The Need for Public Engagement in Reducing Carbon Emissions


A Royal Society of Edinburgh public engagement meeting in Dumfries to seek evidence for a climate change inquiry.

Dr Alan Jones, PhD. CEng. FIET.


The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) held a public engagement meeting in Dumfries, Easterbrook Hall, on Thursday 27 May 2010: one of a series of public evidence-gathering events organised across Scotland as part of a climate change inquiry.

The purpose of the RSE inquiry[I] is to gather evidence into how society can respond to climate change in Scotland and especially how local communities might best respond to the full implications of greenhouse gas emission reductions of 80% by 2050. The main outcomes of the inquiry, which is due to report in early 2011, can be summarised as:

a) Wider engagement of the public in understanding the basic science of global warming and its implications for our way of life.

b) Involvement of individuals, local communities, industry and

government in identifying priorities for action in response to climate change.

c) Identification of the main economic, social and political barriers to change and how to respond productively to these.

d) Contribution to bridging the gap between legislation, policy and its practical implementation.

e) Dissemination of policy recommendations, with specific recommendations and guidelines for policy makers and stakeholders in EU, UK and Scotland and local levels

The meeting was chaired by Professor David Sugden, Professor of Geography and Geo-Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Also represented were David Mundell, MP, Professor Alan Werritty, Research Director, UNESCO Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science, University of Dundee, Dr Rachael Dunk, Director of Education, Crichton Carbon Centre,  and Councillor Roger Grant, Dumfries & Galloway Chair of Planning, Housing and Environment Committee. About 100-150 members of the public attended the meeting. 

This discussion document draws on some of the questions raised at the public meeting as well as disseminating RSE Briefing and Advice Papers on the subject of climate change together with other reference sources to provide a reflective view on the future prospects for greenhouse gas emissions reduction activity in Scotland.

Public Inquiry Meeting

The main topics emerging from the meeting were 1) concern for the large capital expenditure needed, estimated to be as high as £20bn[ii], for investment in renewable technologies in order to meet the Climate Change (Scotland Bill) target of more than 50% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. At the moment there is no clear mechanism or route by which this level of capitalisation will be forthcoming, and 2) the level of engagement by individuals given the culture of consumerism, or consumption, prevalent in the developed world. Both these topics are expanded below.

Topic 1, The cost of achieving more than 50% of electricity generation from renewables

When this question was put to the panel there was no forthcoming response into how the required funding would be made available or what mechanisms government might put in place to encourage such funding, other than for David Mundell’s response that David Cameron’s government was committed to fighting climate change.

One member of the public suggested that achieving the 50% from renewables would be equivalent to an additional 1600 land based wind turbines (equivalent to an additional 9.0TWh of electricity generation) on top of the 900 or so wind turbines already in existence. The questioner asked whether the public would be prepared to accept such a large increase in the number of wind turbines along with the need to extend the distribution network of electricity pylons required to connect wind farms to the grid. 

Another questioner asked whether it would be necessary to strengthen the electricity network to carry this additional generation and this was confirmed by the panel. As a Scottish Government report makes clear[iii] the renewable electricity targets can be met without significant grid investment beyond that currently approved by Ofgem, but additional grid reinforcement currently in planning will accommodate over 11GW of Scottish renewables generation by 2020 and over 25GW by 2030.

In response to the question of additional wind turbines Dr Dunk, supported by Professor Werritty, felt that the move in future, and in the lead up to 2020, would be to exploit offshore wind farms where the higher average wind speed means the efficiency[iv] of individual generators is higher as a result. This means the further proliferation of land based wind turbines should not be needed. The inquiry panel view, however, is at odds with the above report,[v] which makes clear that achieving the 50% gross Scottish electricity consumption from renewables by 2020 will largely be delivered through increased hydro and onshore wind generation.

Topic 2, Individual engagement with Climate Change and the Culture of Consumerism/Consumption

One question posed by the audience was along the lines of ‘why do we import food from impoverished countries when so many people living in these countries are starving?  Is this not immoral?  This stimulated further questions about local consumption vs. flying food half way around the world just to satisfy the needs of western consumption. This led to discussion by the panellists about how we are now driven by the culture of consumerism or consumption, with little regard to the consequences either on the earth’s natural resources, or its people - especially those who are the most disadvantaged. We appear wholly concerned for ourselves and for our immediate needs, but not the needs of others. Without engagement in sustainability by everyone, and not just the hearts and minds, but translated into practical everyday actions it is unlikely that any future global average temperature rise will be limited to 2 degree C over the pre-Industrial Revolution level. 

