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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2023


Carbon Neutral Islands Project

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-07558, in the name of Mairi Gougeon, on the carbon neutral islands project: first steps towards decarbonisation.

I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to please press their request-to-speak buttons, and I call Mairi Gougeon to speak to and move the motion for around 12 minutes.


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

I am absolutely delighted to be here today to open the debate on first steps towards decarbonisation for the island communities that form part of our carbon neutral islands project. Today, I will outline the progress that has been made on that exciting project, which has the potential to be hugely transformational for our island communities.

I thank Liam Kerr, Rhoda Grant, and Liam McArthur for their amendments. I agree with the vast majority of what is in them, and I am happy to accept the Labour and Liberal Democrat amendments. Although I agree with a lot in the Conservative amendment, it goes against the spirit of what we are trying to achieve with the carbon neutral islands project: we want communities to be the decision makers at the heart of the project and to be the ones that really drive it forward.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

My intervention comes very early in the debate, so I appreciate its being taken. Which bit of our amendment does the cabinet secretary disagree with? We have tried to make it respectfully factual and to point out that, although communities drive this stuff, it needs Government support and resource. That is all that we are saying.

Mairi Gougeon

Of course it does, but it goes broader than that. I hope that I will make clear in my speech exactly what we are looking to achieve. Again, I did not feel as though the amendment said that, which is why I will not support it, although there is a lot in it that I would have been happy to support.

I reiterate the Scottish Government’s commitment to this innovative project that places islands at the forefront of our response to the global climate emergency. The ambition is very much in line with Scotland’s national islands plan, which includes objectives that support environmental wellbeing and biosecurity and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation, while promoting clean, affordable and secure energy.

The carbon neutral islands project provides the opportunity to support communities in several areas and not just in decarbonisation. We recognise that many of the issues that our island communities face are interlinked, which is very much a key consideration of the project.

Before I go on to discuss the progress that we have made over the past year, I will take a moment to remind members about some important context.

Climate change and nature loss are among the greatest threats that our planet faces. Our island communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change and predicted sea level rises. It is expected that there will be increased instances of flooding and coastal erosion and impacts on water supply, food production, health, tourism and habitat depletion. Most island economies are highly dependent on outside sources for food, fuel and even employment.

All of that is being exacerbated by the current cost crisis: island communities are among those that are hit the hardest due to higher levels of fuel poverty and the additional cost of goods. That is why I recently launched the £1.4 million island cost crisis emergency fund, which is being delivered through our island authority partners. The funding is being utilised in a variety of ways, including the provision of free breakfasts for 1,400 pupils in Shetland and our support of third sector organisations in Orkney with the impact of higher electricity costs.

Everyone is aware that Scotland has declared a climate emergency, and we are stepping up our climate action with legally binding targets to reach net zero by 2045. Scotland’s climate change legislation ensures that we prepare for and adapt to the impacts that are already locked in, including rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

As we are part of the international community, it is crucial that we take every opportunity to raise global climate action and ambition. We can do that while continuing to promote and support the huge energy potential and natural capital of our islands, which will help us to reach our net zero and climate resilience ambitions.

On 17 May 2022, I shared with the Parliament the fact that the islands included in the carbon neutral islands project are Yell, Hoy, Barra, Raasay, Islay and Great Cumbrae. The choice of islands allows for a varied mix of geographies, populations and socioeconomic make-up, and it includes one island per local authority.

I am delighted to share the fact that, over the past eight months, we have laid the groundwork for each island to become carbon neutral by 2040, which remains an ambitious target. The work has been detailed in a progress report that is published today and that provides an update on all the key elements of the carbon neutral islands project. I will take a little bit of time to talk through some of that work.

We committed £800,000 to support initial development in partnership with Community Energy Scotland, which has extensive experience of working with island communities and delivering work that is based on effective community engagement. The organisation has been working on the important first step of supporting all six islands to carry out in-depth carbon audits. It will support communities in developing community climate change action plans, which will be published this year. That work will culminate in the development of investment strategies to support delivery of the action plans.

Those first steps are vital to ensuring a co-ordinated approach to decarbonisation with island communities at its heart. It is important to take a moment to provide more detail on each of those strands of work.

The work that Community Energy Scotland is carrying out on the six islands is embedded in island communities. Each island has a local steering group that employs a community development officer directly in a local anchor organisation, all of which are playing a key part in the implementation of the carbon neutral islands project.

It is great that some of the community development officers are young islanders who have taken the opportunity to return home to work on the project. That demonstrates that, from the start, the project will do more than just cut emissions; it can also be a vehicle for the growth of our island communities.

I was delighted to have the chance to meet some of the community development officers prior to this afternoon’s debate, and I am delighted that they join us in the public gallery. They have been in Edinburgh to complete important training that will support their conversations about climate change within their communities. My islands officials look forward to working closely with them throughout the implementation of the carbon neutral islands project.

As I have mentioned, carbon audits are in full swing on each of the six islands. The audits are as comprehensive as possible. They focus not only on energy production and consumption, but on all aspects of life that lead to greenhouse gas emissions.

We know that, on some islands, audits have already taken place. We have been incredibly careful to avoid duplication, while ensuring that there is alignment and co-ordination with other efforts. In doing so, my islands officials and our partners have developed a strong network of island net zero-related stakeholders who are fully aware of the project and keen to be part of it.

The carbon audits will not be limited to land but will include an audit of each island’s blue carbon habitats, such as salt marsh and seagrass. Those audits, which will draw in expertise from the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum, will help us to understand the relative contribution of those important habitats for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The exercise that we are embarking on is not simply a technical exercise that specialists can appreciate; the audits are a starting point for community discussion. Islands can pave their way to net zero only if they have reliable data on what their climate change trajectory looks like. Consequently, the audits will be translated into plain language, be user friendly and have accompanying tools, so that they can be replicated over the years in the most cost-effective way.

I have a quick question, because I was struggling to find this information. What budget is being provided for the project, annually or over its lifetime?

Mairi Gougeon

As I have outlined, £800,000 has been committed to it in the current financial year, and the budget for the coming financial year, on which I gave evidence to the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee last week, commits £3 million to help us to deliver the project.

It is crucial that island communities set the net zero trajectory that they feel most comfortable with. I am confident that the structure that I have outlined, which puts the islands and their people at the heart of the process, will ensure that the project will be driven by the communities involved.

It is in that spirit that I look forward to receiving the six community climate change action plans later this year, but I am also keen to find out whether there are similar actions that several islands wish to take, whether on housing, energy efficiency, transport or renewable energy. We need to sit down with the island communities and fully digest and understand their plans so that we can identify the best way to support them in future. We will develop investment strategies to support the aims of the action plans only once we have understood the island communities’ priorities.

