The coronavirus pandemic is a “tremendous opportunity” to stop the growth of air travel in an attempt to cut emissions, Holyrood’s Climate Change Committee has heard.
MSPs were told that the Scottish Government’s climate change strategy targeting net-zero emissions by 2045 was particularly timid on emissions produced by the aviation sector.
Although several witnesses praised the “bold and ambitious” plan overall, concerns were raised about transport policies and an apparent rejection by the government to try and limit demand for air travel, as recommended by the UK-wide climate change committee advisory body.
During an evidence session on the government’s latest climate change strategy, Dr Rachel Howell called for the government to “rethink” its plan to return Scotland’s aviation sector to pre-pandemic levels.
Dr Howell, a sustainable development and sociology lecturer, argued that most people do not realise the amount of emissions produced by air travel and described the government’s plan for “encouraging sustainable growth” in the sector an “oxymoron”.
“I really don’t think this updated plan is bold enough at all in the transport section about non-road transport, and perhaps particularly aviation,” Dr Howell said.
She added: “I would say this is one place where we’ve actually been handed a tremendous opportunity by this pandemic, terrible though it has been.
“Encouraging behavioural change as relates to aviation is going to be one of the most difficult things, but we’ve actually got a situation here where demand has been managed downwards for the government by the pandemic.
“I really would urge the government to seize that opportunity to rethink this part of the plan to rethink a green recovery, which doesn’t depend on trying to build up the aviation sector to what it was and indeed, beyond that, further growth.”
The government is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045, with interim targets that include a 75% reduction from 1990s emissions levels by the end of this decade.
A fundamental element of the strategy to meet the targets is a reliance on developmental “negative emissions technology”, but Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie questioned how realistic it was “putting too many eggs into a basket that doesn’t exist yet”.
Asking about a lack of an alternative strategy if negative emissions technology is not created on the scale required, Mr Harvie said: “The plan apparently is that in less than a decade, we’ll get from zero to a very substantial level of operation of negative emission technologies and that it will continue to grow dramatically from there on for the next subsequent decades.”
In response, Just Transition Commission member Tom Shields said: “The International Energy Authority and the Climate Change Committee for the UK believes that carbon capture and storage is absolutely essential to meet the climate change targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“So I think the hard fact we have to face is there probably isn’t a plan B – that if we don’t get some of these technologies in place and working to the level that we hope they will work, then we probably won’t meet the demanding targets that we’ve got.”
Mr Shields continued: “I think we need to make this happen and there is an enormous amount of effort going into this at the UK and on the world level, and I think it is a credible plan, albeit a very ambitious one.”
Dr Andy Kerr, director of the UK and Ireland Climate-KIC (knowledge and innovation community), said it was “just not credible” that negative emission technology would achieve the anticipated reduction by 2032.
He said: “As the Committee on Climate Change has said, engineered greenhouse gas removals will be driven by what is left in the economy after everything else has been delivered.
“In other words, it is not about being the first thing you do, it is the last thing that you do, because it’s likely to be costly.”