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Is the Scottish Government leading the world on climate change?

Nicola Sturgeon claims the Scottish Government are leading the world on climate change - but is she right?

The Claim:

“It’s worth being clear about the scale of our ambition.

The targets in the Climate Change Bill for 2020, 2030 and 2040 are the most stringent statutory targets anywhere in the world - without exception.


And our 2050 target is the most ambitious anywhere in the world that is based solely on domestic actions, rather than relying on paying other countries to reduce emissions for us.

We recognise that the transition to a low carbon economy is, first and foremost, an overwhelming moral imperative - but it is also a huge economic opportunity. 


And we are – by any reasonable benchmark – a global leader in living up to our international obligations.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, 4th September 2018


The Scottish Government has returned to Holyrood with a Programme for Government containing twelve bills, ranging from the Scottish National Investment Bank to the South of Scotland Enterprise Agency.

Among the usual rhetoric, virtue-signalling and ‘jam tomorrow’, there were some pledges of real substance which will find favour across the political divide, such as more money for mental health and extra money for carers.

But, the hard reality of minority government means she will need the support of one of the other parties if she is to pass these bills - and that means reforging the links with her old friends in the Yes campaign, Patrick Harvie and the Scottish Greens.

So it was no surprise to see the First Minister getting her picture taken with an electric car and announcing a ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds, but is the Scottish Government really leading the way on climate change?

The facts

  • Between 1990-2016, greenhouse gas emissions have halved (49 per cent) in Scotland. This compares favorably to the UK (39 per cent) and the EU (24 per cent). The only EU countries to outperform us are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania.

  • Currently our output is 8.6 million tones of carbon dioxide equivalent. This is less than half a per cent of China’s output, which is expected to peak at 12 gigatonnes.

  • The Climate Change Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament aims to reduce emissions by 90 per cent by 2050.

  • A number of countries - including France, Sweden, New Zealand, Bhutan, Iceland - have now committed to a ‘net-zero’ emission target. The Scottish Government has said it will move towards this target ‘as soon as we credibly can’.

  • Both the Greens and Scottish Labour have called on the Scottish Government to increase it targets.

What the experts say


Tom Ballantine, Chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland 


“It’s hugely disappointing that the Scottish Government has failed to live up to its own rhetoric on global climate change leadership, by failing to set a net zero emissions target in the Climate Change Bill published today.

The Government claims Scotland will be one of the first countries to achieve zero emissions, but the Bill does not commit to that. It sets a target of only a 90 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. 

By failing to ally with the global momentum towards zero emissions, led by countries like France, Sweden and New Zealand, Scotland is missing a huge opportunity to end its contribution to climate change in a generation, attract clean investment and retain its position as a leader on the global stage.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Director Dr Richard Dixon


“We were looking for a commitment from Nicola Sturgeon to aim higher and improve the targets in the draft climate bill. Sadly, without this Scotland cannot claim to be an international climate leader.

It is deeply disappointing that there is continued support to prolong the climate-wrecking oil industry. Any support relating to the North Sea should be directed towards helping businesses and workers transition from high-carbon to low-carbon industries, not prolonging extraction of oil. Climate leaders are helping their nations to move beyond fossil fuels rather drilling for every last drop.

The continued commitment to reduce, and ultimately abolish, Air Departure Tax is irresponsible in the face of climate change, and will encourage more people to take unnecessary short-haul flights and further undermine national rail services.”

Patrick Harvie MSP

“The First Minister failed to explain why her government wants to slow down action on climate emissions. This weak decision shows that the SNP must once again be forced beyond its comfort zone, and Greens will work across parliament and with the wider climate movement to do just that.

It takes some nerve for the government to publish a bill, the first section of which is titled 'net-zero emissions target' but which then utterly fails to set a net-zero target and actually proposes slower emissions for the next twenty years than we’ve achieved in the last ten. The only way Scotland can genuinely lead the way is if we increase our ambition, set a net-zero target and drive innovation in jobs, housing and transport.

The First Minister was keen to make comparisons with other countries, and in reality it’s clear that in countries like Sweden, New Zealand and Iceland, Greens in government are already setting net-zero targets well ahead of Scotland. 

"It’s time to step up the pace on climate change, and the Scottish Greens will once again strive for a bolder Holyrood and a greener Scotland."

Scotland in Union Fact Check Conclusion:

There can be no doubt of Scotland’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change.


As a country rich with renewables, we have been able to progress to a low-carbon future faster than many of our European and international rivals. Yet there is no doubt our rhetoric on climate change is not always matched by Scottish Government policy - cuts to airport duty, commitment to North Sea oil and gas, falling behind Westminster on environmentally-friendly agriculture reform and Nicola Sturgeon - pushed by Patrick Harvie and his MSPs whose support she needs - continues to talk big on a Greener Scotland and it was again a big focus of this year’s Programme for Government. Many of the announcements will find consensus across the political divide. 

Ultimately, her failure to match other countries on the net-zero emissions pledge means the Scottish environmental lobby has stripped her of the self-proclaimed title as world leader on climate change.


Are we leading the world on climate change?

Failure to tackle airport duty and join other countries supporting a net-zero emissions pledge has stripped her of the self-proclaimed title as world leader on Climate Change



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