That process will involve different funding mechanisms. We need to begin by pulling together public funding that already exists. The Scottish Government has a range of net zero funding pots that can be accessed, and there may be other initiatives that can work together to achieve the aims of our communities. I am delighted to say that that approach is already being taken in the carbon neutral islands project, with the net zero portfolio providing £60,000 to bring an adaptation element to Community Energy Scotland’s work with communities. That will bring together adaptation and net zero planning in a joined-up way and will ensure that mitigation efforts are climate resilient, while enabling us to understand climate trends and projections for each island.

However, we know that public money will not be enough to get us to net zero. We must also consider the use of public-private partnerships and private investment, where that is appropriate.

All of our work will be underpinned by three key drivers. I have already touched on the first driver: alignment. The project aims to align with existing efforts and avoid any duplication. That is important, especially for communities that often have to juggle multiple projects with little capacity.

The second driver—fairness—is also critical. We need to ensure that we bring communities with us on the journey to net zero and that they can take advantage of the opportunities that the transition presents. Supporting island communities through the already mentioned steering groups, local anchor organisations and community development officers is a step in the right direction to ensure the element of fairness.

Lastly, we need the ability to replicate that learning and take it to other Scottish islands to ensure that many other island communities can benefit from shared learning and good practice to overcome barriers. That was actively considered in the design of the project. The mix of islands included covers a range of distinct characteristics that will apply to many other areas. The network of community development officers who are delivering across the six islands has kick-started that sharing of experiences across, and beyond, the six islands.

The project also directly acknowledges the role of young people. It has developed a school component to ensure that young islanders can contribute to the carbon neutrality journey of Scotland’s islands. Our delivery partner for that strand of work, Youth Scotland, is carrying out its activities in close alignment with the young islanders network, which is another important programme for government commitment on our islands policy. That network builds on the success and legacy of the climate change message in a bottle project that was previously supported by the Scottish Government.

I said at the start that it is crucial that we take every opportunity to engage with the international community to raise ambitions. Scotland is already doing that, and the carbon neutral islands project has developed an international strategy that reflects the leading role of islands in decarbonisation. The project has begun sharing Scottish island-based renewable energy technologies and expertise with island partners in Europe and beyond.

I am genuinely excited by the first steps towards decarbonisation on the six islands. Scotland is fully committed to its legally binding climate change targets and the carbon neutral islands project is an exciting opportunity, demonstrating that we are putting our island communities at the heart of our climate action to achieve those ambitious targets.

That momentum will only continue to grow, and I look forward to the publication of the community climate change action plans later in the year. I know that our debate will touch on many climate change initiatives relating to islands. I reiterate the links between this work, the national islands plan and our wider work to support island communities.

I very much look forward to the debate and to discussing the importance of island communities and the steps needed to support them in reaching net zero.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Government’s publication of a progress report on the Carbon Neutral Islands Project; notes that the first steps to support the six islands towards becoming fully carbon neutral by 2040 are underway; recognises that the six islands included in the project will act as lighthouse communities, spreading knowledge and good practices to other Scottish islands; acknowledges that communities are at the heart of the project and that they will be supported to take advantage of the opportunities that the transition to net zero presents; continues to support this initiative and the soon-to-be-published community climate change action plans, and acknowledges that the six Carbon Neutral Islands will demonstrate Scotland’s climate change ambitions on the international stage.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

We, too, welcome the publication of the progress report on the carbon neutral islands project and will be pleased to support the Government’s motion today. However, for reasons that I will outline and my Conservative colleagues will develop, we will seek support for my amendment, which will, I hope, help the minister to frame her thinking as we move forward.

We all support creating carbon neutral islands to help Scotland to reach net zero, and it is right that the Scottish Government should set ambitious targets to support the six islands on their journey to carbon neutrality by 2040. However, the report comes just a month after Lord Deben, the chair of the Climate Change Committee, told a committee of this Parliament that the Scottish National Party’s net zero plans and legal targets are so overambitious that there are insufficient strategies that could be implemented to achieve them. He commented:

“There needs to be a very clear programme that states step by step how Scotland is going to achieve the targets”.—[Official Report, Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, 20 December 2022; c 10.]

That principle can readily be read across to this report. We should bear in mind that the report covers pledges that were first made in the 2021 programme for government and then extended at COP26 but that it runs to only 18 pages, of which three are the front and back covers and the contents page. There must be some concern that the laudable ambition to help six of Scotland’s islands become carbon neutral appears to lack the underlying data and the practical steps that islanders can take to ensure a just transition to meet the targets.

To drill into that position, I looked at page 4 of the report, which cross-references with strategic objective 5 of the national islands plan, which is

“to reduce levels of fuel poverty”.

That is an admirable aspiration, but it is one that demands scrutiny. First, the fact is that the Government does not know how many Scottish households are in fuel poverty and has not had that data since 2019. We do know that the period from 2017 to 2019 saw the median fuel poverty gap being higher in island and rural local authorities. We also know that 170,000 properties in Scotland are off the gas grid and that the Scottish housing condition survey for 2017 to 2019 tells us that those properties are massively concentrated in our island and rural areas.

The cost of achieving the upgrades that Minister Harvie demands by 2025, principally using air-source heat pumps, has been estimated at £32,000, which islanders are going to have to pay themselves if they can afford it. However, nearly a quarter of those off-gas-grid properties are unsuitable for that technology. We need the Government to help people to understand what the alternative heat sources are if they cannot use the preferred heat pumps.

On that note, Minister Harvie told me last year:

“Recent advice from our statutory advisers, the Climate Change Committee ... states that ‘sustainable bioenergy is essential for reaching net zero’.”—[Written Answers, 11 February 2022; S6W-06460.]

The March 2021 “Bioenergy Update” stated that a bioenergy policy working group would be set up to

“outline how we intend to move forward over the next 18-24 months to understand the most appropriate and sustainable use of bioenergy resources in Scotland.”

However, I learned three days ago that the bioenergy expert panel that is intended to inform that group has not even been assembled yet.

I find it rather concerning that the progress report does not directly address those issues and challenges.

At page 6, the report refers to transport being part of the carbon neutral islands project. We know that the Climate Change Committee said that Scotland will need 30,000 public electric vehicle charge points by the end of the decade. We currently have around 3,000, and reports suggest that, at any one time, around a quarter of those are faulty.

