THE SNP’s independent advisers on climate change have warned that a key carbon capture project being overlooked for UK Government support may force ministers to redraw large parts of Scotland's already hugely ambitious net zero plans – with agriculture and industry set to make faster cuts to emissions.

Amid COP26 taking place in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly claimed Scotland is leading the way with hugely ambitious targets for cutting emissions.

By law, Scotland has to cut its carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 75 per cent by 2030 on its way to becoming net zero by 2045 – when the country’s contribution to the climate crisis is due to end.

But the UK Government angered SNP politicians after a Scottish carbon capture project, including the Acorn project, based in the north east, was overlooked for one of the first two programmes to receive financial backing from Westminster.

Carbon capture and storage prevents harmful carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere and is instead stored securely in the ground or seabed.

The Scottish Government’s vision for cutting emissions by 2030 is heavily reliant on ramping up carbon capture technology, hoped to be operational as early as 2024.

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Now, a key independent adviser for both the Scottish and UK governments has warned that SNP ministers may have to cut emissions deeper and quicker in farming and industry – suggesting the current plan “is not going to work” without that technology being scaled up in time.

Conservatives have claimed that a third carbon capture project, which the Scottish Acorn project would expect to be a prime candidate for, could be accelerated – but no guarantees have been made.

Chris Stark, the former head of the Scottish Government’s Energy and Climate Change Directorate, is the CEO for the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

Speaking exclusively to The Herald on Sunday at COP26, Stark stressed he was not concerned about the failure of the Scottish Government to meet its last three annual emissions targets, stressing “it’s always better to look in the medium term”.

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But he added: “The target that matters is the 2030 target and it’s really bloody difficult.”

Stark warned that it took 30 years from 1990 to 2020 for Scotland to half its emissions, adding “they need to do that again in nine”.

He added: “The first 30 years was the easy bit”.

The adviser said that “there’s no technical barrier” to Scotland achieving its ambitious 2030 goal, adding “there is only a question of willingness and ability to do it”.

At an appearance in front of MSPs earlier this year, Stark described the 2030 strategy as “on the fringes of credibility”.

That worry has been further compounded by the key Scottish project missing out on support to get its key carbon capture project up and running quickly.

The Scottish Government's net zero strategy stresses that carbon capture and storage “is essential” to the vision, adding it is “a key to industrial decarbonisation”.

Before the funding blow, it was hoped the Acorn project could open by 2025 when 2 million tonnes of carbon could be stored a year – being scaled up to 10 million tonnes by 2030.

Stark said the blueprint for hitting the 2030 legal requirement “looks a little harder now” in light of the carbon capture funding decision.

He said: “My own view is that we should be able to get a third project going and that the Scottish project would be a really good candidate for that.

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“But without the idea that carbon capture starts in Scotland, that plan, I’m afraid, is not going to work.”

Stark added: “It means they’re going to have to work harder elsewhere. That means that we need to look at cutting industry emissions more quickly, agriculture emissions more quickly – cutting emissions from buildings more quickly – they are the three big areas.

“For transport, they have already got a really ambitious plan in place – so it’s hard to see that there’s much flex there.”

Under the SNP’s current strategy, transport emissions are expected to be cut from 11Mt of CO2 in 2020 to 6.4Mt of CO2 in 2030.

But agriculture is only expected to see emissions drop from 7Mt in 2020 to 5.5Mt in 2030, buildings emissions will drop from 8Mt to 6.5Mt and industry will see pollution drop from 11.5Mt to 7.2Mt over the decade.

Stark stressed that the 75% target by 2030 was not advised by the CCC, warning “the Act doesn't permit backtracking”, leaving ministers no option to revise it.

He added: “It would be fantastic to achieve it and therefore, I think that’s got to be the plan and they have to go full steam ahead to get it.

“I suspect it will be good for the Scottish economy as well, if we do it. It will be quite far advanced of what the rest of the UK is doing by 2030.”

The Acorn project, like the successful bids for Humber and Teeside and another for Merseyside, plans to link up a big industrial hub with carbon capture technology – with the project key to helping clear up Grangemouth’s operations.

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Stark admitted there is a “worry” that overlooking the Acorn project for initial support could impact efforts to decarbonise Scotland’s heavily-polluting industry.

He said: “The Acorn project is a slam dunk, in my view, for support. Burt it’s also true to say that the two projects in the north of England are fantastic projects and the Prime Minister has delivered what he promised – support for two CCS projects in a competition.

“It means the Acorn project is going to have to work super hard to get to that place. But it is clearly a good project. In a situation where we had more resource for carbon capture and storage, it would be a good candidate to receive funding early.”

Stark added: “I don’t think that discussion is dead. In our assessment, we think we need to five or six of these clusters across the country. Doing it quickly is going to be a big ask.

“Scottish ministers look like they might be willing to put some financial support into that project to try and bring it into the same timeframe as the other two – that would be good.

“In our assessment for the UK, we couldn’t construct a scenario for achieving net zero by 2050 without CCS.”

Critics have warned that carbon capture technology should not be relied upon to decarbonise economies, with worries it remains unproven at the industrial scale needed, the fact it does not capture 100% of carbon dioxide and is largely used currently to aid exploration of fossil fuels.

But Stark insisted the CCC’s support for the technology “isn’t because we like fossil fuels”, but suggested it gives government “huge options” in strategies to reach net zero.

READ MORE: Warning over reliance on carbon capture and storage for climate targets

He said: “It keeps open some choices and pathways for decarbonising that you wouldn’t have otherwise. “If you have carbon capture and storage, you can go faster in decarbonising than you could do without it.

“Therefore, not doing it is delaying the decabonisation, causing the problem to be bigger.”

Stark added: “The failure to do it at scale is by and large the financing of it and crucially, having the commercial models in place.

“The other reason to be more hopeful about carbon capture is that we’ve moved away from the old paradigm, which was essentially burning coal and then putting something on the chimney into a much more sophisticated method.

“You are producing a clean fuel at the end of that, hydrogen, in a very efficient process.

“It’s fully decarbonsied, there’s still some emissions that go with it, but it allows you to quickly scale up a hydrogen sector that you know you will need by 2050 a well.

“You allow industry to carry on, create new hydrogen and it’s a much better outlook than the old–style carbon capture in power stations.”

One areas Mr Stark warned could face more drastic attention to cut emissions, following the carbon capture delay, is Scotland's agricultural sector – with the blame placed on the Scottish Government, and specifically former rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing.

He insisted that the farming industry “hasn’t contributed enough” to Scotland’s move to a clean economy.

Stark said: “We’ve got to cut emissions from agriculture. “I still hear the story that somehow agriculture should be isolated from the challenge across the economy. Every sector has a role to play in this thing.

“For me, it’s a failure of imagination behind this.

READ MORE: SNP 'cannot afford to start war with farmers' over carbon targets

“Farmers and land managers in this country and indeed, other parts of the world, should and could be rewarded for storing carbon and restoring the environmental benefits that land should provide. At the moment they aren’t - they are rewarded for rearing cattle and growing certain crops.

“It’s a collective failure of a sector that hasn’t seen an opportunity, plus ministers that are often very wedded to those lifestyles and existing incumbent activities and resistant to change.”

He added: “For me, the change is going to come regardless so it would be better for ministers in Scotland, to get ahead of that really.

“There’s a glimmer of that happening so I feel slightly more optimistic under the new ministerial direction that Scotland has on farming.

“It’s something that is really, really making up for lost ground here, so we’ve got to move quickly on it.

“It’s a sector that is profoundly driven by policy and the policies haven’t been set, so you can’t expect the sector to come along.”