Scotland against the clock on net-zero emissions

28th May 2021


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Georgie Kleinschmidt

Katie MacMillan explores some of the issues Scottish policymakers will need to consider as the country aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2045

The Scottish government’s commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2045 may seem aeons away. However, to deliver the substantial restructuring needed to reach this goal, policymakers will have to be proactive and meet demanding intermediary targets. With complex problems to overcome, addressing the energy and transport needs of urban and rural communities in 24 years looks ambitious.

A vision of the future

Imagine Scotland 24 years from now. Clean energy is keeping the lights on. Renewable energy use is approaching 100%, as technology improvements and high adoption rates have driven down prices. Artificial intelligence, sensors and machine learning are supporting energy efficiency, as are physical improvements to insulation, piping and heat recovery systems. Old, carbon-based infrastructure has been replaced through the circular economy.

Scotland has pioneered hydrogen power, and it is lowering building and vehicle emissions, providing low-carbon heating and fuel – including for boilers and cookers (see Frazer-Nash’s 2018 report for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on domestic hydrogen conversion, available at bit.ly/3gzW6Nk). Hydrogen-powered and electric planes and ferries connect the mainland and islands, bringing communities closer to employment, health and leisure opportunities. The use of electric and hydrogen vehicles has improved air quality, particularly in urban areas, while new technology and infrastructure that can adapt to peak demand patterns is enabling electric transport. A utopian vision – how will Scotland deliver it?

Addressing the obstacles

Delivering clean energy will require investment, infrastructure and enablers – but the journey could be bumpy. Rural homes and businesses will face a greater challenge in accessing clean energy than those in urban areas. In its report The decarbonisation of heat (bit.ly/3gFTnSk), non-profit energy expertise centre Regen says “any solution to heat decarbonisation must consider the impact on the fuel poor and vulnerable consumers” and “must be taken in the context of a wider package of actions to address fuel poverty, improve energy efficiency and ensure a just transition for all consumers”. There is a danger that rural communities could fall behind due to lack of public transport, distance from the grid, and limited charging point infrastructure.

“With complex problems to overcome, 24 years looks ambitious”

One solution to support energy delivery in rural areas would be micro-grids. If renewably powered – ideally by a variety of methods to increase reliability – these grids could support other emission-reducing measures, such as electric vehicle (EV) charging. Operating with their own storage, they would offer a cost-effective option to deliver energy locally while reducing pressure on the national grid. The potential for hydrogen to fuel vehicles and heating should also be explored. It works on the small scale needed by rural communities, and could be distributed, as Regen suggests, by “repurposing … the existing safe and reliable gas network”, or through new systems that replace existing older infrastructure.

Collaboration would be key in enabling the provision of clean energy in rural areas: local partnerships would need to be created, and governance structures between communities, public and private sectors set up, to unlock opportunities for all stakeholders.

Equality of access

For transport, enablers would need to support individuals and businesses to switch to lower-emission travel modes. Incentives could increase installation of residential and commercial charging points but, to ensure viability for longer journeys, infrastructure including EV charging stations and hydrogen fuel pumps would be needed across Scotland. A strategic review would ensure the locations of these charging points and hydrogen pumps were optimised to best meet travellers’ needs.

Those living in rural areas are more reliant on personal transport than those in urban areas. The Scottish government’s National Transport Strategy (bit.ly/3noxV5D) notes that “many disabled people feel trapped due to the lack of accessible transport, particularly on islands and in remote and rural areas”, and acknowledges the challenge for those on low incomes in rural areas. Making public transport more viable in these areas would require additional funding and subsidies, but would help address inequalities.

In urban areas, low emission zones and better bus and bicycle infrastructure may encourage more people to use public transport, walk or cycle – with the latter offering mental and physical benefits as well as reducing pollution. Incentivising collaboration between public transport companies could enable joined-up coverage, enhancing the experience and encouraging greater use.

It is also important that rural residents have equal access to the energy efficiency grants available to those in urban areas, used to install insulation or environmentally friendly pipes and valves. Low-carbon heating may mean higher energy costs, so steps must be taken to ensure those in fuel poverty are not further marginalised, and others are not pushed into it. Rural communities may also face additional costs and logistical challenges in implementing newer technologies and green fuels. Hydrogen, for example, may be more difficult to deliver to rural, less densely situated areas. Early planning will be needed to ensure rural areas can reap the benefits that these new technologies and fuels offer. One solution might be seawater-sourced green hydrogen from repurposed offshore rigs, as is being considered by exploration and production company Neptune Energy.

Capturing the benefits

If emissions are not falling fast enough, or natural gas is used for mass hydrogen production, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies may need to be introduced at scale. While significant research and investment would be required to determine this technology’s feasibility, this would give Scotland the opportunity to become a world leader in CCS. CCS could also give new purpose to disused oil rigs, which could be used to pump carbon dioxide back into the cavities from which oil was extracted. Edinburgh University researchers suggest this could be 10 times cheaper than decommissioning rigs, and a trial – the Acorn CCS project, led by Pale Blue Dot Energy – has been proposed.

Scotland’s 2045 commitment will require significant investment, but would deliver social and environmental returns. Pioneering CCS and hydrogen would allow Scotland to export its expertise and create more jobs. Updated infrastructure would offer employment, and businesses could drive operational efficiencies, growth and profitability through adoption of electric transport and clean energy sources.

There is no one approach to reaching net-zero: all solutions put forward must be forward-thinking and long-lasting, and involve country-wide collaboration. Initially, it may be beneficial to investigate how current infrastructure can be adapted, rather than focusing on expansion. With the formation of the Just Transition Commission, the Scottish government is aiming to ensure the road to decarbonisation culminates in a net-zero economy that is inclusive, resilient and fair. With commitment, planning, investment and action, Scotland can achieve its goal.

Katie MacMillan, GradIEMA is an environmental and sustainability engineer at Frazer-Nash Consultancy.

Image credit: Alamy


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