Just last month, Jamie Greene flagged up that Cumbrae, which is an island with more than 1,400 residents in winter and is part of the project, has only one public EV charging point. That is important, because not only do we need to have EV charging points on our islands for residents’ vehicles in order to decarbonise, but, as people move to EVs, they need to be confident that they will be able to charge their vehicles on our islands, or the tourist pound might think twice before coming.

I hoped to see more on planning in the document. For example, how many charging points does Cumbrae need in order to become carbon neutral? How many will the Government install in the next 12 months?

No discussion of island transport would be complete without mention of ferries. Leaving aside the issues that have been rehearsed in the chamber many times, we simply have to decarbonise shipping. If nothing else, the SNP-Green Government pledged in its 2021 programme for government to make 30 per cent of Scotland’s state-owned ferries low-emissions vessels by 2032.

If we are serious about island transport becoming carbon neutral, we cannot ignore the fact that the vessels that are used on the Ardrossan to Brodick and Uig triangle routes are more than 20 years old. We also cannot ignore reports that the project to make the notorious hull 801 run on liquefied natural gas and diesel is stalled after a failure to supply the sensors for the LNG fuel system. It will be diesel only for at least nine months after launch, and, as the LNG storage tanks at Ardrossan and Uig will not be ready until at least 2025, even when they run on LNG, the two ships will require between four and six road tanker loads to be imported from Qatar and sent up the road from Kent.

The final point that I wish to make is also about delivery. It is all well and good to demand, as the report does on page 10, that what must be produced at the end of this is

“6 carbon audits, 6 climate change action plans and 6 climate change investment strategies”,

but someone has to build, install, test, maintain and generally look after the infrastructure, and we have to train those people. That has to be done in the context of the Accounts Commission saying just this week that Scotland’s councils face their

“hardest spending choices in years”

to make up for budget shortfalls.

Mairi Gougeon

I fully appreciate the importance of all the points that the member has raised, but does he appreciate that the project update that we have delivered would not be the place to outline all that information?

What is really critical with the project is that, first of all, we need to get the baseline data. We need to know where we are at with the carbon audits. We need to build that community engagement to ensure that communities are part of that process, that they ultimately help to deliver on the aims of the project, and that they are at the heart of it. We need to build that capacity and we need to work on that as well.

Does the member accept those points? Does he accept that that is where we need to start? There will, of course, be further updates as the project progresses.

Mr Kerr, I will give you the time back.

Liam Kerr

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Yes—I accept that. I think that that is a reasonable point to make. The key issue that I am bringing up is that this was first talked about in the 2021 programme for government, and it was revised and rebuilt for COP26, yet here we are today, in January 2023, and none of this is available, as I have pointed out.

To go back to the issue of how we are going to deliver, the key point is that, in the report, page 12 contains the first mention of skills—and, even then, it is only aspirational:

“we will commence a study … that will map the net zero gap skills on Scottish islands”.

I presume that that means a “skills gap”, rather than “gap skills”, but I would be interested to know from the minister in closing whether that study actually commenced in December—clearly, that was written before publication.

There is no time to lose. The report is welcome, and we absolutely back the aspiration to support the six islands to become carbon neutral by 2040. However, it is far from acceptable that, as apparently with so much of the Government’s output, there is a demonstrable lack of data to underpin the aspiration; a blatant failure to plan properly; and, ultimately, far too much of the magical thinking that the Climate Change Committee identified.

Accordingly, we will support the motion but, for all the reasons that have been demonstrated, I also move amendment S6M-07558.3, to insert at end:

“; welcomes UK Government investment in carbon-reducing initiatives on Scotland’s islands, such as the work of Reflex Orkney; notes the good work currently underway at a local level in many island communities; believes that Carbon Neutral Islands can only be achieved through a co-ordinated cross-government approach; emphasises that the desired outcome will require adequate, timely and demonstrably beneficial, targeted investment and resource in transport to and within the islands; recognises the need for a fit-for-purpose ferry fleet that achieves equally carbon-neutral objectives, adequate EV charging or hydrogen alternatives and opportunities to enable islanders, businesses and public transport to move to non-carbon or electric vehicles; advocates for a holistic approach to housing stock and insulation, transport, localised energy provision and storage and support for small businesses working towards net-zero operability, and believes that full decarbonisation of these islands will only be successful if all cogs of the governmental wheel back up that ambition with suitable investment.”


Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of the “Carbon Neutral Islands Project Progress Report”. I am glad that the report mentions fuel poverty, because all our islands suffer from that, in common with other off-gas-grid areas. During this cost of living crisis, we must ensure that all islanders get the assistance that they require to tackle that.

In Barra, which is one of the islands in the project, six new affordable houses were built at a cost of £1.4 million. That is a true reflection of the building costs for affordable homes throughout all our island communities. Renewing the housing stock on the scale that would be required is therefore not an option. Existing housing stock needs to be retrofitted.

Although the Scottish Government has adopted Alex Rowley’s Passivhaus bill, which will make a difference to the fabric of new-build houses, more work and more research need to go into retrofitting property to help towards net zero goals and fighting fuel poverty.

The project is also looking at the net zero skills gaps. That is welcome, as the lack of those skills is a very real problem, which I have raised with the Government before but to little effect. It needs to look at how it accredits builders to do the work that is required. For example, currently, all training for retrofitting is available in the central belt. That involves a huge expense for small one-person or two-person operations—the average size of a building company on the islands—to attend. They have no way of recouping that investment. Without that training, they cannot be accredited and they cannot carry out the required retrofitting work. That is not a just transition.

That example highlights the need to island proof all policy decisions. I hope that the Scottish Government will look at that. If, due to the project, island proofing comes to the forefront of decision making, it is most welcome.

The progress report goes into some detail about auditing and overseeing but, as has already been said, it lacks detail on how it will deliver. Although we need a clear view of where we are—a measurement of the current position—there needs to be an indication of the vision that is required to make the goal a reality. For instance, who is part of those partnerships? How will communities and private enterprise be included? Which public bodies will take part? All such organisations must be included, given their impact on island life. When will the cabinet secretary be able to put more detail into the public domain?

I ask also about energy generation. I spoke about fuel poverty because island homes are largely off the gas grid, yet many of our islands have the ability to generate renewable electricity. In many cases, island communities are prevented from generating renewable energy because they cannot get a grid connection to distribute that energy. Will that be one of the challenges that is looked at during the project?

Orkney is a case in point. Its grid is full, yet it is at the forefront of renewables development. It is unable to reach its full potential because of grid restrictions. In addition, when Orkney constructs public buildings, those buildings cannot utilise the renewable energy that is available at low cost in Orkney, because they need to use wood-fired boilers, in line with Scottish Government policy. There are few trees in Orkney, so fuel needs to be transported on island, and is probably procured from abroad, which has carbon generation consequences.

