Scottish ministers have been accused of “double standards” by their environmental advisers because they are busting targets to cut the climate pollution caused by government activities.
The accusation comes from the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which is being closed down in March. Environmentalists allege that ministers are scrapping the agency in order to silence its embarrassing criticisms.
This week the SDC is publishing its latest assessment of the Scottish government’s environmental performance. It will conclude that overall the government’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions by cutting energy use and travel have been “poor”.
The use of energy in government buildings actually rose by 2.5% in 2008-09 and is now above the baseline level set a decade ago, the SDC report point outs. “It is therefore extremely hard to see how the government will meet its target of a 12.6% cut in emissions by 2011,” it says.
According to the report, seen by the Sunday Herald, there has been “little progress” on transport, with emissions “flatlining”. Although there has been a shift from air to rail travel by ministers and officials, 43% of travel emissions still came from flights.
The number of video-conference sessions fell in 2008-09 compared to the previous year. “This is clearly negative in environmental terms and also has cost implications for government,” says the report.
The average amount of water consumed per person in government offices has also been increasing since 2006-07, and is “significantly above” the target level. The recycling of waste has dropped from 76% to 73% and is 7% below target.
The SDC report highlights the fact that in many instances the Scottish government’s performance has been significantly worse than the performance of the UK government in Westminster. The only praise it offers is on waste, which the Scottish government has managed to reduce in line with targets.
“We are concerned that such poor performance is allowed to go on and question why government has failed to see this as a problem,” stated the SDC vice-chair, Jan Bebbington, a professor at St Andrews University.
“It suggests that insufficient regard has been given to its own performance by senior management and ministers and smacks of double standards in relation to the ambitious climate change policy targets.”
Ministers had failed to lead by example which had damaged motivation right across society, Bebbington warned. “It is extremely disappointing that an issue like estate management is such a low priority at a time when politicians are asking people and businesses in Scotland to radically change their energy consumption,” she said.
The SDC had helped the UK government save £66 million by cutting energy, waste and water costs. “We had hoped to use this experience to support the Scottish government but following their announcement that it is to scrap SDC Scotland, discussions have come to a stop,” she complained.
“At a time of financial difficulty the Scottish government really cannot afford to ignore the financial benefits of sustainability…It badly needs to make some headway to make up for ten years of failure.”
The Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, attacked Scottish Nationalist ministers for shutting down the SDC. “They are keen to keep their failure private and must hate it when their own watchdog does such a good job of pointing out their mistakes in public,” he said.
“The SNP's environmental priorities are clear - how to make ministers say the right thing while doing nothing. Ministers would have us believe they're leading by example, but the reality is that they're firmly stuck in reverse.”
Dr Richard Dixon, the director of WWF Scotland, thought it was “particularly embarrassing” for ministers that most Whitehall departments were doing better than Scotland. Axing the SDC was ““the worst possible result for sustainable development”, he said.
The Scottish government declined to comment on a report which was still to be published. It pointed out that the decision to cease funding the SDC was taken after the UK government had withdrawn its funding “in the context of the toughest spending environment in a generation.”
A government spokesman argued that it was making progress in cutting waste. It had identified 14 projects to cut emissions from buildings, some of which were already delivering savings.
“We have also delivered a significant reduction in our travel costs,” he said. “In the six months to December 2009, the total cost of air travel reduced by 24 per cent and the total cost of rail travel fell by 27 per cent, compared to the previous six months.”