The most recent Scottish Government figures show that around 70% of Scotland’s total electricity consumption is produced by renewables. But, electricity only accounts for about one quarter of Scotland’s total energy consumption – most of our energy is consumed by heating and transportation (air, road and rail) almost all of which is produced by burning oil and gas. This means that only around 20% of Scottish energy consumption is produced from renewables.

In the face of a looming climate crisis, the UK Government has recently committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Scottish Government has been more ambitious and pledged to meet net zero emissions by 2045. This ambition is reinforced in the Scottish Government Climate Change Bill by a target of 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. So, the challenge for us all is how will we meet these targets?

HeraldScotland: Renewables can supply up to 70% of Scotland’s electricity, but that is just a fraction of our total energy usage.Renewables can supply up to 70% of Scotland’s electricity, but that is just a fraction of our total energy usage.

In June 2019, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, launched the final report of its major Inquiry into Scotland’s Energy Future. The two-year project had a goal of assessing the pros and cons of the options available to meet Scotland’s energy needs. This allowed a committee of independent experts to take evidence from a wide range of stakeholders; including an open call for written evidence, public engagement events across Scotland, and numerous meetings with government, industry and third sector organisations. The report considers Scotland’s current energy landscape, analysis of the future options available to meet energy demand, and the governance of our energy system.

The RSE Energy Inquiry report makes a number of recommendations.

However, perhaps its most important point is that there is no silver bullet.

HeraldScotland: Committee Members, Sir Muir Russell (Chair) , Professor Rebecca Lunn (Deputy Chair), Professor Simon Harley, Professor Gareth Harrison, Professor Gavin Little, Professor Stephen McArthur, Professor Peter Smith, Professor Karen Turner , Professor John Underhill & Professor Janette WebbCommittee Members, Sir Muir Russell (Chair) , Professor Rebecca Lunn (Deputy Chair), Professor Simon Harley, Professor Gareth Harrison, Professor Gavin Little, Professor Stephen McArthur, Professor Peter Smith, Professor Karen Turner , Professor John Underhill & Professor Janette Webb

There are no easy answers to the enormous challenge we face. If we cannot significantly reduce energy demand, which must clearly be a government priority, we may need to double or even treble our low-carbon electricity production. For example, current government policy aims to reduce carbon emissions from transportation by switching to electric vehicles. However, while such a move is certainly necessary, it is not sufficient.

The additional electricity required to power our electric cars must somehow be produced, and by low carbon methods (renewables or nuclear).

One option to reduce carbon emissions from domestic heating is to convert all our heating systems to run on hydrogen gas. However, based on current technologies, we can only produce sufficient hydrogen by manufacturing it from methane, a process which produces carbon dioxide.

Hence, we would still need to invest in technologies for capturing and storing the carbon dioxide. This may prove expensive, so who should pay? Scotland already has a high percentage of households in fuel poverty – 25% in 2017.

HeraldScotland: Read more about our Climate For Change initiative in Business HQ, online every quarterRead more about our Climate For Change initiative in Business HQ, online every quarter

Future energy policy must consider a wide range of possibilities within the framework of the “energy quadrilemma” – climate change, affordability, energy security, and providing energy in a just and sustainable way.

Difficult decisions are unavoidable and must be made by our elected officials in a transparent and honest way; one which looks at Scotland’s needs, and its social and ethical responsibilities in the round, and decides what the best energy mix should be.

The danger of not meeting the challenge head-on is that Scotland, and the wider UK, do not produce enough energy to meet future requirements and rely increasingly on importing energy from overseas. When we import energy, which already accounts for 36% of UK primary supply, we have no control over its carbon footprint, nor over the ethics, social justice and environmental impacts at the point of its production. We also leave ourselves vulnerable to major geopolitical crises that could result in energy shortages.

One of the primary outcomes of the RSE Energy Inquiry is the need to raise the level of informed, evidence-based discussion around energy policy and its impacts. Too often debate on how we source and use energy focuses narrowly on individual technologies and their (both real and perceived) drawbacks.

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Public opinion is also influenced by the “not in my back yard” problem of not siting production sites near people.

As we look to meeting this global challenge, an important facet of “doing things differently” should be to facilitate a wider and more meaningful discussion on why we need energy, how we use it and from where we source it. There will be no perfect or easy solution. Decisions will inevitably have consequences, and significant financial investment will unquestionably be required, but these realities cannot be allowed to hinder the mature and considered debate that is needed.

To this end, a key recommendation of the RSE report is the establishment of an independent expert advisory commission on energy policy and governance. If given the requisite authority and resources, such a commission would provide the Scottish Government, legislators and regulators with integrated and impartial advice. It could also address related areas such as fuel poverty, climate change mitigation, economic development, environmental protection, planning, transport, community development and public health.

An independent, credible and trusted body providing this sort of guidance could play a key role in strengthening public and political discourse on energy.

Professor Rebecca Lunn is Deputy Chair, Royal Society of Edinburgh Energy Inquiry, University of Strathclyde

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The Herald’s Climate for Change initiative supports efforts being made by the Scottish Government with key organisations and campaign partners. Throughout the year we will provide a forum in The Herald newspaper, online at herald.scotland.com and in Business HQ magazine, covering news and significant developments in this increasingly crucial area.

If you are interested in contributing editorially or interested in becoming a Climate for Change partner, please contact Stephen McTaggart on 0141 302 6137 or email stephen.mctaggart@heraldandtimes.co.uk