We also hope that the focus on islands in the project does not take the focus away from all our other islands. Again, I go back to Orkney, which recently missed out on having a green port. Orkney has very ambitious harbour redevelopment plans for renewable generation, which need to be realised in order for Scotland to meet its climate targets. I would welcome reassurance that Orkney will be assisted to develop those harbours.

I cannot speak about islands without mentioning ferries. I understand that the carbon generated by ferries will not be included in the carbon audit, despite the fact that everything that comes on island comes by ferry. The reason given was that interisland ferries are run by local government. However, for many of the islands, their ferry provider is Caledonian MacBrayne, whose ferry-building programme is directly in the remit of the Scottish Government. Ferries must therefore be included.

It is also impossible to reach the carbon neutral goal without the input of local government. Indeed, every organisation with a locus on the six islands must be involved, including the United Kingdom Government, as well as the Scottish Government. On ferries, we must look at tried and tested technology to work towards new ferries being run on clean energy. The Government was warned that the dual-fuel ferries that it is attempting to build will not be any greener and will possibly even be less green. If we are to meet our goals, we cannot afford such design mistakes.

Scottish Labour welcomes steps that take us closer to net zero, but those projects must have a practical impact and not simply be window dressing. We will vote for all the amendments, because they add to the motion.

I move amendment S6M-07558.2, to insert at end:

“; recognises that the cost of living crisis is hitting some of the islands’ communities hardest, including fuel poverty being highest among some of the islands that are not included in the Carbon Neutral Islands Project, and therefore awaits Scottish Government plans to assist all islands during the energy crisis; calls for guarantees that a just transition for workers is included in all areas of the strategy, and believes that the Scottish Government, UK Government, local authorities and all other island-related agencies must be involved to truly reach net zero.”


Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I, too, am delighted to take part in the debate on our carbon neutral islands initiative, which is strongly supported by the Scottish Liberal Democrats. I reaffirm my congratulations to the six islands selected, including Hoy in my Orkney constituency.

As Liam Kerr said, the motion—and, indeed, much of the progress report—is a bit thin on detail. That might reflect where we are in the process. The cabinet secretary may reasonably observe that this is an opportunity for MSPs with experience of different island communities to contribute ideas and proposals. In that spirit, all three amendments have embraced that invitation.

I will offer some thoughts on some of the points made in the other amendments and in the progress report itself, but I will start by reflecting on the issue that forms the basis of my amendment, namely the compelling case for ministers to ensure that lifeline transport links serving our islands are fully factored into helping our islands to achieve carbon neutral status. Indeed, ClimateXChange’s research for the project underscores the importance of cutting emissions from ferry travel to, from and between our islands. Self-evidently, none of the six islands selected, or any others seeking to follow in their path, have any hope of achieving their ambitions without investment in new low-emissions ferries and, where relevant, air services.

Denmark and Norway demonstrate that the technology already exists for low-emissions ferries, and Orkney itself is leading the way in the development of the technology for low-emissions air travel. However, while the carbon neutral islands project is commendably and very correctly a community-driven endeavour, the transition that we need to see in lifeline transport links will need sustained investment, from both the Scottish Government and the UK Government. Some of that investment has been forthcoming, but it has been glaringly and, I would say, shamefully absent when it comes to addressing the desperately needed replacement of Orkney’s internal ferry services, upon which Hoy and other islands in my constituency depend.

A ferries task force has been established with a view to feeding into the budget process later this year. That is welcome, although it must deliver real, tangible and—to be blunt—ferry-shaped results. The financial and environmental costs of operating the current fleet are no longer sustainable. The lack of reliability threatens the viability of island communities in Orkney every bit as much as the better publicised disruption on CalMac routes on the west coast.

I turn to the housing issue, to which Liam Kerr and Rhoda Grant both referred.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Before the member moves on from ferries, would he agree that there are opportunities in the northern isles and perhaps further afield for fixed links instead of ferries? Would he support that option where it is suitable?

Liam McArthur

I welcome that intervention. The member will be well aware of the work that my colleague Beatrice Wishart has been doing in relation to Shetland. The debate is perhaps further advanced there, but I have absolutely no doubt that, in the coming years, we will be having that debate in Orkney, too.

With regard to housing, Orkney has—as we have heard—some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the country. Fuel poverty is too often a feature of island life, and the situation is currently being exacerbated by the cost of living crisis and an energy market that simply does not work for island communities. Improving the standard of new housing is essential, but so, too, is the task of retrofitting existing housing stock. The Government talks of stepping up investment in retrofitting measures to improve energy efficiency, with £1.8 billion of allocated public funding, but its own estimates suggest that it will take around £33 billion to achieve what is needed. That is an awfully big gap to fill.

ClimateXChange identifies that off-gas-grid communities are affected by an insufficiency of financial incentives, and it calls for climate financial investments to be more readily available. That seems to make sense, certainly from my experience of the innovative ReFLEX Orkney project, of which I am a member. There seems to be a need to look at more creative funding models. Perhaps the Scottish National Investment Bank could be encouraged to look at working with local partners to develop, for example, a carbon transition fund.

Where sources of funding have been identified, notably in respect of community turbine projects, they have been exceptionally helpful in supporting a range of community-based initiatives. Hoy is a perfect illustration of that: the community turbine operated by Hoy Energy Ltd has fed money in through the Island of Hoy Development Trust to support a bus service, welfare officer and community centre. There are ambitions to go much further in retrofitting houses on the island and putting in more renewable sources of energy. However, I have to say that that has not been helped by the cap introduced in the Energy Prices Act 2022, which has certainly stymied the ambitions of Hoy and similar communities to go further in developing revenue streams of that sort.

I finish by welcoming the local focus of the approach. Every island is different, as the cabinet secretary has acknowledged and as those of us who live on islands would readily recognise. I therefore welcome the more local island approach that has been taken, and I welcome the appointment of community development officers, including Aisling Phillips in Hoy.

The cabinet secretary is absolutely right to point to the opportunities that that provides for young people to return to those communities, bringing their energy and enthusiasm and their talent to that initiative, which commands broad support. However, there needs to be on-going long-term financial and broader Government support if it is to be a success.

The Government needs to stay the course over the long term in order to properly empower not only these six islands but other islands that have similar ambitions to meet their net zero targets. In that, it will have the support of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, of members on all sides of the chamber. I look forward to the remainder of the debate.

