Publication: Tough decisions ahead on climate change

by Auditor General

Tough decisions ahead on climate change

Blog: By Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

The realities of climate change, and their direct link to difficult public spending decisions, are now on our doorstep.

The summer was full of unavoidable stories about record heatwaves, ‘global boiling’ and devastating wildfires.

But at home the temperature also rose on policies to replace gas boilers with heat pumps, delaying bans on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars, and plans to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea.

After the traumas of the pandemic, how we respond to climate change - and pay for it - is back at the top of the agenda.

Here, those decisions are being driven by the Scottish Government’s aim of reaching net zero for greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, which will require huge public and private sector investment.

The big gains made since 1990, the baseline for measuring CO2 emissions, came largely from moving to low-carbon renewable electricity, and away from coal.

That helped halve emissions. But it will be much harder to halve them again by 2030 – in line with ministers’ targets - and ensure action is also taken to adapt Scotland to the effects of climate change already with us.

The task will also directly affect most Scots in a way that just hasn’t been experienced yet.

The role of audit

Having clear arrangements to deliver on climate change goals really matters, and I reported earlier this year that the Scottish Government has work to do on that front.

Last month, Audit Scotland was also part of a joint report with the other UK audit agencies that set out the approach each nation is taking to climate change.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England face different challenges. But the clear message from our report was that governments will need to work effectively together to achieve their targets.

That is far from straightforward. We’ve already seen that when ministers at Holyrood and Westminster disagree on how to take forward net zero policies there can be a financial cost.

Climate change is an audit priority for me as Auditor General. My role, supported by colleagues at Audit Scotland, is to look at the public sector’s response to climate change, judge whether resources are being used effectively, and to recommend improvements if they’re not.

My next major climate report will be a look at how Scotland is planning to decarbonise how we heat our homes.

The Scottish Government estimates that over £33 billion is needed to reduce emissions from generating heat in residential and non-residential buildings, with a significant share of that sum coming from the public sector.

I’ll be looking at how ministers have approached that task, what progress has been made, and whether the Scottish Government is clear on the investment needed to meet its targets.

It will allow the Parliament and public to scrutinise how well the Scottish Government’s approach to decarbonising our home heating is contributing to achieving net zero by 2045. And whether public money is being used effectively.

The report will be part of a series of climate change-specific audits over the coming years, reflecting the size and importance of public spending in this area.

In the meantime, you can read the strategy Audit Scotland has set out for auditing climate change on our website.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland