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SAC Report No. 13

The Bigger Issue - A report on climate change

 

Summary

This report sets out the process, conclusions and recommendations of the thirteenth investigation undertaken by Aberdeenshire Council’s Scrutiny and Audit Committee. The subject of the investigation was the issue of climate change its implications for Aberdeenshire and Aberdeenshire Council.

The investigation took place during November and December 2006. The Committee heard evidence from both Aberdeenshire Council staff and external witnesses during eight sessions, all advertised and open to the public. Committee Members also conducted two site visits. The Committee considered all the evidence gathered and drew up its conclusions and recommendations at a meeting on 20 December 2006.

The Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen assisted the Committee, both by providing an independent expert to support the investigation and by providing the Committee with an introduction to the science behind climate change. The Committee learned that climate change is a well-understood phenomenon that has been known about for a long time. Data sets going back over 400,000 years confirm that there is a close relationship between temperature and the concentration of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere. Recent studies show that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has risen to unprecedented levels and has increased at an unprecedented rate over the last few decades.

Greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. Burning of fossil fuels, in particular coal and oil, the draining and cultivation of land, and livestock-farming are major anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases. During the drafting of this report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprises 2,500 of the world’s leading climatologists, announced its conclusion that it is now more than 90% certain that human activities are responsible for increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Increased greenhouse gas concentrations will change, and indeed already are changing, global climate patterns. Increased temperatures will drive changes with consequences ranging from desertification to increased flooding, and from melting of significant ice sheets to more frequent, more powerful hurricanes.

The Committee heard that observed data show that climate change is real and happening already in Aberdeenshire. Since 1961, Aberdeenshire has experienced a rise in average summer and winter temperatures, fewer days with air frost and more autumn and winter days with heavy rain. Such changes to the local climate are consistent with the predictions of sophisticated computer models, which suggest that in future Aberdeenshire is likely to have warmer and drier summers; warmer and wetter autumns and winters; and more powerful storms, more often. The impacts of such changes could include increased pressure on fresh-water supplies, increased risk of flooding, a rise in sea level and increased weather damage to infrastructure and buildings.

However, the Committee heard that it is not necessarily all bad news. Many witnesses stated that early action to respond to the challenges of climate change brings with it tremendous opportunities. For example, action to improve energy efficiency can help tackle fuel poverty. The North-east is especially well-placed to take advantage of economic development opportunities arising from climate change in, for example, the fields of renewable energy, forestry, construction and agriculture. Such statements back up the findings of the Stern Review on The Economics of Climate Change, which were released in the week the investigation began. This authoritative document concluded that alongside environmental, social and moral reasons to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is a sound economic basis to do so too.

Deciding what Aberdeenshire Council should do about climate change comes down to risk management. Is it more risky to take strong, early action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the projected impacts of climate change, or is it more risky to carry on with ‘business as usual’ and hope that climate change goes away? Having heard all the evidence the Committee is convinced that climate change is an incontrovertible fact, with serious implications for Aberdeenshire, Aberdeenshire Council and the rest of the world. ‘Business as usual’ is not a rational option. Significant change is required to ‘future proof’ Aberdeenshire and this needs to happen quickly.

Having concluded that the balance of risk shows that bold and urgent action is the most prudent course, the Committee strongly recommends that Aberdeenshire Council take the following two strategic decisions:

1. Commits itself to becoming a carbon neutral organisation in the short to medium term e.g. by the year 2020. This will make it one of the first local authorities in the UK to do so. The Council will need to examine the feasibility of achieving carbon neutrality within 10, 15 or 20 years, but should aim at the shortest practicable timescale.
2. Instigates an urgent dialogue with local partners – Community Planning partners, businesses, educational and research institutes and citizens – to agree the actions, process and resources needed to achieve the aim of Aberdeenshire becoming a carbon neutral region in the medium term, e.g. by 2030. The possibility of a similar commitment by neighbouring councils and their partners should be explored.

Clearly further action at all levels of the Council will need to follow to achieve such far-reaching ambitions. The evidence from a large number of witnesses shows that such ambitious aims are a logical extension of the good work already undertaken at both corporate level and at the level of individual Services within Aberdeenshire Council to prepare for climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Examples include signing up to the COSLA Declaration on Climate Change and the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Management programme, as well as work in the field of energy efficiency and transport planning. The Committee has made a number of suggestions for further action based on the evidence heard during the investigation, but this list is not, and is not meant to be, exhaustive.

The Committee’s investigation took place against the background of intense media interest in and public concern about climate change. Many witnesses stated that the time has never been better for action. Climate change presents an opportunity for Aberdeenshire Council to play a leading role in Scotland and the UK by living up to its new Vision of being the best Council, serving the best area, in Scotland

Full Report