THE HEAD of the independent body set up to advise governments on the climate emergency has suggested Scotland could become a carbon capture “hub” for the rest of Europe as part of plans to transform into a zero carbon economy.

Chris Stark, the chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, praised the Scottish Government’s commitments to a green recovery from Covid-19 in its Programme for Government – but warned over a lack of a strategy to modernise farming as part of Scotland’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2045.

Mr Stark, the Scottish Government's former director of energy and climate change, also called on the UK Government to axe a “daft” tax incentive on people who continue to heat their homes with fossil fuels.

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He was appearing before MSPs on Holyrood’s environment, climate change and land reform committee who are investigating a green recovery from the pandemic.

Mr Stark said the Scottish Government has “clearly embraced the advice we gave” over the Programme for Government – which has a distinct focus on green jobs, adding that “ministers are on the right track”.

But he warned that he was “very worried about a rebound for the use of cars” with the public nervous about using public transport during the pandemic, which he said could “undermine the efforts” of a green recovery.

Mr Stark stressed that the impacts of the climate emergency will be seen directly in Scotland, warning that the country is “not immune” from physical risks such as increased flooding – suggesting that authorities are under-prepared for a shift to a net zero country.

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Labour MSP Claudia Beamish pointed to concerns from environmentalists that carbon capture, where carbon dioxide is prevented from escaping into the atmosphere as a “distraction from renewables”.

The Scottish Government is keen to use carbon capture and storage as part of its strategy to develop a green recovery from Covid-19 and to become carbon neutral by 2045. A £5 million carbon capture and utilisation challenge fund was announced in the Programme for Government.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s climate and energy campaigner, Caroline Rance, has warned that “politicians cannot be seduced by the false solutions and false promises of the fossil fuel industry who are demanding public money for high risk technologies like carbon capture or fossil-fuelled hydrogen”.

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Mr Stark stressed that most sectors of the economy should be able to get to zero carbon but warned “there will, however, be a set of sectors where that will be difficult on not possible”.

He said that agriculture and aviation would be able to transition but warned that heavy industry will “struggle to get to actual zero emissions”.

He added: “Carbon capture is going to be important to the journey that Scotland is on.

“Carbon capture and storage is an option opener. If we have these facilities, we have more options to decarbonise the economy.

"Scotland is a pretty good place to use carbon capture. Scotland could be a hub for this for the rest of the UK or even Europe.”

Mr Stark added that “hydrogen is an enormously useful fuel” that could be used as a replacement for natural gas.

He told MSPS that he was “pretty concerned” by a lack of joined-up thinking by the Scottish Government on how to modernise the agriculture sector, warning it appeared that ministers are “clinging on to the old model of agriculture support”.

Mr Stark said that in a net zero economy, farmers should “continue to have livestock” but “use that agriculture land in a different way” including “where possible, restoring peatland” and helping the mass planting of trees.

SNP MSP Stewart Stevenson asked Mr Stark whether he would back the “retraining of pilots into roles that are equivalent in rail”, claiming it was “bizarre” that so many people fly from central Scotland to London.

But Mr Stark suggested that people flying from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London was a “really efficient way” of using fossil fuels.

He added: “The major driver of the carbon problems is not domestic travel. The major driver is international travel and long-haul flights.

“I would much prefer to see us using domestic surface transport as an alternative to flying.”

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Mr Stark said that tax levers, mostly held by the Westminster Government, could act as a “sharper carbon signal”.

He said: “We have said in the round that what we need is efforts to push us on a sharper transition towards net zero – that would include using some of the tax levers, most of those are at the disposal of the Chancellor in Westminster.

“There may be, though, some levers that either are with Holyrood now or could be in the future that might help with that transition overall.”

He added: “The big one for me is the tax levers, penalties or incentives, depending how you structure it, over the heat decarbonsiation.

“There’s an inbuilt VAT benefit to using fossil fuels and natural gas as opposed to electricity – which is a daft thing to have in place if the electricity is increasingly green. That’s one thing I’m looking for from the Chancellor.

“Also, the use of levers, where possible, to drive the transition from internal combustion engine, petrol and diesel vehicles to the cleaner alternatives – electric vehicles mainly. The tax system can play an important role in that.”

A Treasury spokesperson said: “The UK offers a reduced rate of five per cent VAT on domestic fuel and power, which applies regardless of whether energy derives from a renewable source or not.

“The reduced rate is important in keeping bills down for families and, while all taxes are kept under review, there are currently no plans to change it.

“We’re committed to meeting our climate change and wider environmental targets, including our commitment to net zero by 2050.”