I’m often asked why Scotland has set a target to reach net zero by 2045, compared with 2050 for the UK. The national targets for achieving net zero emissions of greenhouse gases were not set by politicians but are based on the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in its report of May 2019. Parliament legislated for the net zero target in June, in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion climate protests. The former target had been an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.

The 2050 target applies to the UK as a whole and will require joint action from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the CCC advised that Scotland could reach net zero earlier, in 2045. The Scottish Government welcomed the recommendation and enshrined it in the Scottish Climate Change Bill.

The reasons for setting this more ambitious target are largely geographical. Scotland has large areas of land which are suitable for afforestation, with forests acting as carbon sinks. It also has many disused oil and gas fields which can be used for carbon capture and storage (CCS): carbon dioxide can be stored in the undersea rock formations. The CCC estimates that the percentage of forested land in Scotland could rise from 20% to 30% of the land area. Scotland has the potential to grow and supply around 33% of all UK biomass (in the form of wood).

Another opportunity unique to Scotland is that of restoring peatlands, which currently emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. There is potential to more than double the area of restored peatland from 0.6 million hectares today to over 1.4 million hectares by 2050.

Scotland’s situation is very different from that of Wales, which has been set a less demanding target of a 95% reduction in emissions by 2050. Much of Wales’ land area is taken up by livestock farming, with its associated methane emissions. Wales also lacks the potential for storing carbon dioxide. Furthermore, there is a dense concentration of heavy industry in South Wales which contributes significantly to overall emissions. The CCC estimates that Wales could increase its area of forested land by 70%, but this would still produce less than 10% of the UK’s biomass and timber.

Northern Ireland does not have its own target: however, the situation there is comparable to Wales, with a large proportion of the land being given over to livestock farming and few opportunities for carbon storage.

These differences point to the importance of carbon capture and storage in achieving net zero. As yet, the UK does not have any CCS plants. There are, however, six other countries which are deploying the technology, notably Norway.

While CCS and forestry in Scotland will make an essential contribution to overall emission reduction, most of the other changes needed to achieve net zero will have to be adopted throughout the UK. The CCC summarises these as:

  • greater energy efficiency
  • dietary changes
  • extensive electrification of transport and heating
  • development of a hydrogen economy
  • new infrastructure for the storage and transport of carbon dioxide
  • a fifth of UK agricultural land shifting to tree planting, energy crops and peatland restoration
  • reducing the growth in demand for aviation

and, alongside CCS, the possible development of new carbon-neutral fuels such as algae.