SUSTAINABILITY has become a touchstone of modern Scottish politics.

Once a dish associated with the lentil-supping, tree-hugging fringe, it is now served with almost everything on the political agenda. More than a buzzword, "sustainability" is becoming a kind of new-age industry with a legion of civil servants, engineers, academics employed in thinking of new ways for Scotland to move towards a huge 80% reduction in carbon emissions in the next 30 years.

The big question: is it possible to have a growing economy and increased prosperity while massively shrinking the nation’s carbon bootprint, turning it into the tiny smudge of a bared tiptoe? Next month a new national centre is to be established in an attempt to co-ordinate the thinking which is going on across the country about this vital question. It will take a UK lead on the issue, advising central and local government on how to make their policies more genuinely sustainable, while also urging communities and businesses to follow suit.

For Professor Jan Bebbington, Director of the University of St Andrews ‘ Sustainability Institute, the centre is a vital step. “We actually don’t know what sustainability should look like,” she says: “We don’t know how to get there – to a low carbon, socially just, sustainable society – because we have never been there before.” She gives the example of the car, which with the soaring cost of fuel, is on the minds of many at the moment. Solving traffic problems “sustainably” – so that they don’t cause problems for future generations – calls for big solutions, such as making it possible for people to live closer to where they work and shop. Making political and technological solutions acceptable to people can also be hard.

Politicians may talk about it, but is the Scottish Government, for instance, really willing to move towards true sustainability? It’s a question of definition, according to Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who has his doubts.

“The SNP talk a lot about ‘sustainable economic growth’, but like Labour in London , they mean simply ‘sustained growth in the short term’. We mean something totally different, which is that all economic activity must work imaginatively within our ecological limits,” he explains.

“The second Forth Crossing is a perfect example of their thinking. The existing bridge can be repaired at a cost of just £119m, yet SNP Ministers are determined to press ahead with a new bridge, costing £4.2bn, thirty-five times more. “Given the increasing cost of our depleting oil, it’s entirely unsustainable to waste so much money that could be used to improve public transport and make it more affordable.” Harvie argues that the SNP should follow the example of other countries such as Germany which pay a premium to homeowners who sell renewable energy back to the grid. For him, a low-tech, sustainable economy can deliver new ways to make big profits.

“Germany now has a quarter of a million people employed in the green energy sector. Britain has just 7000 people working in this area. A smarter low-carbon economy is not just necessary for sustainability, it could also deliver a competitive advantage.” Frazer Scott, chief executive of sustainability agency Forward

Scotland, feels that the way we measure economic growth has to change. He has a problem with the concept of gross domestic product (GDP), the traditional measure of a healthy economy. Any demand, even if it is environmentally and socially destructive, counts as growth and increases GDP. “We need a new way of looking at progress. The current world economic slowdown only heightens that.” Scott and others – including the influential Sustainable Development Research Council – agree.

They want the government to measure economic growth in a different way, using Sustainable Development Performance Indicators (SPDI). Professor Stephen Tinsley will head the new National Sustainable Development Centre, which opens in Forres, in Moray, next month. The centre was established at the urging of the Westminster government after complaints about a lack of national coordination. The University of Central Lancashire has applied to be an English “node” of the Forres centre, while Scotland ‘s new centre will also work closely with similar bodies in Wales and Ireland.

According to Professor Tinsley, the centre will fill a gap, providing an interface between extensive work in the natural and physical sciences and marrying it with social science. “It will coordinate all the work that is going on across the country and it will be a place that businesses, communities and individuals can come forvery practical advice about what they can do, what is out there and what seems to be working.

“We will build an information base that will tell us what is working. For a community or a business it may not be clear exactly what they can do to make themselves more sustainable. We will work with government on a national and a local level on policy.” One of the first steps will be to use Forres as the model in a study to examine how sustainable the town itself is.

In terms of the way growth is measured, Scotland is also taking a lead in terms of the new sustainability indicators, Tinsley points out. “In Scotland we are proposing to measure 24 of these whereas in England it is 147. I think it better to have fewer but to make sure they are really relevant.” Here, such indicators include the quantity of waste sent to landfill, levels of fuel poverty, air quality and the health of sea fisheries, as well as more nebulous ideas such as levels of “social concern”.

Tinsey explains there are three legs to sustainability – the environment, the economy and social factors. The new SDPI would try to measure the environmental impact and the wellbeing of society rather than just demand. He believes the establishment of a national centre was key to putting sustainability at the forefront of government thinking and planning. Key areas of activity will include involving communities, working with business and using new technology effectively.

“There is a distillery in Wick which produces hot water as byproduct of the manufacturing process and they are now pumping that water to heat the local swim- ming pool and houses in the community,” says Tinsey, referring to a groundbreaking initiative at Old Pulteneytown Distillery. “That is an example of the kind of project that can really make a difference.” The Scottish Government insists it is playing its part and points to initiatives like its new Climate Challenge Fund which is offering £18 million in grants to community groups who want to reduce their carbon footprint, whether by growing food, using energy more effectively or making lifestyle changes.

A spokesman for the Scottish government said: “Making sustainable economic growth the government’s single purpose means the public sector now has a clear purpose to work towards. “The strategic objectives which sit below the purpose – Healthier, Wealthier and Fairer, Smarter, Safer and Stronger and Greener – offer a clear sense of direction for public bodies. In turn, the national outcome translate those objectives into achievable goals, against which our collective success will be measured. “This should not just be a dry, paper exercise which occupies the mind of managers. Everyone, at every level in every public organisation should be thinking how their own area of work helps us achieve our purpose.”

Who’s who in sustainability A National Sustainable Development Centre is to be created in Moray this August. It will help coordinate work being done across the country by a wide range of agencies: Sustainable Development Research Council The SDRC is based in Forres and headed by Professor Stephen Tinsley. It is an independent, self-financing research body linked to the University of the Highlands and Islands.

St Andrews Sustainability Institute Lead by Professor Jan Bebbington, SASI’s university-based researchers also run a database of all researchers in Scotland working on sustainability.

Forward Scotland Based in Stirling , an independent non-governmental think tank which runs sustainability seminars and consultations with businesses and communities. Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment & Society SAGES is based in Edinburgh and is a new collaborative research initiative between several Scottish universities and the Scottish Association for Marine Science Aberdeen University ‘s Centre for Environmental Sustainability ACES brings together natural and social scientists to conduct inter-disciplinary research on protecting the environment in the future.

The Macauley Institute Based in Aberdeen , the centre looks at making land use more sustainability.

Keep Scotland Beautiful This quango is running the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund launched last month which will hand out £18m in grants to community groups who want to grow their own food, use energy more efficiently, start car clubs or cycle. Many charities, pressure groups and political groups, such as the Green Party, are also involved in this issue.

The Scottish Herald
July 22nd 2008