Dr Dunk said she believed a 2 degree C rise was unachievable now and that the aim should be to attempt to limit any rise to 3 degree C. Henson[vi] maintains this level of rise is comparable to the global heating that occurred between the last ice age - some 15,000 years ago, and the warmth of the eighteenth century. He also states that scientists consider it likely that the Greenland ice sheet will begin melting uncontrollably if global temperatures climb much above the 2 degree C level with implications for floods and droughts leading to famine in many parts of the developing world, giving rise to mass population movements.

The question of engagement was not explored in the meeting but the fact that only around 100-150 people attended the Dumfries & Galloway event out of a population of over 100,000 provides a useful and telling indicator in the level of interest in this subject. If similar proportional representation is achieved in the other 3 Scottish public events it suggests that only somewhere around 0.1% of the population will have engaged themselves in this most important topic. 

Public Attitudes and Behaviours

The Scottish Government recognise the problem of engagement[vii] from a survey conducted in 2008 on attitudes and behaviours towards climate change. From this survey of 3000 adults they found:

- People were more likely (by 3:1) to see the environment as a global (remote) problem than as an important issue facing Scotland.

- When questioned further, 50% acknowledged they knew little or nothing about climate change while the 43% who claimed to be knowledgeable agreed it was an urgent problem, but around a third did not believe their own behaviour contributed to climate change and,
- When asked what they could do to reduce climate change most described relatively easy actions such as recycling as opposed to actions that demand more of a personal sacrifice.
The survey suggests that public awareness and attitude towards climate change needs to be improved and there is clearly work for the Scottish Government to do on this. However, attitude change is not sufficient, it is behavioural change which is key. Across all groups surveyed, including the greenest groups, participation in some forms of green behaviour was very low: for example, 44% of those who live a mile from work and own a car use their car to drive to work. This suggests that in order to foster real improvements efforts must focus on understanding and enabling a change in public behaviour.

Scotland, an importer of Emissions

It was this theme of behaviour that stimulated Professor Werritty to remark that the people of Scotland are importers of emissions. An RSE Advice Paper[viii] supports his comment by stating that while greenhouse gas emissions directly produced in Scotland are a relatively small part of total global emissions, our consumerist lifestyle means we are responsible for a much greater share of global emissions simply because by importing many of our manufactured goods, rather than creating our own, we effectively export our emissions to others. The fact that Scotland’s direct, or territorial, emissions are a small part of the global total is not the real issue according to the Advice Paper. It is the per capita consumption of that resource, measured by the impact of emissions on the atmosphere that is the central ethical issue.

A further RSE Briefing Paper[ix] cites the global per capita CO2 emissions from the consumption and flaring of fossil fuels over the period 1980-2006 at around 4.5 tonnes per year, with OEDC countries emitting on average about 11 tonnes per capita per year on a direct production basis. While China has surpassed the USA as the world’s largest emitter, its per capita emissions remain much lower (at 4.6 tonnes per capita per year) than that of the USA at 19.8 tonnes per capita per year, but most of China’s emissions can be accounted for by manufacturing that China undertakes on behalf of other countries – such as Scotland. At the other end of the scale Kenya manages on 0.3 tonnes per capita per year.

UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, 2009

The Briefing Paper, issued just days before the conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, was hopeful that the Conference would agree legally binding targets for COemissions targets to peak between 2015 and 2020 and to be reduced to about 1 tonne per capita per year by 2050, but as we now know, that did not happen[x].  Instead the Copenhagen Conference agreed a non-binding accord, which while recognising the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2 degree C the accord does not contain commitments to emissions reductions to achieve that goal. Nor is there any mention of the 2050 goal of reducing global emissions by 80%. There is however, a commitment for the rich countries to cut greenhouse gases and for the developing nations to take steps to limit the growth of their emissions, but it sets no targets other than for countries to set out pledges for the action they plan to take.

The Copenhagen Accord therefore leaves the developed nations in an existing situation where the EU has set a 2020 target of 20% reduction from a 1990 baseline against the USA who offered to cut emissions by 17% from 2005 levels, or if compared to the 1990 baseline, by only 4%. As the Briefing Paper makes clear, China, like the USA, are using the 2005 baseline too, and offering a 40-45% reduction in the amount of carbon used per yuan of production value, but tied to GDP. For this reason, as the Briefing Paper states, China’s emissions are likely to continue rising rapidly for at least the next ten years. It goes on to say that the USA and Chinese positions are strongly linked to such an extent that the willingness of each one to act more decisively will depend on the willingness of the other to do the same.


