This blog was first published on Academy of Government @ Edinburgh University

2017 will go down as the year when Scotland unequivocally nailed its colours to the mast of climate change action, with not one, not two, but three comprehensive policy commitments on climate change. The draft Climate Change Plan sets out a programme of policies that aim to bring our emissions down by 66% by 2032. The draft Energy Strategy paints a vision for Scotland’s energy future that is fundamentally decarbonised. And in proposals for a Climate Change Bill the Scottish Government is consulting on a new statutory target for a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. All of this sends a very clear signal that Scotland intends to become a net-zero carbon nation – perhaps within a generation, certainly within two.

But what do we mean by ‘Scotland’ here? Who are the people doing the intending?

Surveys consistently show that majority of the Scottish public believes that action should be taken on climate change. In the wake of news that Trump planned to take the US out of the Paris Agreement, 70% of Scots wanted to see climate change legislation retained.[i] Around 50% of people in Scotland see climate change as an immediate and urgent problem[ii] and 68% want the Government to invest in projects that cut emissions[iii].

But what about the 30% who feel climate legislation should be scrapped? Or the 50% who do not see climate change as an urgent issue? And are all of the 68% who want more Government investment really prepared to see higher public sector borrowing to fund that investment; or indeed to pay for it through higher taxes/bills? What proportion would be prepared to invest themselves – to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, for example? The academic literature is littered with studies that show that people very often do not turn personal belief into personal action – the so-called value-action gap [iv].

The Scottish Government itself recognises the need for ‘behavioural change’ to accompany top-down policy prescription if we are to achieve the huge emissions reductions set out in legislation. The ISM tool supports policy makers to think through all the factors, Individual, Social and Material, that influence people’s behaviours. ‘ISM’ has been used in formulating some policy interventions, but it is by no means embedded. Some four years after the launch of the ISM tool in 2013, the draft Climate Change Plan states:

The Scottish Government has used the ISM approach in various ways to support policy
development, including:

  • Running smaller internal workshops to initially explore behaviours…
  • Delivering ISM workshops with broad groups of stakeholders… to gather wider views on the behavioural challenge, investigating the current landscape and identifying potential barriers and gaps.
  • Following up the ISM workshops with a small working group approach focused on action planning and delivery, using insight (potential barriers and gaps) from initial workshops.
  • Using the ISM framework to support literature reviews of the behavioural challenge.”

This hardly suggests that ‘behaviours thinking’ was at the heart of the policy development process for the Plan.

But I would argue that having a focus on ‘behaviours’ is itself limiting. The ‘people bit’ of climate action is about more than an aggregate of individuals changing their behaviours. It’s about social change. The decarbonisation of Scotland will have massive impacts on people’s lives, from changing how we travel about to restructuring the jobs market. Some of these changes will happen slowly. Others will be faster but no less profound – a baby born today will grow up never having sat behind the wheel of a petrol car.

Although it is still sotto voce, there is an awareness on the part of the Scottish Government that the low carbon transition entails a fundamental social transition. In announcing the new £60m Innovation Fund a fortnight ago, the First Minister said that she wants Scotland to “embrace social changes that will reduce our emissions” (my emphasis). The draft Energy Strategy includes commitments to deepening public engagement and to “involve people in the decisions that affect them”.

So, who is doing the intending? Is ‘Scotland’ really up for all the changes that deep decarbonisation will bring? Based on survey data, the answer seems to be yes. But in fact we simply don’t know. That being the case, we should support the Scottish Government to go beyond the ‘behaviour change’ narrative, and make explicit the social change that’s so fundamental to Scotland’s decarbonisation.

[i] Survey conducted by YouGov for the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit

[ii] Scottish Government’s Key Environment Statistics 2016

[iii] Survey for WWF Scotland

[iv] For a quick summary of the value-action gap, see the Climate Change chapter of the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2015)