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How to get Scotland ready for a green recovery

According to Christiana Figueres, who spearheaded the delivery of the Paris climate agreement, the economic rescue packages being pieced together across the world could amount to as much as £16 trillion. Intervention on that kind of scale will shape the economy for years to come.

Iain Gulland | 14 Jul 20

Those are vital years. COVID-19 has put many things on hold, but the clock hasn’t stopped ticking on the warning that we have little more than a decade to prevent a climate catastrophe.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to rethink the society and economy we live and work in. Scotland can build back better – creating more jobs and businesses by accelerating the development of our circular economy.

The circular economy is all about making things last. Instead of our wasteful traditional linear approach of make, take and throw, it is about keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible by designing, producing and using them as efficiently as possible.

But we can only do that if the economic response to the pandemic enables us to tackle the climate emergency too, rather than locking us back in to business as usual.

To make sure of that, we need to put in place the right economic conditions to create circular economy opportunities and make sure we have the capacity and skills to take advantage of them. That’s no small feat – how do we get started?

If we want an economy where businesses make the best use of materials by reusing, repairing and recycling, we need to give them the right economic steer. Financial incentives helped Scotland’s renewable energy capacity more than triple in the last ten years. Similar action is needed now to give businesses confidence to invest in Scotland’s circular economy. Introducing recycling, reuse and reprocessing credits would help shape the economy in favour of more circular means.

Alongside the incentives, we need investment. Public sector procurement is worth a whopping £11 billion every year. At 10% of the entire Scottish economy, that cash can drive big changes. If public and private sector organisations add circular economy criteria to their procurement practices, they won’t just make cost savings and reduce emissions – they’ll help grow the national market for services like re-use, repair and remanufacturing. Zero Waste Scotland is already working with NHS Scotland to find more sustainable and circular methods of procurement for the £2.3 billion of goods, services and works which our health service invests in each year. Lessons from this experience could be replicated across Scotland.

We need to break down the barriers to a circular economy. One of these is our lack of domestic reprocessing capacity. We recycled more than seven million tonnes of waste in 2018 but much of that was shipped abroad for reprocessing. We’re not just shipping waste – we’re giving away opportunities. The glass industry is a good example of this potential. Glass captured in Scotland helps to support the production of new glass bottles at Irvine and Alloa, which provides high quality glass containers for our distilleries. Policies like Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme, which will capture 90% of single-use drinks bottles and cans for recycling, could help create the supply of material needed to attract more domestic reprocessing. That will create job opportunities while reducing our exposure to volatile global supply chains.

To realise those opportunities, we need to make sure that people in Scotland have the necessary skills and expertise. Scotland is at risk of seeing significant levels of unemployment and it looks likely that young people will bear the brunt of that. The younger generation is at risk of not just a period of unemployment, but of long-term scarring of their careers. 

To ensure Scotland has a workforce that’s ready to take full advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the circular economy, it must become embedded across the entire educational system. From primary school right through to university and even into professional development, people must have the skills and expertise to create a greener, more circular economy. To help make that happen, we’ll be publishing evidence later this summer, looking at the number of jobs in our circular economy, and what skills are needed to deliver more of them.

This isn’t just about pursuing different policies – this is a different way of thinking, one that could be instructive for tackling the complex challenges we face. Because a circular economy looks at materials across their entire life cycle, it forces people to look at the whole production and consumption system. That requires work across sectors and disciplines, and we want to take that approach to everything we do.

That can mean lending our views and expertise to others. We contributed to the Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s green recovery ideas and this week’s report from the Climate Emergency Response Group. We also sponsored and participated in last month’s Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Climate Emergency event, bringing together people from government, charities and businesses like Scottish Power to come up with ideas on how we can make our economy greener.  

It also means gathering together experts to benefit from their views. In the coming days, we’ll be publishing the findings of an expert advisory group we commissioned to look at how economic activity can be decoupled from increased emissions. The report sets out how the economy can grow in harmony with the environment, not in conflict. It could play a key role in making sure we truly build back better by doing more differently to make things last.

The Scottish Government is due to respond to the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery this month. There’s no shortage of ideas for them to make that a green recovery – acting on them now will deliver benefits long after the pandemic has lifted.

Zero Waste Scotland has published its Five Priorities for a Green Recovery here.

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