This brings us back full circle to the attitudes and behaviours of people in the western world who have come to both expect and enjoy the privilege of consumerism, access to unlimited travel and homes comfortably heated in the winter, and cooled in the summer. It is this constant desire for material goods that is helping fuel the Chinese economy and hence the stalemate that appears to exist between the Chinese and United States positions on carbon emissions reduction. What better example to illustrate this tendency towards consumerism than the recent launch of the Apple iPad in Europe, with the following quote from The Sunday Times[xi] “Analysts were predicting the iPad would flop as there is no reason for it. Well there isn’t, but it’s still a hit. It is perhaps the ultimate middle class gadget.” 

It is perhaps not too surprising that the Scottish Government’s primary purpose is to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for everyone in Scotland to flourish - through increasing sustainable economic growth.[xii]  Professor Werritty referred to this as an “oxymoron,” in so far as asking how it was possible for a nation to encourage sustainability, on the one hand, while also having the desire to achieve economic growth on the other. And perhaps this is the nub of the problem in relation to global warming and carbon emissions. Each nation wants to achieve the best for its citizens, at least as measured by conventional economic indicators per capita, and each nation’s government is committed to delivering this otherwise why else are they in power?

As long as measurable economic growth is the promise of government it is hard to see how there will be any significant change to the present levels of carbon footprint. After all, no government is elected on the basis of austerity measures they will introduce once elected and yet it is only through austerity stimulating a change in behaviour - that most people would regard as lowering their status or feeling of wealth - such as using a bus instead of taking the car, that carbon emissions will be brought under control. For the peoples of the western world expectations have to be reduced, and to an extent this is now beginning to be seen in several countries within Europe[xiii] due to the growing budget deficits in the euro countries. Other natural occurrences, such as the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded aircraft for many days will also help play a part. 

The point here, however, is that climate change and carbon emissions is not something which will be solved by technology alone, such as more generation from renewable sources, or more efficient heating systems, and so on. The real solution to climate change will come from the realisation that all of us, as individuals, as teams, as communities and as nations, need to be doing far more to adapt our habits to satisfy our needs so that our quality of life and standard of living can be maintained, more or less, using fewer of the earth’s natural resources. This process of adaption must begin soon and it must be led by governments of all leading nations. But this is the dilemma; in the absence of any binding UN agreement, which country will be first to begin the process and how will it set about the task of convincing the electorate that action needs to be taken and that they, the electorate, are the ones who must shoulder the burden? 




[i] Facing up to Climate Change, A major Inquiry conducted by The Royal Society of Edinburgh, (2010) The Royal Society of Edinburgh 

[ii] Fyall, J. (25 May 2010) Cash Black Hole Threatens Scots Low Carbon Economy. The Scotsman, [Online] URL: [Accessed 27 May 2010]

[iii] Climate Change Delivery Plan: Meeting Scotland’s Statutory Climate Change Targets (2009), The Scottish Government, p18, [Online] URL: [Accessed 31 May 2010]

[iv] While the term, efficiency, is used here the industry term describing the energy generated over the course of say, one year, as a proportion of the theoretical output is known as the load factor or capacity factor.  A figure of 26-28% for large-scale onshore wind was typical in 2010 compared with 30+% for offshore wind.

[v] Climate Change Delivery Plan: Meeting Scotland’s Statutory Climate Change Targets (2009), The Scottish Government, p19 Table 3, [Online] URL: [Accessed 31 May 2010]

[vi] Henson, R. (2008) The Rough Guide to Climate Change 2nd ed. London: Rough Guides Ltd

[vii] Davidson, S. Martin, C. and Treanor, S. (Ipsos MORI), Scottish Environmental Attitudes and Behaviours Survey, [Online] URL: [Accessed 30 May 2010]

[viii] The Climate Change (Scotland) Bill: A response to the Scottish Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Advice Paper (09-03), February 2009.

[ix] Climate Change and the UN Copenhagen Summit, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Briefing Paper (09-05), December 2009, Clause 16.

[x] Framework Convention on Climate Change, FCCC/CP/2009/L.7 United Nations, 18 December 2009, [Online] URL: [Accessed 31 May 2010].

[xi] Armstrong, S. (30 May 2010) Apple faithful clamour for ‘Jesus tablet,’ The Sunday Times, p15.

[xii] Towards a Low Carbon Economy for Scotland: Discussion Paper (2010) The Scottish Government. 

[xiii] Campbell, M. and Pancevski, B. (30 May 2010) Keep working: Europe cracks austerity whip, The Sunday Times, p30.


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