Scotland Made Big Climate Pledges. Now They’re ‘Out of Reach.’

Climate promises are hard to keep. Scotland is the latest, perhaps most surprising example.

Scotland, an early industrial power and coal-burning behemoth, was also an early adopter of an ambitious and legally binding government target to slow down climate change. It had promised to pare back its emissions of planet-heating greenhouse gases by 75 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

This week, its Net Zero minister, Màiri McAllan, said that goal was now “out of reach.” She said Scotland, which operates semi-autonomously from Britain, would scrap its annual targets for cutting emissions and instead review targets every five years.

That is a sharp contrast to the bullishness of the Scottish government in 2021, when diplomats from around the world gathered in Glasgow for international United Nations climate talks. At that time, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called Scotland’s climate targets “not just amongst the most ambitious anywhere in the world — they are also amongst the toughest.”

The reversal shows how difficult it can be for governments to follow through on ambitious promises to slash emissions, despite the growing urgency to act as climate change rapidly warms the world and fuels extreme weather.

Well beyond Scotland, the setback stands to play out in global climate diplomacy. It could bolster claims by some emerging economies, whose emissions continue to grow, that historic polluters, like Scotland, aren’t doing enough to cut their fair share.

There are also domestic political ramifications in an election year in Scotland. It’s an embarrassment for the ruling coalition, led by the Scottish National Party, which favors greater independence from Britain, of which Scotland is a part.

So what happened?

The Climate Change Committee, an independent body appointed by the British Parliament, said several weeks ago that Scotland had repeatedly delayed its climate plans and hadn’t reduced emissions fast enough on most sectors of the economy. Scotland’s 2030 goals, the committee said in mid-March, “are no longer credible.”

Emissions have already sharply fallen in Scotland. In 2021 they were 49 percent lower than they were in 1990. The problem is, that’s not fast enough to be on track with the government’s targets.

The committee said that while the electricity sector had reduced emissions (Scotland has a lot of wind power), Scotland wasn’t on track on reducing emissions from other sectors. It had failed to make sufficient progress on installing heat pumps to replace natural gas in heating. And its transportation emissions weren’t coming down fast enough, in part because it lacks concrete plans to reduce reliance on cars, which was part of its plans.

Nor, contrary to its pledges, had Scotland done enough to restore peatlands, which lock away significant quantities of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that is warming the world.

In her remarks to Parliament on Thursday, Ms. McAllan, the Scottish minister, said Scotland remained “steadfast” in its longer-term target to neutralize its emissions completely by 2045. That remains one of the world’s most ambitious targets. The Climate Change Committee, though, concluded that “there is no comprehensive strategy” to get there.

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