I move amendment S6M-07558.1, to insert at end:

“, which it believes must also be underpinned by a commitment to decarbonise lifeline ferry services across all routes that serve Scotland's island communities.”

We move to the open debate, with speeches of six minutes.


Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands are all radically different from one another, not just in their landscapes, histories and locations but in their cultural traditions, economic contributions and needs for the future.

What all our islands have in common, however, is their shared appreciation of global environmental threats, the most obvious of those being rising sea levels and increasingly chaotic weather events. As the cabinet secretary pointed out, each of those things is already having a measurable impact on our lives in island communities. It is only natural, therefore, that islands would want to make their own distinctive contributions towards our collective efforts to decarbonise Scotland.

In my constituency, I can point to the long-running efforts to develop more wind power. I say “long-running” because it is only now, after decades of negotiation, that the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets has finally made the commitments that are needed before an interconnector can be built to export much of the islands’ renewable potential.

Scotland’s islands hold immeasurable reserves of other types of potential energy, too—there is not just wind, which is certainly abundant, but also tidal and wave power, the latter of which is, as yet, completely untapped.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to decarbonise transport and housing, against a backdrop of challenges, including extremely high rates of fuel poverty and poor energy efficiency in many Western Isles homes. I know that the Government and the local authority are working together at present to re-establish area-based insulation schemes, which are certainly a key part of addressing that problem.

Across my constituency, however, people are already taking their own steps towards reducing the islands’ carbon footprint. Last year, the Scottish Government’s island communities fund assisted local businesses and community groups with sustainability projects, including Tagsa Uibhist, Clan MacQuarrie community centre, Gàradh a’ Bhàgh a’ Tuath, Maclean’s Bakery and the Leverhulme community hub, while the regeneration capital grant fund made awards to initiatives such as Cnoc Soilleir and Ionad Hiort. I mention all this to put our current debate about six specific islands into the context of the wider work that is already under way in many of our islands to tackle climate change.

The Scottish Government’s very welcome commitment is to ensure that six islands become entirely carbon neutral by 2040. In my constituency, the community concerned is the linked islands of Barra and Vatersay. The definition of a carbon-neutral island in the context of this project means an island that has got to a point where its local greenhouse gas emissions, captured as CO2 equivalent, are in balance with carbon sinks.

Setting out to achieve that aim in Barra and Vatersay is, from the outset, going to be a community-led initiative. The local carbon-neutral islands anchor organisation, Voluntary Action Barra & Vatersay, is working closely with other community groups, businesses and island residents to fully explore their islands’ potential, because the experts on their communities are, of course, the islanders themselves. The journey to decarbonisation must be led by them, in order to ensure that local knowledge shapes local solutions.

I am sure that that outlook will shape the projects elsewhere, too. The on-going, fortnightly project group meetings provide an excellent opportunity for the community development officers and steering groups from all six islands to meet with Community Energy Scotland to exchange knowledge and support. That collaborative approach will help to ensure that Barra and Vatersay, along with Yell, Raasay, Hoy, Great Cumbrae and Islay, act as catalysts for decarbonisation across all of Scotland’s islands.

Liam Kerr

I am listening intently to the member’s speech because he knows an awful lot more than I do about islands. To go back to the question that Jamie Greene posed earlier, can the member help me understand what it is in my amendment that he will be objecting to at decision time? I am struggling to understand that.

Alasdair Allan

As, I think, the Government has set out, although there might have been things that could have been agreed with, the amendment does not address all the needs of islands that this side of the chamber has identified as important.

I am certain that, going forward, the six islands will influence what is taking place in other islands, too.

On 30 November 2022, a project showcase was held in Castlebay. This was an opportunity for the community to learn more about the carbon neutral islands project from members of the Scottish Government’s islands team. The carbon neutral islands team then met with a range of local businesses to discuss the numerous potential opportunities for collaboration within the project.

Although the deadline of 31 March for this part of the project is not far off, after that, the community in Barra and Vatersay will be in a position to create a specific local climate change action plan, again led by the community at every stage. In successfully achieving the project’s aims, there will, of course, be challenges along the way, some of which will be unique to Barra and Vatersay and some of which will be experienced elsewhere. However, Barra and Vatersay will be playing their part, as will other islands, to ensure that Scotland meets its aims of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank members for their contributions thus far. It is fair to say that since I first came to the chamber in 2016, I have sought to bring up numerous issues about island life and some of the struggles that our islanders face in any way that I can. I should say that I represent two of Scotland’s most beautiful islands, Arran and Cumbrae, and it is good news that Cumbrae is on the list of six islands that we are talking about today. In the previous parliamentary session, I sat on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which passed numerous pieces of legislation, including the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and the so-called flagship Islands (Scotland) Act 2018—I have yet to meet anyone who actually knows what that piece of legislation has done for islands, but that is a debate for another day. I was also my party’s digital spokesperson and transport spokesperson for many years, and I took part in many debates on issues such as connectivity, energy, transport, housing, net zero and ferries—members should not worry; I will come on to ferries. Many of those issues form the substance of the motion that we are debating, and that is why our amendment focuses on some of those areas.

It is no secret that I have been critical of the Government where I believe that it has failed our islanders and our island communities, not least in relation to the many grand promises that have been made in various programmes for government and manifestos. However, I have also given credit where credit is due.

My comments today will be a bit of a mixed bag. That is partly because of my deep disappointment in the cabinet secretary for not supporting our amendment. I ask back benchers to read the amendment, not just their whip sheet. They should look at the content and the words. We specifically went out of our way not to directly attack or criticise the Government in the amendment, for good reason. However, what the amendment does is point out that there is welcome resource coming from both Scotland’s Governments—that is a fact, whether members like it or not. It also says that, in the interests of Scotland’s islands, there must be a common approach across all Government departments and agencies—that is also a fact, with which it is difficult to disagree. Further, it points out that islanders themselves will play a part and are already doing much good work—I will address that in a moment.

I mentioned that the Isle of Cumbrae, in the west of Scotland, is one of the six islands that we hope will achieve net zero. That is an ambitious and difficult target, but I hope that everyone on Cumbrae is on board with that goal. That will be achieved through well-publicised communication from the Government and through making quite clear to the islanders—in the most jargon-free way possible—what is required of them, because it is not about what we do but about what we ask them to do. Each islander has a part to play.

