By Gillian Galloway

Climate change is one of the greatest threats the world’s population faces. As part of the global effort to fight the climate emergency, Scotland has set an ambitious target to become net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the UK. And with COP26 coming to Glasgow next year, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland.

To reach this net zero target, businesses must innovate to develop “greener” and sustainable business practices to minimise environmental impacts. This could mean a change to product design, manufacturing processes, packaging and transport. These changes can have a positive effect by building resilience and minimising impacts of external factors such as supply shortages, changes in demand for products and services and even extreme weather events.

Businesses may find this move to a more sustainable model improves their brand value, enhancing their reputation. This can unlock new customers who purposefully buy products or services based on sustainability credentials, making it a win-win for commerce and the net zero target.

Scotland’s spirit of innovation and invention has long been recognised, revolutionising the world in which we live time and time again. We have been pioneers in the development of renewable energy, for example. This passion to expand the boundaries of what is possible, coupled with rich natural resources that can be harnessed, makes for exciting results.

The Highlands and Islands is punching above its weight in the move towards a low-carbon future. Orkney, for example, takes advantage of its geographical position and its exposure to both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, turning adverse weather into energy. Wind turbines are powered by the elements, producing electricity which fulfils 120 per cent of islanders’ needs. Great strides are being made towards fuelling cars and ferries with hydrogen created from water that has been electrolysed via wind and tidal generators.

However, a greener future is not just about alternate energy sources. Take single-use plastic for example, a prevalent topic in the climate-change agenda as plastics are derived from fossil fuels and many have no end-of-life solution. Oceanium, a start-up located in Oban, has developed a “green and clean” biorefinery technology to extract maximum value from sustainably farmed seaweed. It creates home compostable, marine-safe bio-packaging from seaweed to replace current food packaging. The benefit is two-fold: in addition to offering an innovative solution to a real problem, sustainable seaweed farming mitigates climate change via carbon and nitrogen absorption. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) spotted potential here, providing Oceanium with its first innovation grant in 2018, catalysing its research and development efforts.

Companies, such as Skyeskyns, a commercial woolskin tannery in Waternish on the Isle of Skye, are turning to more environmentally friendly processes. This family-run business produces high-quality, hand-crafted sheepskin and woollen goods. It switched from a mineral-based tanning process to a plant-based one known as “veg tan” which uses mimosa bark. Not only did this make the business more sustainable, ensuring its processes were safe for the environment, but it also led to an increase in production and business growth. HIE’s innovation team provided research and funding which enabled the tanners to access specialist expertise and the ability to conduct extensive testing to ensure product quality. Switching to veg tan has resulted in a more efficient effluent system which is drained through a reed bed, with the sediment used as fertiliser creating a circular economy.

This is just a snapshot of the low-carbon innovation taking place in businesses across the Highlands and Islands, but it shows the vast potential. If this year has taught us anything, it is the importance of taking care of what we have: our health, our people, our planet. Lockdown demonstrated what a lower carbon world could look like and we need innovative businesses to keep pushing the margins to help deliver a net zero Scotland.

Gillian Galloway is head of innovation at Highlands and Islands Enterprise