular economy law, it is a timely opportunity for Scotland to change this.

Increasing recycling, reuse and repair can mean materials cycle around our economy for longer, reducing the need to extract new materials from nature. Producers must be made to design products to last longer. We need a circular economy in Scotland to ensure we reduce our global climate impact, not just our domestic one.

Image credit: Moses Ceaser / CIFOR