Issue 5 Online Extra: Scotland can take the lead on climate change by James Curran

This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Five: Doomsday Edition which you can download here.

Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in May 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.

At the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), we have made climate change our business. We recognise that climate change is the single greatest threat to the future of the planet’s ecosystems, with significant social and economic consequences for humankind.

Yet the issue of climate change remains surrounded by so much politics, so much sensitivity, so much challenge and questioning. In some ways, it’s not surprising: when confronting difficult and contentious issues that impact significantly on our lives, science has a long history of being undermined. We need only to think of the challenge that was mounted to undermine the science behind the damage that lead in petrol would do to us, the damage that asbestos might do to us, the damage that DDT was doing.

The fact is that climate change is here and now and is already creating profound changes to the planet we live on. Humankind can adapt to most of those changes – but nature can’t adapt to the speed at which climate change is progressing. We are already beginning to see impacts on nature: damage to insects which pollinate our crops, for example; damage caused by the destruction and erosion of soils in uplands; diseases impacting on forests and other crops. Quite rapidly, and increasingly in the future, we’ll see damage to our infrastructure and ecosystem services, and because of mass migration and conflicts over access to water resources, we’ll see impacts on our food supply and on global security.

So what are we doing about it?

Scotland is recognised as having the most ambitious climate change legislation in the world. The Climate Change (Scotland) 2009 Act aims for a 42% reduction in the nation’s carbon emissions by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050. Those targets are soundly based on science, not plucked out of the air or invented for political reasons. As a science and evidence-based organisation, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency needs to make sure we help Scotland reach them.

SEPA has a commitment to help Scotland achieve sustainable economic growth. We have particular strength in our environmental science knowledge base and through our regulatory tools that allow us to intervene in ways that other public bodies can’t. We work with businesses to encourage and often require them to use more efficient technology, more efficient processes, to reduce their energy, to reduce their consumption of natural resources. As part of our commitment to Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan, we also strongly advocate the development of a circular economy which continually reuses materials rather than drawing fresh new resources out of the environment.

Ultimately, improving Scotland’s environmental performance requires a partnership approach. The Climate Change Act places duties on all public bodies to support a reduction in carbon emissions, to support climate change adaptation and to discharge our public service in the most sustainable way we can. We work closely with the Scottish Government and other public bodies – such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, Zero Waste Scotland and Historic Scotland – so that we all do it together. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, SEPA has struggled with meeting some of its own, very stretching, carbon reduction commitments. But that has only served to make us redouble our efforts towards meeting Scotland’s targets.

With its ambitious climate change legislation already in place, I’m optimistic about what Scotland can achieve. It important for us to meet our climate change targets, to demonstrate that it’s possible for a country like ours to play a full part in helping the world to address the challenges that face us and to embrace the opportunities for creativity and innovation that await us.

By Professor James Curran MBE, Chief Executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency

James Curran has over three decades extensive of experience in many aspects of environmental science and regulation. He has been a consultant to the Scottish Office and with SEPA he has been Head of Science, Head of Environmental Strategy, Director of Science and Strategy and, since 2011, Chief Executive. In 2007, James was awarded MBE for services to the environment.

You can read ‘Our Climate Challenge’, SEPA’s four year plan for tackling climate change here.


Issue Seven: The New Future Issue (Annual Special Edition)
Issue Six: The Autism Issue
Issue Five: The Doomsday Edition (Extreme Weather Special)
Issue Four: The Issue We’re All Talking About (Guest Edited by the actress Jodhi May)
Issue Three: Has Obama been corrupted by the machine?
Issue Two: IQ VS EQ – Is Emotional Intelligence what you need to succeed in the digital age?
Issue One: Downwardly Mobile? Will the next generation find it harder to reach the next level?

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