Good work is being done. I was impressed when I visited the Field Studies Council’s centre in Millport, which has reduced its carbon emissions by 34 per cent in the past decade and has saved 389 tonnes of carbon dioxide through interventions such as solar panels, mini wind turbines and better insulation in its buildings. I have spoken previously in the chamber about a cracking new business that I recently visited on Cumbrae: Jack’s Alt-Stays, which might be described as a posh glamping business, but it is better than that. It is eco-friendly, and that is what is really important. It is run by two young lads who are entrepreneurial and commercially astute but also socially aware, and who put the environment at the heart of what they are doing. That is what the project that we are discussing is about: role models on the ground in our island communities setting up businesses. However, they need Government help and support.

Our problem is that transportation is letting many of those people down—that is why it is important that we talk about that issue. I am afraid that 2022 was probably the worst year on record for connectivity to Arran and Cumbrae. More than half of the vessels in Caledonian MacBrayne’s fleet are way beyond their life cycle, and we know all the problems that come with that—not only the physical, logistical issues but the financial cost, which we heard about from CalMac this week.

I mention that issue not simply to bash the Government about ferries, which we do quite often, but because the issue is important. There is no point having a carbon-free island if the waters around it are polluted by ageing vessels. Much more could be done. Many countries have done a lot of good and ambitious work in that regard—if I had time, I would talk about them.

I want to touch on the issue of how we measure carbon reduction. Carbon audits are the first point in the minister’s implementation strategy—it goes on to talk about action plans, and then investment and strategy, and I think that that is the right and logical order. Carbon audits are important, but the problem is that there is no consistent approach to how we account for greenhouse gas and carbon emissions across our islands. That is not my point of view; it is the point of view of ClimateXChange, which is the think tank that the Government is clearly engaging with. If we cannot adequately and properly quantify carbon reduction, we do not know where the interventions need to happen, and if we do not know where the interventions need to happen, the Government will not know where the funding needs to go. Therefore, there has to be that logical flow.

However, I say to the Government that that data should already be available. The report is a nice progress report, but it is 16 pages—that includes the front page and the last page—there are lots of pictures and maps, and there are lots of spaces between words. I wanted to see data in it. If the Government does not have that data, it needs to get it quickly. The next progress report must tell us where we are at in the six islands.

I take on board the points that Liam McArthur made about the report being a starting point and that we have an opportunity to raise concerns through this debate, and I am raising them.

Will the member take an intervention?

I am in my closing seconds, but I will happily take an intervention if I get my time back.

There should be a brief intervention and a brief response.

Does Jamie Greene appreciate that some of the data that he is talking about is currently being collected on the ground by some of the development officers who are sitting behind him?

Jamie Greene

I am very pleased to hear that, and I welcome them to the chamber.

The report is a progress report. I am afraid that, if I was going to be unkind, I would call it a lack of progress report, because there is not much in it for us to go on in this debate. I welcome everything that is in it, but I want to see some real action plans. It is all very well talking about an implementation strategy, but what are the strategies, what is the investment, and where is the investment coming from? As far as I can see, much of it is coming from the private sector or public-private partnerships, and not from the Government itself. That was the point of our amendment.

I will finish. Our islands need action now, because we are not far away from the target. We need to get the basics right, and the Government can deliver the basics on housing, transport, insulation and energy. Those are things that the Government can already do and should be doing—only then we will stand a chance of getting the six islands fully carbon neutral. That means all of us pulling together, all of Government pulling together, and Government accepting its own responsibilities in delivering the outcomes that we all want.


Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I have a personal investment in Islay Energy Community Benefit Society, which is the owner of Islay’s community wind turbine. I am a member of Islay Energy Trust, and Islay is, of course, my home.

Islay Energy Trust is the anchor organisation for Islay’s carbon neutral island steering group. I will focus on its work.

I thank George Dean of Islay Energy Trust and Tom Skinner for the information that they gave me for my speech, and I thank all the other steering group volunteers on Islay, and those who support them, for providing their time, knowledge and ideas to the project.

There is evidence that there has been human life on Islay for 12,000 years. Its fertility attracted mesolithic hunter-gatherers, followed by neolithic farmers. Well before its reputation as a whisky producer, Islay was famous as the green island. Now, as one of Scotland’s carbon neutral islands, Islay is once again set to become green Islay.

Currently, more than 80 per cent of Islay’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and its electricity network capacity—via subsea cables to Jura and then to Islay—is severely constrained. That makes decarbonisation extremely challenging.

Demand for electricity is growing. Existing distilleries are increasing output, more are being built, more housing is planned, and the use of electric vehicles is expanding. Islay needs action.

Over the years, Islay has frequently been at the forefront of testing new renewable energy technology, and projects that utilise heat exchange, photovoltaics, wave and wind power have all been developed. For example, Bowmore’s community swimming pool uses waste heat from Bowmore distillery. Those projects are great, but now is the time for Islay, Scotland and the world to change. As Greta Thunberg said,

“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

That action is starting on Islay. There are 23 volunteers, who represent a broad spectrum of the community, and three working groups have been created to cover energy and transport, land use and waste.

As the cabinet secretary has said, the baseline carbon audit is currently being carried out. That is a considerable exercise on Islay, due to the island’s industrialisation through distilling and farming.

Liam Kerr

I presume that Jenni Minto will know better than I do that the nature and population of the islands changes significantly, and the emissions from them will also change significantly, depending on when the audit is done—whether it is done during the tourist season in the summer or in the winter, for example. Over what period is the carbon audit being conducted? How does the Government intend to ensure that it is authoritative for all times of the year?

Jenni Minto

The carbon audit is being done just now. People in the group on Islay are working with farmers—who are also having to do carbon audits—and with the distilleries to look at what the developments will be. It is a small island—people talk, they understand what is going on and they know about development. That is the joy of this project—it is pulling together people with different experiences and different knowledge to find out what situation we are in and, we hope, to make a projection into the future.

It is possible that Islay’s greenhouse gases will exceed the total of the other five carbon neutral islands put together. The analysis phase is due to be finalised in the next four weeks, so Liam Kerr will be able to find out more about it after then. It will be followed by the development, with the wider community, of options and timescales to decarbonise.

The waste working group is looking at current arrangements and considering what might work better, and the land use group, as I said, is working with farmers. Farming on Islay is more intensive than on other islands, so the land use group is looking at practices to see what can be improved.

The Scottish Government’s further investment of £3 million into the project is welcome and I hope that it will enable other investment to be levered into the project. I hope, too, that each island will receive a share that reflects the scale and nature of the challenges that it faces.

