What should be our target date for decarbonising our economy?
The current policy of the UK Government is that we should get there by 2050. The Scottish Government says 2045. Some groups want to go faster than this. Some want to go slower.
But what’s the problem with that question?
One of the weaknesses of a liberal democracy with regular election cycles is that it can be very difficult for politicians to make plans that will probably outlast their governments or their careers. On the other hand, it is all too easy to make a pledge spanning beyond the horizon of future elections, portraying the unknowable future as electable fact.
In short, it must be very tempting to pledge to do something by 2045 and then not actually start worrying about doing it until after the 2041 election.
When it comes to tackling climate change though, this is insufficient. We can’t pretend that we can conjure a solution and implement it in such a short time. However we go about it, it will take a huge amount of graft to re-engineer our entire economy, all of our utilities and our very way of life.
This was the basic conclusion of Common Weal’s latest project ‘Our Common Home – A Green New Deal For Scotland’. The time for setting targets about when to take action has passed. It’s time for the action itself.
To that end, we have developed a 25 year roadmap that will turn Scotland into a carbon-free nation. If we start now, we’ll be done by 2045. More importantly: if we want to be done by 2045 then we’ll have to start now.
Common Weal’s ‘Our Common Home’ plan might be the first fully costed, fully comprehensive Green New Deal plan anywhere in the world. Even the plans currently being floated by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are so far only dealing with more limited versions of bits of this plan. By adopting 'Our Common Home' policies, Scotland has both ability and opportunity to be a world leader on solving the most pressing issue of our time.
‘Our Common Home’ really does affect every part of Scottish life. It will expand on Scotland’s already impressive record of renewable electricity generation to become a 100% renewable electricity nation. It will also massively expand on Scotland’s so-far lagging record on renewable heat – less than 10% of heat (including electrical heating) in Scotland is generated via renewable sources.
To get this to 100% we could go down a market-led path whereby everyone has their gas or oil boiler replaced by an electric one or by a heat pump. This may result in a zero-carbon heating system, but turning gas customers into electricity customers without doing anything else will result in higher bills and more fuel poverty. And we’d still be living in cold, draughty homes.
So we need to insulate. New buildings are comparatively easy. We could simply change building regulations to mandate that all buildings are constructed to passive heating standards (a typical passive house can see heating bills of below £100 per year). This should be done immediately as every house built today that is not passive standard is a retrofit job for tomorrow.
And it is retrofitting that is the major challenge. We’re going to need to train a lot of joiners, plumbers and other construction workers to bring our existing stock up to standard (or as close as possible within the constraints of the building). The Green New Deal will super-charge the Scottish construction industry on a scale as large as that seen during the post-WWII construction boom, if not even more.
We’ll also need massive land reform to allow for reforesting to produce the wood we’ll need for this construction. Everything from timber for construction to cellulose for insulation. Right now, we import around 80% of our wood products. This is unacceptable for a country like Scotland, with its embarrassment of underused landmass and ample potential for a cornucopia of sustainable natural resources. This reforestation, if done right, will also have benefits in terms of carbon capture and expansion of biodiversity.
Even once our buildings are insulated they are still going to need some heat. Here, Scotland should take a leaf out of the book used all across Europe and connect as many houses as possible to district heating systems – systems where heat is generated somewhere outside the house and then piped in just as our gas, water and electricity currently are. We can provide the majority of Scotland’s heating via a combination of solar thermal and geothermal and use inter-seasonal heat storage to store heat from the summer for use in winter.
Once we have managed this massive engineering feat it will last for centuries. It is future proof in the sense that as new technologies for heat generation come online, they can simply be plugged into the district heating system with ease. Swapping natural gas for biogas while the hydrogen economy is on the rise would make it necessary to change every boiler in Scotland – more than once. A district heating system requires household boilers to be replaced with heat exchange units but once done, the DHS can draw heat from anywhere without further upgrades need in houses.
This principle of “Do Once, Forever” means more investment, focus, resources and effort now, but it will lead to a country better able to adapt to future change.
This part of the Green New Deal merely deals with the problem of cold homes, but neatly illustrates the inter-connectedness of the whole scheme. Fixing heating means also fixing construction, fixing land use and fixing energy generation. ‘Our Common Home’ extends the same principles to fixing transport (with electricity for small vehicles, hydrogen for larger ones while also increasing public transport and active travel and reducing the need for long supply chains), fixing food (transferring to sustainable agroecology and indoor farming), fixing resources (with a circular economy based on sharing and leasing high quality goods that can be repaired rather than endlessly buying and consuming poor quality goods) and fixing ourselves (with better jobs, better lifestyles and a culture based on wellbeing and mutual support rather than by chasing status through consumption).
But, at what cost? An excellent question, even though the cost of not doing anything may literally be hundreds of millions of lives dead or displaced globally.
The short answer is that our overall plan for Scotland will cost about £170 billion over 25 years and will be financed through long-term borrowing and paid back over 50 years. We estimate that it would cost around £5 billion per year to service and pay back those loans. But we also estimate that the plan itself would bring in around £4 billion per year in additional tax revenue plus around £2.5 billion per year in revenue from profits from public sector industries like energy generation so this really is a plan that would pay for itself.
What is £5 billion per year in terms of the Scottish budget? Well, it’s less than half of what is currently spent on healthcare each year. I believe that this is an apt comparison. We can all “feel” the impact of healthcare spending in Scotland. We know our local doctor. We know where our hospitals are. Almost all of us will know a friend or family member who works in healthcare. Caring for each other is the omnipresent cornerstone of society.
Imagine the same for the Green New Deal. Imagine knowing your local land manager. Imagine knowing where your local district heating generator was. Imagine knowing friends or family members who built offshore wind turbines or worked in Scotland’s world-leading hydrogen exporting industry. This plan will permeate every level of our society, just as healthcare has become a proud part of our Scottish identity, so could saving the world.
Here’s the best part: the Green New Deal isn’t about privation and sacrifice. It isn’t an Austerity Forever plan demanding monastic lifestyles of self-imposed poverty. This is a plan that will result in better jobs, better food, better homes and a better planet. And if you have invested your savings or pension in the Green Development Bonds issued to finance the plan, you could even get an annual dividend cheque too!
This plan is about improving our houses, our communities, our country and our planet with confidence. These are all part of how we live our lives and how we can allow our children and our grandchildren to live theirs. It’s all part of Our Common Home.