ICARB – counting the carbon cost

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at the launch of the 5th International Conference on Carbon Accounting.

The annual event is hosted by the Initiative for Carbon Accounting (ICARB), a group of academics, policy makers and professionals.

The group is working to develop a set of standard rules that will allow different sectors across Scotland to assess the impact that their work has on carbon emissions.

Opening the conference, I highlighted the importance of ICARB’s work to Scotland achieving its far-reaching ambitions to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.

Previous work by the academics involved in ICARB identified a range of different approaches to assessing the impact of different sectors on carbon emissions.  This situation makes it incredibly difficult to target action to address areas where specific challenges exist.  A consistent set of rules would allow for a fairer comparison between and within sectors to identify those areas that should be prioritised.

Scrutiny and the eventual passing of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act in 2009 has helped to focus minds on the need to apply consistent standards to carbon accounting, particularly in the context of the Scottish Budget.

In each year since the Climate Change Act was passed, the Scottish Government has conducted a carbon assessment of the Scottish Budget, outlining the direct and indirect impact on greenhouse gas emissions of its expenditure plans.

In general terms, the assessment looks at the estimated carbon emissions associated with the goods and services purchased through the budget.  At a recent evidence session to the Parliament’s Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, the approach to assessing the carbon impacts of the supply chain was described as ground-breaking.  However, it was also highlighted that more could be done to further extend the scope of the analysis.

While the current assessment looks at the carbon implications of, for example, building a road, it does not consider the downstream implications – the fact that more cars will use the road, creating further emissions.

Concern has also been expressed about the lack of evidence to suggest that previous carbon assessments are used to inform the development of subsequent budgets.  In effect, these reports have existed in isolation, with no reference in subsequent budgets about how previous experience has informed future action.

By improving the accuracy of carbon accounting, the Scottish Government could better target policies to meet the targets set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act.

Last year, the Scottish Government reported that it had failed to meet its first emissions target under the Act. More concerning still was the admission by the Government’s Director of Energy and Climate Change, David Wilson, that future targets would also fail to be met even if the Scottish Government implemented all of the policies and proposals it had published.

Against this backdrop, the current scrutiny of the Government’s second report on proposals and policies (RPP2) – setting out their ideas to meet emission targets – is all the more important.  However, the RPP2 has drawn concerns from environmental NGOs about the vagueness of the content and lack of ambition.

The RPP2 sets out polices and proposals apparently costing £873m in 2013.  However, in the budget pushed through last month only £411m was included for climate mitigation measures.  It is unclear at the moment how this shortfall will be met or how the Scottish Government intends to prioritise and fund this investment.

In parliamentary debates on the climate change legislation it was clear that the early years were important because there are so many relatively straightforward changes that we could make such as better use of energy and resources generally.

The expectation is that moving towards the 80% reduction in CO emissions by 2050 will require harder political choices so we should get going on the easy stuff now.

The longer the SNP Government puts off action, the more expensive it will be for future governments to put in place affordable policies to tackle climate change and deliver the economic and social benefits that early action could bring.