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Uncertain Times

25 September 2019

SSN's new Vice Chair John Wincott shares his thoughts on the climate emergency and the current public bodies consultation and what it means for our sector.

We live in strange and uncertain times, with unique challenges and incredible opportunities. The question is, how do we overcome the challenges and realise those opportunities?

As I am writing this, the Climate Change (Emission Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill has just completed its passage through Parliament. The Bill has been through a number of changes so far, including the declaration of a Climate Emergency earlier this year, and so now it is much more comprehensive, and with much more ambitious targets, than when first drawn up. And yet, few people are aware of the implications of this far reaching legislation, and the effects it will have on public bodies throughout Scotland - it made a one sentence report on the TV news! One thing that is certain is that the efforts made to date will not be enough, in Scottish Government terminology ‘a step change’ will be required if we are to fulfil our obligations. What is not certain, is how we will achieve this. What funding will be available? What support?

One certainty is that the climate challenge we are facing will require all of our skills, commitment and resilience if we are to realise the ultimate goal of leaving a planet fit for our children and grandchildren. The uncertainty is how we can work together to achieve this goal. Traditionally public bodies have cooperated as and when required, but on a limited, ad hoc basis. The future demands collaboration at the highest level, and on an unprecedented scale, if we are to overcome the challenges. The opportunities that will open up from this collaboration are immense, but we are not familiar with this type of working, and it will require new ways of thinking, new funding models, and a new ethos to produce the progress we need. The choice is simple, collaborate and have a good chance of success, or fail.

The Scottish Government has recently indicated that it will not renew the contract for the SSN secretariat which has made possible much of our collaborative work and progress. Without critical funding the Network is unlikely to exist as we know it after March next year. The steering group and other key partners have expressed their commitment to ensuring that this critical support system, and the only real means of collaboration across the whole sector, remains in place. But it is uncertain what form this will take. Scottish Government is instead looking to form a ‘High Ambition Network of Chief Executives and Elected Members’ in order to 'lead the way to a net-zero Scotland'. What this means is uncertain, but it is clear that any leadership group requires a robust network of practitioners, agents for change, and experienced problem solvers, to deliver results and foster the collaborative environment that we will need to succeed.

It is very welcome seeing progress on climate change targets with the new Bill, and the recognition of the need for scale and pace of ambition. However, there are still challenges around policy coherence which make it difficult for public bodies to deliver action. For example, last week the Environment Secretary answered a written question with the statement that full enforcement of the ban on biodegradable waste to landfill, due to be implemented in January 2021, should be delayed until 2025. This will involve new legislation, and will produce more uncertainty for local authorities, many of which have spent considerable officer time and money in preparing for this, only to find that the ban has been pushed back. Of course, the plan was hugely ambitious, and difficult to achieve, but much of this has been known from 2012 when it was introduced. According to SEPA, over 1 million tonnes of biodegradable waste were disposed of in landfill in 2017. Given the lead time in procuring landfill services, building waste facilities, and preparing for this change, this uncertainty is a huge challenge for everyone involved. And what impact will this have on greenhouse gas emissions? And the Climate Emergency?

And now there is the Scottish Government ‘Big Climate Conversation’ looking at the role of public bodies in tackling climate change, where many changes are proposed to the mechanisms used by public bodies for Climate Change Duties Reporting. I urge all SSN members to respond to this consultation - it is likely to shape the future of public body climate change actions and reporting. For example, the consultation seems to indicate that there will be some major changes to the reporting, but for us the key question is 'how will this enable us to reach net zero by 2045?' There is a need for robust, consistent data across all public sector partners, that will allow us to make decisions at scale, collaborate, and identify the route to our joint goals. One proposal is that public bodies will have 'to state the year by which they will cease to emit any direct greenhouse gases', and yet it is totally uncertain if that is even possible for some sectors. It is hugely uncertain how this will affect our activities over the next ten, twenty, or more years, so please go online and complete this consultation.

I have managed to reach the end, without mentioning the dreaded B-word, because it’s my view that regardless of its impact on the UK, the Climate Emergency is by far the biggest challenge that we face. How we will work together to achieve the massive changes that will be needed to deliver on the ambition to produce ‘net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045’ is a huge uncertainty. However, I would submit that collaborate we must, or we will certainly fail.

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