An opportunity to create a greener footing

Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland, says that as we begin to 'build back better', we need to think seriously about how we do this in a way that tackles a potentially more catastrophic global crisis - climate change

While we all know we’re far from out of the woods yet, the roll-out of the vaccine has given everyone hope that the end of the Covid-19 crisis is finally in sight. The pandemic experience has taught us valuable lessons about keeping each other safe.

As we emerge from the pandemic and begin to ‘build back better’, we need to think seriously about how we do this in a way that tackles a potentially more catastrophic global crisis, climate change. Crucially, I believe that we need another major shift in how we live our lives to truly address our impact on the environment and reduce our carbon emissions, right here in Scotland.

Change in attitudes
Covid-19 showed us that we can adapt to the scale of change we need, fast. From businesses to individuals, society changed hugely, and did so virtually overnight.

Things we might have already been considering but not yet ready to commit to – like working from home – became the default option for millions of people across the UK.

For Zero Waste Scotland, that presented an opportunity.

We calculated that home working would see our day-to-day emissions fall by nearly 75 percent. Even allowing for additional emissions generated by purchasing our staff the equipment necessary to work from home on a long-term basis, there would still be big carbon savings. We gave all our staff the opportunity to work from home permanently, even once restrictions have lifted, and the majority have taken us up on the offer.

It’s an example of how the pandemic has encouraged us to make changes that could deliver real benefits – such as less time commuting, and lower transport emissions – much more rapidly.

The idea of making home working a bigger part of our economy is just one of the many ideas that has emerged out of the desire to build back better. No one would have chosen this crisis – but I think we all recognise that it offers an important opportunity to rethink the society and economy we live and work in.

It has led to a flurry of fantastic proposals on how to reset our economy on a more resilient and greener footing. It’s been great to see some of these ideas from our experts in Zero Waste Scotland go from the pages of reports to live projects across Scotland over the last year.

One such idea was the Islands Green Recovery Programme Refill Fund. Through grant funding support made possible by Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund we are empowering 12 Scottish islands to take the next steps in the war on waste by ditching single-use packaging and moving to reusable options.

Of course, while action on a local level is necessary, so too is a globally coordinated fightback against the climate crisis. This year, Glasgow will host the UN Climate Change conference, COP26. It is set to be a pivotal moment for the world as delegates including heads of state, climate experts and negotiators come together to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change. For businesses and citizens, the event is an opportunity for us all to reflect on how we can take action in our own country to end our contribution to climate crisis.

To do that we need to tackle our consumption problem. Scotland was among the first countries to declare a climate emergency and has committed to being net-zero by 2045, the most ambitious target in the UK. It’s important that we make progress on reducing the emissions included in that target – the ones that we cause right here in Scotland.

Where progress has been slower is on the emissions caused by our over-consumption of the earth’s natural resources. Around four fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the goods, materials and services which are produced, used and often thrown out after just one use.

Those emissions are caused by extracting raw materials, manufacturing them into products, and transporting them to retailers and consumers. Much of that activity happens abroad, so while we are the ones creating that demand, the emissions are not covered by our net-zero target.

The global challenge
If we want to end our contribution to the climate crisis, we need to think beyond our borders and acknowledge our role in driving up emissions globally. For many of the small developing island nations that will participate in COP26, the impacts of climate change are already all too real. We have a responsibility to those nations to be a good global citizen.

We need to tackle that consumption problem in a way that helps our economy recover. There’s growing consensus that tackling climate change does not need to compete with economic recovery – in fact, if we put climate change at the centre of our collective plans, we can build back better.

You can see it in the way that big finance is getting tough on climate laggards. Aviva Investors recently announced it would pull investment from big polluters if they don’t commit to stronger climate action. They didn’t just do this out of environmental altruism. They said they were acting to protect their clients from investments that would be catastrophic to capital markets.

We have long advocated the circular economy as the solution. Instead of our wasteful approach of make, take, and throw, we need to find new ways to keep products and materials in use for longer by designing, producing and using them as efficiently as possible. This will lead to a sustainable, green economy that powers opportunity for business growth and job opportunities for Scots.

We’ve already supported nearly 250 Scottish companies to find inventive ways of designing, producing and consuming things differently. Those businesses have already given Scotland a reputation as a circular economy leader, but we can do more.   

One of those is Renewable Parts, which has been hiring new staff and moving to bigger premises in Argyll as it expands its business refurbishing wind turbines to be reused by the renewables industry. They recently converted an ambulance station into a refurbishment centre and are currently in the process of moving into a larger purpose-built facility. They have gone from a small outfit of two staff up to seven, with plans to grow their team to 30 in the next three years. They are also working with institutions and the wind industry to address the remanufacturing skills gap.

That skills gap is important. To realise the economic opportunities of a more circular economy, we need to make sure that people have the necessary skills and expertise. That means embedding the circular economy across the entire educational system. From primary school right through to university and even into professional development, people must have the skills and expertise to create a greener, more circular economy.

We estimate that around 200,000 jobs in Scotland are already tied to the circular economy. That’s about one in ten jobs that are helping to end the climate crisis by reducing waste and the emissions it creates.

This is a good start, but to end the climate crisis we need every job to be part of the circular economy, with a green skills revolution to train up the workforce. In construction, for example, future roles could include urban miners and material scouts, helping to source sustainable materials from the existing built environment to allow Scotland to literally build back better.

There’s a huge amount of work to be done to make our economy greener and more resilient to shocks. But I hope that by the time Scotland welcomes the world to COP26, we’ll have even more examples of the circular economy transition to be able to shout about.

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