An important element of Argyll and Bute’s rural growth deal is around supporting Islay towards a low-carbon economy. It is likely that that support will focus on domestic properties. As has been mentioned in relation to other islands, the age profile of Islay’s homes means that 50 per cent have no energy performance certificate and are likely to fall below modern standards. Therefore, the rural growth deal, alongside other support schemes, will aim to improve insulation and to introduce small-scale renewables. However, there is another capacity issue here: although the Institution of Engineering and Technology continues to provide training for local tradespeople, there are simply not enough of them. I could go down the route of mentioning the lack of housing and the impact of second homes, but that is a debate for another day.

ScotWind provides Islay with longer-term options to address its electricity requirements. Scottish Power Renewables has the option to build a 2GW wind farm north-west of Islay and has signed a memorandum of understanding with the IET. There is an ambition to land a proportion of the wind farm’s output directly on to Islay, which could revolutionise energy use on the island, giving local control and involving improved infrastructure. In my view, it is important that such discussions with the distribution network operator, SSE, occur.

Carbon neutral Islay aims to establish itself at the heart of Islay’s net zero journey, one that will demonstrate the island’s spirit, tenacity, innovation and forward thinking—exactly the traits that we need to take the transformational action that is desperately needed.


Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I rise to speak to the Labour amendment. Although we welcome the progress that the Scottish Government is making in supporting the six islands in the carbon neutral islands project to become fully carbon neutral by 2040, we must not lose sight of the needs of people living on islands that are not included in the project.

As has already been said today, the cost of living crisis is hitting some island communities hardest, with extreme fuel poverty being highest on some of the islands that are not included in the project and, as we know, fuel poverty—or any other aspect of poverty—requires action on incomes.

Although employment law remains reserved, this Government could demonstrate a greater commitment to addressing the systemic failures in our economy that suppress wages and widen wealth inequality. That is why it is so disappointing that the motion does not commit the Government to investing in island services or to prioritising job creation and retention on islands, and it is why the Labour amendment calls for guarantees that a just transition for workers is included in all areas of the carbon neutral islands strategy.

This is just one debate, and I expect that we will hear constructive ideas from members across the chamber. I hope that the Scottish Government will integrate those ideas into all aspects of upcoming legislation, because in the application of every bill that we pass in this Parliament, islands can be understood as a microcosm for the rest of Scotland. If something works for our islands, with all the pressures and difficulties that islanders face, making it work for the mainland must surely be achievable.

For example, the circular economy bill presents us with an opportunity to shorten supply chains, which will lead to improvements in areas such as food, energy and workforce security, among others. In turn, those improvements will only increase the resilience of our islands, counteract depopulation and ensure that islands are places where people thrive and live well. However, that will take planning, investment and the prioritisation of people over profit, democracy over diktat and workforce investment over short-termist outsourcing.

I have listened with interest to the speeches in the debate because, unlike many—if not all—of the members who have spoken, I do not live on one of Scotland’s islands and nor do my constituents. However, it is important to stress the importance of sustainable island life to the rest of the country. As has already been highlighted, islands provide Scotland with significant opportunities for renewable energy and economic development. They are also home to thousands of Scots whose history and culture are intrinsic to life in the rest of Scotland.

I have benefited from the opportunity to visit some of Scotland’s islands. Last summer, as part of my research into community land ownership, I visited Gigha and Colonsay, where I heard about the difficulty of maintaining schools and other services in areas with declining populations, and about the difficulty of building communities when so many people are experiencing homelessness. Despite those difficulties, I saw incredible determination and resilience, yet that resilience does not relieve us of our duty. That is why I urge all members to support Labour’s amendment, which reminds us all of our responsibility to islanders and our path to net zero.


Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Scotland’s islands have so much to offer in the delivery of net zero. We can learn from them as they lead the way in offering solutions to current and future challenges. I will address the debate not as an MSP for an island constituency but from my perspective as a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. I will talk more widely about our islands, rather than just about the six that have been selected for the project, as others will have more local knowledge about them.

We know that our island communities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, that they face particular cost of living issues and that they are trying to recover from the pandemic and the continuing repercussions of Brexit. It is ironic that—there is outright anger about this—according to figures for last year from Energy Action Scotland, 40 per cent of the people who live in the Western Isles live in fuel poverty, compared with the Scottish average of 24 per cent among all households. Neither of those figures is acceptable.

There are many examples of islands leading the way in renewables. On Orkney, surf ’n’ turf is an innovative community project that uses surplus electricity that is generated from renewable energy to split water and make hydrogen gas as a fuel. The project has resulted from islanders thinking out of the box regarding energy. In relation to renewable energy generation from wind, wave and tide, Orkney is in the lead in many regards. On storage, I am pleased that vanadium batteries, an alternative to lithium batteries, are being used to store hydrogen on Orkney and that those are manufactured at Invinity Energy System’s site in Bathgate, which is in my constituency.

Another example is construction for the improvements to the Scapa Flow harbour, which is the largest natural deep-water harbour in the northern hemisphere. Construction is due to start in 2024, and the improvements have the potential to create an international shipping route through the north-west passage in the Arctic, which will save many kilometres and reduce carbon emissions. It is not out of the realms of possibility that that will have a global impact.

At the end of last year, the Western Isles was named by the Scottish Government as one of the potential sites for hydrogen hubs, due to the area’s abundant onshore and offshore wind resources, which could produce enough renewable hydrogen to power the islands and to export to the UK’s domestic and international markets. Improved transmission of electricity off the isles from the growing offshore wind sector is essential in order to power local businesses and tackle the fuel poverty that I referred to earlier. Proper interconnected grid connections and tackling excessive transmission costs will be vital if that potential to export electricity and green hydrogen is to be realised not just for the Western Isles but for other islands. Innovative storage solutions, which I referred to earlier, will also be key.

On Barra, the electrification of airplanes using, I assume, its beach will be part of the carbon neutral project. Shetland is already home to world-leading wind farms such as Burradale, which generates 3.68MW—enough to power more than 2,000 homes—and Garth wind farm, operated by the North Yell Development Council, which boasts five 900kW wind turbines that generate clean electricity for the local grid, with profits being reinvested back into the local community.

On Tuesday evening, the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee heard from stakeholders that fixed transport links for Unst and Yell could be the preferred longer-term route to interisland carbon neutrality by supporting electric car use. Foula is already generating its own electricity and has ambitions to power electric ferries. Shetland will also be home to the UK’s most productive onshore wind farm in terms of electricity output, as SSE-owned Viking Energy wind farm is due to become operational in 2024-25.

My family have reliably informed me about the sustainable carbon-saving initiatives from Islay’s whisky businesses, where Bruichladdich leads the way. I think that extensive research was done as part of that inquiry.

There is great entrepreneurship and innovation on Raasay. I met members of the Raasay community at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, where they gave a presentation on their local sustainable water project. Their entrepreneurialism lends itself to Raasay being one of the six selected islands.

