Scottish Economy

Weekly update: Climate Change 2030 Targets – Focusing on the “How” of Policymaking

On Thursday, the Scottish Government announced the 2030 climate change target is “out of reach”. So, what went wrong?

In 2022, we undertook research commissioned by ClimateXChange for the Joint Budget Review between the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament on matters related to climate change. Our remit focused on how budgetary and policy decisions are made rather than individual policies themselves. This required us to piece together through many interviews how civil servants were developing policy in practice, how decisions were being made and challenged internally and what information was flowing to Ministers and Parliament.

The culmination was a number of recommendations, one of which was for a “Net Zero Assessment” of policies as they are being developed. The basic principle is simple – if your policy is likely to have significant positive or negative impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, you need to roughly estimate the emissions that policy is likely to create. In most cases, this isn’t hugely difficult and some parts of government were already applying fairly rigorous assessments. But for many areas, these were patchily applied at best or seemingly sidestepped at worst.

In the areas where civil servants seemed less likely to routinely produce emissions estimates, it became apparent that these were often not being asked for by those approving projects. Approval without challenge beyond the financial cost led into a cultural view that some processes were optional.

It was encouraging to see that the climate change action policy package announced alongside the 2030 target statement reinforced earlier commitments to introduce a Net Zero Assessment.

Dropping targets can be disappointing but the Scottish Government now has the opportunity to take stock and refocus efforts where immediate progress is critical. Setting targets is not enough to meet them. Nor is it enough to have genuine ambition to reduce emissions – which we regularly encountered in our interviews. Both of these cannot create change that outweighs a system of processes and practice that gravitate towards the status quo.

But this also means that it is not simply enough to add a process like a Net Zero Assessment and assume that policymaking in practice will suddenly start following expected processes. A Net Zero Assessment must be sufficiently embedded within practices so that incentives and norms within Government act as a support rather than a counterweight. This isn’t easy – governments are having to grapple with this challenge globally.

But first and foremost, this means ensuring that a challenge function is in place and that challenge function has sufficient clout. The results of net zero assessments must be asked for, they must have taken place early enough in a project before too much momentum has built up, and there must be a degree of centralisation in this challenge function so that lagging policy areas are identified and supported.

This is the “how” of policy, rather than the “what” of policy. Is it the only step the Scottish Government will need to take to hit 2045 targets? No – not by a long shot. Many difficult decisions lie ahead. But you cannot make and deliver on effective decisions without good evidence and robust processes. Significant and immediate focus now on the “how” of policy must be seen as a non-negotiable requirement if the Government wishes to make substantial further progress on its 2045 climate targets.

The introduction of a Net Zero Assessment will be a big step forward for the Scottish Government and will demonstrate global leadership on climate change processes. But don’t forget that the challenge function is just as important as the process itself.

I want to end this article with the concluding remarks from our report to the Joint Budget Review, which refers to the methodology within a Net Zero Assessment as an “individual level carbon assessment”. These parting comments seem as relevant now as they were when published in December 2022.

A key emissions reduction target looms in 2030. While eight years away, many of the decisions the Government makes today are deciding its level of emissions in 2030. Missing this target substantially raises the risk of missing Scotland’s 2045 net zero target and results in challenging economic headwinds in the 2030s.

Our recommendations therefore cannot be left for years down the road, when the outcome of Scotland’s progress, determined by decisions taken now, becomes inevitable.

It is critical that the Scottish Government creates an environment of continuous improvement in policymaking processes. This environment can develop the processes that will ultimately help deliver the required outcomes in the short, medium and long-term.

Therefore, we conclude this report with a clear message that the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated.

In 2008, a project to explore a methodology for a high-level carbon assessment was undertaken. This resulted in the Carbon Assessment published annually alongside the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget.

It was widely recognised at the time that this was a limited tool, and that the critical next step in achieving carbon reductions was the development of individual-level carbon assessments, running in a parallel project. 

It appears, from what we have seen, that this project was never taken forward. Fourteen years have now passed. This work cannot wait any longer to be seriously implemented.

Some of these recommendations will be challenging to implement – Government-wide change is never simple. But nor are these recommendations untested on an international stage. 

The Scottish Government will need ambition, it will need the courage to embrace change, and it will need to treat a declared global climate emergency as just that – an emergency.


James is a Fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute. He specialises in economic policy, modelling, trade and climate change. His work includes the production of economic statistics to improve our understanding of the economy, economic modelling and analysis to enhance the use of these statistics for policymaking, data visualisation to communicate results impactfully, and economic policy to understand how data can be used to drive decisions in Government.