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Land use accounts for ‘very large’ proportion of isles’ carbon emissions

Council report says reversing how land is used could prove ‘very challenging’

NEW STATISTICS showing land use accounts for nearly 70 per cent of Shetland’s carbon dioxide output – compared to under five per cent in most mainland local authorities – have been described as “extraordinary” by a councillor.

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison was speaking after digesting the eye-catching figure in a report considered by several SIC committees this week on how it is preparing for a “just transition” towards a “net zero” carbon future by the middle of this century. 

Shetland Central member Davie Sandison described the figures as ‘extraordinary’.

Infrastructure director John Smith’s report said further work was being carried out to understand the details of local authority carbon statistics.

The council is drawing up a “route map” for reaching “net zero” and as it strives to establish a baseline has already identified the “very large proportion” of emissions associated with land use.

It acknowledges that UK-wide statistics do not include marine emissions or large industrial complexes such as Sullom Voe or the Shetland Gas Plant, but that “it would seem inevitable” that land use emissions “will remain high” even when those are factored in.

In addition to crofting and farming, landowners including the council play a part, and Smith’s report states that “communities, natural heritage and environmental groups will also be interested parties”.

The main cause, the report suggests, is the practice of improving “marginal” land for crofting and growing crops.

“Moving this category to net zero would appear to be very challenging and of a different nature to other decarbonisation action, i.e. alternative fuels,” the report states.

“Reversing this widespread land use practice would potentially require significant peatland reinstatement, rather than restoration, different land management practices and associated economic impacts.”

Smith’s report notes that finding a “just transition” for the individuals, communities and businesses affected must be part of any solution and support will be needed to “ensure the implications and costs do not fall disproportionately on a small group”.

Speaking during Tuesday morning’s environment and transport committee meeting, Sandison described the statistics as “quite extraordinary stuff”.

He described the discussion as “enlightening, and worrying, and a bit puzzling”.

Sandison also said it was important for councillors and officials not to “jargonise” and to “start talking language people understand” to ensure the community engaged with the task of tackling climate change locally.

Shetland’s economy is particularly vulnerable when it comes to decarbonisation, with an estimated 1,000 or more jobs in the oil and gas sector, and Smith’s report set out the case for the islands to be recognised as a “region of the highest priority” to reflect that.

A “net zero” route map is being put together and consultation with the community will be conducted between now and April, with final recommendations set to be published in the summer.

Meanwhile, Shetland Central councillor Stephen Leask said it was important for the council to take a lead in shaping how growing industries such as renewable energy are allowed to develop.

SIC leader Steven Coutts said he recognised the council “doesn’t have the jurisdiction it would perhaps like”, but cited the Islands Deal and attempts to secure greater autonomy: “It’s important we get as much control and influence and maximise the benefits to our community.”

Leask responded by saying his ribs were “still sore from laughing” at Coutts’ comments, going on to deliver a “history lesson” about late Liberal MP Jo Grimmond and former chief executive Ian Clark and their role in formulating the 1974 Zetland Act to secure “significant economic development for the community” when the oil industry was expanding.

He said many other developments had seen Shetland receive a “paltry sum” for the disturbance caused. “I’d like to think we’re not going to make that same mistake again, and that’s why we should be the leaders in this, and not just hangers-on.”