SCOTLAND’s Net Zero Secretary has warned cuts to harmful emissions are expected to “substantially rebound” after the pandemic helped push the country into hitting a key climate target.

The Scottish Government has been urged to “seriously up its game” on climate action despite figures using a revised method showing it has met a key emissions reduction target.

Ministers have come under criticism for failing to hit its annual greenhouse gas reduction targets for the last three years – but figures using an updated methodology from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) shows that emissions in 2020 reduced by 58.7 per cent against a target of 56%.

Revised data using the new method shows that reductions for 2018 and 2019 fell short of annual targets.

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Legislation agreed by MSPs in 2019 requires the CCC’s most recent advice on the method to be used.

Scotland has pledged to become net zero by 2045 and cut emissions by 75% of 1990 levels by 2030 and has also set annual and interim targets.

The 2020 interim target was set at a 56% reduction, with statistics showing a 58.7% reduction.

HeraldScotland: Scotland's annual reduction in harmful emissionsScotland's annual reduction in harmful emissions

But the progress getting back on track for the 2020 figures has been explained by measures introduced during the pandemic.

According to the Scottish Government analysis, domestic transport showed “dramatic deceases in emissions associated with the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020” which officials said has “led to a reduction in the long-term average trend”.

Domestic transport has been Scotland’s largest emitter since 2016 due to energy and power systems being cleaned up, particularly the ending of burning coal. Between 2019 and 2020, emissions from the sector were cut by 20.9% with car emissions being slashed by 26.6% and domestic aviation plummeting by 61.5% due to the pandemic.

Between 2019 and 2020, emissions from energy supply decrease by 0.8Mt or 13% - driven by a cut in CO2 emissions from power stations.

HeraldScotland: Domestic transport makes up the largest part of Scotland's emissionsDomestic transport makes up the largest part of Scotland's emissions

But over the same annual period, there was “essentially no change in business emissions” while agriculture, a sector historically lagging behind in cutting emissions, saw a slight 0.2Mt or 2.9% reduction.

Despite a “relatively warmer latter part of 2020 compared to 2019”, officials said that “residential emissions increased very slightly” over the annual period.

They added: “This marginal increase in emissions was possibly driven by more people working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown.”

SNP Net Zero Secretary Michael Matheson said the figures show Scotland “continues to outperform the UK as a whole in delivering long term emissions reductions”.

He said: “The new data shows underlying progress in reducing emissions across key sectors of the economy.

“Nonetheless, the most significant changes are in the transport sector and are associated with the temporary measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We must be prepared for these figures to substantially rebound in 2021.”

Mr Matheson added: “There can be no satisfaction taken in emissions reductions resulting from the health, economic and social harms of the pandemic.

"However, the data does provide a valuable lesson regarding the scale of the transformational change needed in response to the climate emergency and shows that embedding habits such as working from home and using cars less can make a real impact on reducing emissions.

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“With emissions down by well over 50% since 1990, Scotland is making long-term progress towards net zero despite the constraints of devolved powers. We will continue to work with and, where needed, challenge the UK Government to ensure urgent action is being taken in key areas that remain reserved.

“But it is clear that Scotland could make a much greater contribution to global climate action were we not reliant on decisions made elsewhere.”

Conservative MSP Maurice Golden warned that the 2020 progress was “bittersweet news” adding that “it was only accomplished through a nationwide lockdown”. 

He added: “Before today, they had missed their emissions targets three years running.  

“In addition, they had failed to meet a whole series of important targets such as household recycling, biodiversity, green jobs and active travel – not forgetting their failure to deliver a ban on sending biodegradable waste to landfill in 2021 as promised. 

“All of this shows that the Scottish Government needs to be bolder and implement its proposed policies – particularly in heating, agriculture and transport.” 

In response, Mr Matheson said: “The likelihood is that transport emissions, which is a sizeable component in the shift that we saw in the 2020 data during the course of the pandemic are likely to rebound which will have an impact on the figures next year.” 

But he added: “It is simply wrong to say that we are progressing our climate change policy dependent on taking forward lockdowns.” 

Campaigners have warned that more action will be needed to keep the key 2030 and 2045 pledges on track.

Mike Robinson, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS), said: “Despite showing a record yearly fall in emissions, these figures tell two stories.

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“Measures brought in to protect public health during the Covid-19 lockdowns undoubtedly played a part, with more people working from home and travel restricted. However, we also know that emissions will have rebounded as these temporary measures were eased.”

He added: “Crucially, we need the Scottish Government to treat climate change as the emergency it declared it to be back in 2019, securing long-term reductions to emissions, while delivering a green recovery. To achieve this, we need to see more ambitious action in all sectors, in particular transport, agriculture and housing.

“Unless enhanced measures are taken to improve delivery, the post-Covid-19 rebound in emissions will ensure that we miss our targets for 2030 and 2045. That’s why we’re calling on the Scottish Government to seriously up its game.”