People at the heart of the Climate Change Plan?

With the Scottish Government’s new Climate Change Plan published, and the planning review looking to put people at the heart of planning,  Ragne Low from the University of Strathclyde Centre for Energy Policy takes a look at what the Plan has to say about the role of people in the low carbon transition.

The transition to a low carbon Scotland requires action from all of us

This fact is clearly acknowledged in the Plan. As the Cabinet Secretary puts it in her foreword: “We cannot do this without the people of Scotland alongside us.” But how much genuine public participation is built into the Plan? What sort of societal changes does the Plan envisage, and how will Government, the wider public sector and the private sector work with citizens to realise those changes?

The commitment to engaging people comes across strongly in the introductory section of the Plan, with plenty of references to the role of communities and citizens peppered across it. However, this Plan follows the format of the two previous plans (called Reports on Proposals and Policies) by bundling all of the ‘people stuff’ into the introduction, and saying very little about communities and citizens in the meatier sector-by-sector chapters.

In terms of specifics, the Plan sets out three tangible ways in which the Scottish Government is aiming to empower and engage people in low carbon action:

  • the Climate Challenge Fund
  • the Climate Conversations toolkit
  • Advice under the Greener Scotland campaign

The Climate Challenge Fund is a long-standing initiative that provides grass-roots organisations with support to implement low carbon projects in their communities. It is widely lauded as a success, and there are some shining examples of low carbon action amongst its 1,000 funded projects. But the CCF will never be a galvanising force for large-scale emissions cuts right across society. And while public dialogue and awareness raising about climate change are necessary for building the foundations for people to take low carbon action, they are certainly not sufficient.

The Plan also sets out the so-called ISM approach to ‘influencing behaviours’. ISM stands for the ‘individual’, ‘social’ and ‘material’ contexts that frame people’s actions and social practices. The ISM approach has been used for almost ten years now to inform policy design in Scotland. However, the imprint of the ISM approach on the policies actually listed in the Plan is very faint. And the description of how the ISM approach has been used within Government has not moved on significantly since the last plan.

There is one people-related departure in this Plan – the new section highlighting synergies between planning policy and climate change action. In terms of taking a genuinely people-focused approach, the explicit inclusion of planning policy in the Plan is particularly welcome. As the Plan says,

The planning system is a means by which the missing infrastructure which would assist low carbon choices to be made, can be identified and developed in the future” and rightly notes that “for emissions reductions, probably the most important decision the planning system makes is where new development should be built.

Sector-by-sector change – a focus on technology and infrastructure

However, when it comes to the sectoral chapters of the Plan, the emphasis on people seems to fall away. We are told very little either about how citizens were engaged in developing the policies in the Plan or about what assumptions are made about how people (often described as consumers or customers in these sections of the Plan) might respond to those policies. A notable exception is the whole-page description of how Scotland’s Energy Efficiency Programme is explicitly building on knowledge about people’s behaviours and the feedback that has been provided to government through the Climate Conversations.

On transport, whilst there is reference to behaviour change, the emphasis is very much on technology and infrastructure – and the assumed 27% growth in car kilometres between 2015 and 2035 suggests that very little faith is being put in the opportunities for shifts in personal travel behaviours at any significant scale.

A question of emphasis – a low carbon ‘society’ or ‘economy’?

The Climate Change Plan sets out “Scotland’s path to a sustainable, inclusive low carbon society”. On the face of it, this may seem a minor thing, but the use of the word ‘society’ here instead of ‘economy’ is telling. Those of us working on climate policy are very used to talking about ‘the low carbon economy’. The UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy (equivalent to the Climate Change Plan) talks exclusively about clean economic growth and uses the blander expression ‘a low carbon future’.

Just out of curiosity, I did a quick check on how many times the following words appear in the Clean Growth Strategy and Climate Change Plan. I was surprised at the difference between the two documents:


Clean Growth Strategy

Climate Change Plan







“community” or “communities”



“society” or “societal”



The contrast between the UK Government’s economy-driven Clean Growth Strategy and the Scottish Government’s vision of an ‘inclusive transition’ set out in the Climate Change Plan is pretty striking.

Our verdict

The Plan’s commitment to active public participation in the low carbon transition is welcome. But the sector chapters are scant on detail about how people and society have been taken into account in determining the mix of policies presented in the Plan.

When passed, the new Climate Change Bill will very likely trigger another climate change plan. For that next plan to embed a ‘people-centred approach’ and really put people at the heart of climate policy, we need not only initiatives to raise public awareness and support people to take low carbon action, but also a clear commitment from government to engage, listen to and empower people in the design and implementation of policies.

Ragne Low is Principal Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Centre for Energy Policy, University of Strathclyde. This blog was originally published by the International Public Policy Institute at the University of Strathclyde. The views are those of the author.

Look out for more on planning for resilience and adaptation to climate change in the Spring 2018 edition of Scottish Planner, published next week.


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