Shetland people possess the inventiveness and forward-thinking outlook to lead the country in developing renewable energy and tackling climate change, according to Scotland’s chief scientist.
Speaking at a summit in Lerwick on carbon reduction, Professor Anne Glover said she talked to many people on her global travels but none who thought so much about the future or were as innovative. It is an outlook which she believes sets rural people apart and gives islanders opportunities ahead of the rest of the country.
She advised the council and the local community to engage with young people to get them involved in reducing carbon emissions and exploiting renewable energy because they have great ideas and it is they and their children who will have to face the consequences of global warming.
This praise for Shetlanders might be dismissed as a crude attempt by the government’s independent chief scientific adviser to woo her audience but in fact she does know the islands well, having spent several holidays in Shetland as well as being a regular visitor to Orkney. A keen sailor, she joked that Shetland “looks like heaven” after two days spent bobbing about on a yacht crossing from Norway.
During her hour-long lecture at the museum and archives, Professor Glover first shocked her audience with the bleak picture she painted of global flooding and disease due to rising temperatures and inaction to halt man-made damage. Then when all seemed lost she conjured up the inspiring vision of Scotland in the vanguard of renewable energy showing the way to cut pollution while simultaneously prospering from its status as a leader in world-saving technologies.
In particular she praised the Scottish government’s idea of putting up £10 million to the first company to generate 110 gigaWatts from wave or tidal power. The Saltire Prize is the biggest government innovation prize in the world ever, she said, and she believes it will help accelerate the nascent technology because humans love competing for prizes.
Although the challenge has not started yet there have already been 170 expressions of interest from 30 countries, including one from the Renault Formula 1 team which believes its expertise in making racing cars stick to the track might transfer into holding tidal power devices on the seabed.
Friday’s summit was hosted by Shetland Community Planning – the partnership between the council, NHS Shetland and other public bodies including the police. Around 40 people attended, including the local MP and MSP and council convener Sandy Cluness.
In Shetland a number of energy conservation activities are getting under way and the amenity trust is now running a website www.carbon reductionshetland.org which provides advice and information on how individuals, groups and businesses can reduce their carbon footprint.
The summit took place just the morning after councillors had sealed their deal with Total to exploit untapped west of Shetland gas – a contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, albeit a cleaner one than coal or North Sea oil.
In Professor Glover’s opinion oil exploration and production should continue but not so that it can be guzzled up by cars and central heating. She said it was “an incredibly valuable material” for its uses in products such as “fantastic” plastics in medicine but its use for transport and heating should stop. “That is madness,” she said, “it’s far too precious for that.”
A big issue for world politicians to tackle is what happens when countries feel they want more of the world’s remaining oil but it is not necessarily to be found in their territories – this was part of what she referred to as “a dark cloud” hanging in the future which appeared to hint at conflict and war over oil, which many would argue we already witness.
In Scotland the target is to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by at least 42 per cent by 2020 and by at least 80 per cent by 2050. But she warned of the danger that Scotland and the UK become complacent because of the progress being made. Our consumption of products made in China, India and Asia continues to soar, meaning that they are emitting all the carbon dioxide on our behalf. The world is a very small place and buying a TV made in China means we are responsible for a sizeable emission of pollution.
Global energy demand is rising because humans in the developed world keep demanding “more stuff”, she said. With the population growing sharply there would soon be nine billion people wanting “more stuff”, she said. But if the rest of the world was to enjoy the lifestyle of the people of Scotland it would require the resources of three planets.
One of her more shocking statistics was that making just one pair of jeans for us in the west requires 10,855 litres of water in a world where already one in three people faces water shortages – one of the few commodities that nobody can do without.
Climate change had always happened but what was being seen now was rapid change, some of it man-made. Despite the magnitude of the problem encouragement was to be taken from the action to halt depletion of the ozone layer which showed that human beings working together, banning CFCs, could change the planet.
There have been eight cycles of ice ages followed by warm periods, every 120,000 years, with a difference in temperature of 5-10 degrees C and a sea level 3-5 metres higher during warm periods. Since the 1950s carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels has risen rapidly. It had never been higher than 300 parts per million in the atmosphere but now it has reached 380ppm, which is also partly due to forests being chopped down.
If the level stabilises at 450ppm there is a 77 per cent chance of a global rise in temperature of two degrees C, she said. It could be higher. Melting ice caps could raise the sea level six metres, engulfing poor countries like Bangladesh which could not afford protection and causing the people to flee. “If I was them I would be thinking: ‘Shetland looks good!’,” she said.
While a 77 per cent chance might not convince some people to act on climate change she said they would not go on a bus if they were told there was a 77 per cent chance that all the passengers were going to die.
Making the picture even bleaker, she highlighted the spread of hitherto exotic infectious diseases around the world, including blue tongue in sheep, spread by a midgie from Africa which was unknown in Europe until the 1990s, reaching into England in 2007 and 2008 and now north of the border where it may enjoy the mild winters.
Professor Glover’s view of “climate change deniers” – much in the news of late – was that they simply did not want to believe. As much as any scientist would say something was a fact, she said “man-made global climate change is a fact”.
She urged people not to let “sideshows” provide an excuse not to act – such as the scandal over climate change scientists’ emails from East Anglia or the false report about the Himalayan mountain ice disappearing. She said: “We must act because there isn’t really any option.”
Even the weekly shopping trip to supermarkets provided the opportunity to do a small bit to help by avoiding food which has been transported across the world when local alternatives are available and by objecting to unnecessary packaging, which uses energy and causes waste.
She revealed that her husband now refuses to go shopping with her because she loiters so long, reading labels and so on. Sometimes she even takes the plastic wrapping off vegetables and hands it to the checkout assistant in protest. “I see red when I get a cucumber covered in plastic!” she said.
People need to appreciate what it is they are buying and where it has come from, she said. However there seemed such resistance to that change of behaviour.
Councillor Frank Robertson thanked the professor for “an excellent talk”. He tends to take a more global outlook than some of his parochially focused council colleagues and he offered up the view that the urgency of the problems facing humanity will not hit home until fuel rationing has to be introduced once demand for oil outstrips the global supply. Until then the world would not change, he said. “As long as there is oil, people will use it.”
Ominously for the delegates when they broke for lunch the very real problem of rising sea levels was right in front of their eyes at the museum as the spring equinox high tide caused the water to lipper up almost to the level of the path and piers outside.