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Scotland shows the way forward on green agenda

The Scottish Cities Alliance, formed to drive sustainable initiatives across the country, is gaining momentum. Nicol Dynes reports.

The transition to a zero carbon future appears to have finally reached the delivery phase in the built environment.

“The degree of client interest in promoting environmental sustainability has been undimmed by Covid-19 and it has been revolutionary,” says Rob Martin, director of research for real assets at Legal & General Investment Management. “In phase 1 we set our targets, now we are in phase 2 and we’re delivering them.”

In fact, it could be argued that the pandemic will accelerate the transition to sustainable living because it has focused minds on the importance of a healthy environment.

“I see opportunities from Covid-19 because of the change in the way people live their lives and work more from home,” says Jenny Laing, co-leader of Aberdeen City Council. “There was a wall of protest at low emission zones, but now the outlook has changed and there’s a better chance to bring the community onside.”

‘Setting wider sustainability objectives and delivering them has become a real business imperative, which makes me optimistic about the future.’

Jillian Hardie, Arup

But that alone is not enough: creating green cities and promoting a zero carbon future requires cooperation between many different stakeholders, including the private and public sectors, local councils and central government, authorities and local communities.

In Scotland, the Scottish Cities Alliance has brought together the country’s seven main cities and the Holyrood government to promote the transition to a sustainable future by engaging with the local population and bringing businesses on board.

“The national partnership between central government and local authorities is a unique way of delivering what we all want to see,” explains John Alexander, chair of the Scottish Cities Alliance and leader of Dundee City Council. “We have seen a sea change in the last couple of years and now we’re moving to the delivery phase.”

Shared vision 

The alliance means each authority pushes forward its own projects at local level, but there is a shared vision and cooperation on all issues to share best practice and minimise risks.

“Working with cities is key because they have a unique role in bringing people together, nudging local communities, promoting awareness, coordinating interventions and funding projects,” says Martin. 

‘There was a wall of protest at low emission zones, but now the outlook has changed and there’s a better chance to bring the community onside.’

Jenny Laing, Aberdeen City Council

A relatively new but significant development is the fact that investors are now taking a more proactive stance and trying to make a difference. “Impact investing has become increasingly important and investment decisions are driven by zero carbon issues,” adds Martin. “We’ve moved to a more intentional stage, where capital is being deployed to actively promote certain outcomes.”

Business and local government are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to sustainability. “To have a winning city strategy we all need to change our view and move from being risk-averse to being risk-aware,” says Murray Lyle, leader of Perth & Kinross Council. “Giving people a better and more sustainable standard of living is a risk worth taking and an investment worth making for the future.”

Convergence of interests

After years of misunderstandings and confrontation, there now seems to be a positive convergence of interests between investors, local authorities and local communities.

“Setting wider sustainability objectives and delivering them has become a real business imperative, which makes me optimistic about the future,” says Jillian Hardie, director, buildings, at professional services firm Arup. “We share what we have learnt with decision makers and provide free technical advice to cities to prepare and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

‘Impact investing has become increasingly important and investment decisions are driven by zero carbon issues.’

Rob Martin, LGIM

Technological advances and the new availability of data have made the conversation easier, providing the evidence people on all sides need to be convinced, she adds.

“We’ll meet the targets because it’s clear that it’s good business, as well as the right thing to do,” says Martin. “Investors are being partners, responding to the challenge as well as the opportunity.”

Investment portfolios engage in many different ways, from retro-fitting existing buildings to smart meter rollout to battery storage to brand new buildings. “I see real progress in unlocking investment,” says Alexander. “There’s real momentum behind our programme, despite the pandemic, because we can showcase what we can deliver and people can already see the benefits.”

Cities are reducing waste and increasing energy efficiency, improving public transport, developing renewables, enhancing biodiversity and creating new green spaces. 

By way of an example, the retrofitting of buildings and investments in insulation made by Dundee City Council, the biggest landlord in the city, has led to a 7% reduction in fuel poverty. The city has also been leading the way in electric vehicles, offering incentives such as free charging and parking.

‘There’s real momentum behind our programme, despite the pandemic, because we can showcase what we can deliver and people can already see the benefits.’

John Alexander, Dundee City Council

In Aberdeen, meanwhile, local authorities are leading the transition out of fossil fuel into a sustainable energy future, using the city’s oil and gas links as an opportunity to move forward faster because of the skills and expertise developed over decades.

“We are focused on the hydrogen transition and have the biggest fleet of hydrogen-powered buses in Europe,” explains Aberdeen CC’s Laing. “The ultimate prize is the production of green hydrogen and the export of it to the rest of the UK and internationally.”

Perth is set to become one of the first smart cities in the UK, with a carbon-neutral Eco-Innovation Park that will feed clean energy into the city. “The collaboration fostered by the Scottish Cities Alliance has been extremely beneficial and it has already delivered savings and efficiencies,” says Lyle.

‘To have a winning city strategy we all need to change our view and move from being risk-averse to being risk-aware.’

Murray Lyle, Perth & Kinross Council

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