The message from the debate is that islanders are the experts in their own communities, and the journey to decarbonisation must be led by island communities to ensure that local knowledge shapes local solutions. There is a strong message for the Government and mainland local authorities about strategic support with local island leadership and innovation.

Scotland is a world leader in the deployment of floating offshore wind projects. We have the world’s two largest operational floating wind farms, and a third that is under development will supersede those two wind farms to become the world’s largest project. Tidal and wave energy are also being led from the islands, and the European Marine Energy Centre project is testament to that.

The islands can be world leaders in sustainable tourism, and I am encouraged by VisitScotland’s work on that. Sensible promotion of electric car hire can ease ferry loads and cost.

A further benefit comes from developing peer learning among islands around the world, which leads to strengthened international relationships. I am keen for the Government to support that.

There will be challenges ahead and, as we have heard, there can be criticism of the scale, scope and remit of the project, but it is clear that there is a massive opportunity for our island communities to lead the way in realising Scotland’s climate change ambitions. They are well placed and highly motivated to be hubs of innovation in renewable energy and climate change resilience. Our islands are profoundly important to Scotland and are known around the world, and I have no doubt that the world will be watching and learning from the carbon neutral islands project.


Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for providing advance sight of the progress report. Clarity on the outputs of the carbon neutral islands project is welcome and gives assurance that the project can produce useful outcomes for the six lighthouse communities and all our islands. I welcome the progress that is being made in those communities, but it cannot be forgotten that, as has been said, we have 87 other inhabited island communities that face challenges to achieving carbon neutrality. Lack of resources and expertise and financial constraints are significant barriers to island communities taking ownership of projects and long-term planning. Likewise, our diverse island communities are at very different stages in the process, and trailblazers such as Eigg require different support from those that are less progressed.

The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust continues to demonstrate pioneering work on energy decarbonisation, on the development of the forestry sector there and on community ownership. It is celebrating 25 years since its ground-breaking community buyout, and it has proved that community-led decarbonisation can succeed in the long term and contributes to community wealth building, population retention and even population expansion.

The extended period of power cuts and internet outage in Shetland last month emphasised the need to build resilience in island communities. The transition to carbon neutrality offers us an opportunity to do that. We must prioritise reducing the extent to which island households and businesses are at the mercy of market failures. Creating householder resilience through smart storage and small-scale generation will change normal consumers into prosumers who produce, consume and sell energy smartly.

We must do what we can with the inadequate power that we have on energy matters to change the current imbalance in our energy market, which, as fuel poverty indicators show, our islanders bear the brunt of. I am keen to hear whether the cabinet secretary thinks that we have adequate powers in Scotland to truly tackle the energy crisis and move to carbon neutrality for our islands.

I strongly agree with Zoe Holliday, chief executive officer of Community Energy Scotland, who emphasised that communities are not just key beneficiaries of the recently published energy strategy but key actors in its realisation. To achieve that vision, a joined-up approach is essential. I look forward to the delayed island energy strategy, which must bring together plans that are already in place and integrate them with the carbon neutral islands project.

Island communities face not one single barrier to decarbonisation but an array of barriers across portfolio areas. That is why I am pleased that the six islands that have been selected for the project represent a diversity of circumstances and stages on the path to decarbonisation. It is vital that the experience and knowledge gained through the project is shared, to maximise the support that we can give and to inform the work in all our island communities.

Carbon neutrality for all our island communities will not be achieved without emphasis on our natural environment. Island communities have long histories of economies based on the natural environment. Kelp harvesting, forestry and peat extraction have, at points, dominated island economies, and farming and fishing still play a crucial role. If we are to achieve carbon neutrality for our islands, there must be direct support for new nature-based economies and for the decarbonisation of existing sectors, where possible.

The 2021-22 programme for government included a commitment to support new green and nature-based skills activity, particularly on the islands, and the carbon neutral islands project should be an opportunity to deliver on that promise. The blue carbon economy and nature restoration provide exciting opportunities for doing exactly that.

I stress how pleased I am that the plans that are being developed with host communities will be community led, community owned and community actioned. I am also delighted that almost all of the community development officers are graduate returning islanders, and I welcome them to the chamber.

The wider social impact and the opportunities for communities to build social resilience must not be forgotten in our efforts towards carbon neutrality. I hope that the cabinet secretary can provide some assurance that the plans that are being created will take into account the wider role of social resilience, and that on-going funding for the development officers who are charged with delivering the plans can be secured for the long term.

There are no silver bullets in relation to the challenges that our island communities face. The Government must recognise that a diverse, cross-cutting approach is essential. The move to carbon neutrality offers an exciting opportunity not only for our climate and biodiversity but, most of all, for our communities. I am excited to see how the communities harness that opportunity and to see the future work of the carbon neutral islands project.


Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I begin by dwelling on the point about the amendments. I am astonished that the Scottish Government does not feel that it can support the amendment in Liam Kerr’s name. I have yet to hear any Scottish National Party member give any proper justification for that position. The amendment is a detailed one.

Fiona Hyslop

Opposition members always accuse the Government of having motherhood and apple pie and everything including the kitchen sink in its motions. I suspect that that is the problem with the amendment: it is not as specific as it should be on the specific carbon neutral islands project, which is for six specific islands.

Donald Cameron

That proves my point: no justification has been offered. The amendment is a detailed one that lists a number of different issues, many of which have been covered by SNP speakers. I hope that the reason why the SNP is not supporting it is not the fact that the amendment includes the four words “welcomes UK Government investment”, because that would be utterly depressing.

Let us move on. When we last debated the issue, in May, it was clear that the Scottish Government needed to provide more detail as to how it would achieve success for this ambitious scheme, which, as we have already said, enjoys broad support across the chamber.

All too often, when we have heard about various projects that are aimed at reducing our carbon output and meeting Scotland’s net zero targets, the Scottish Government has been found wanting when it comes to moving beyond general principles—which we support—to practical and sometimes technical change.

Liam Kerr has already quoted the chairman of the CCC, Lord Deben, who said that Scotland’s climate goals

“are increasingly at risk without real progress towards the milestones that Scottish Ministers have previously laid out.”

He told the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee that

“unless there is a clear movement towards those targets, they will be without meaning.”—[Official Report, Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, 20 December 2022; c 10.]

I remain to be convinced that significant progress on the carbon neutral islands plan has taken place since it was first announced, in September 2021. I welcome the report, but there is a lack of detail in it.

Will the member take an intervention?

Donald Cameron

I am sorry—I have already taken one intervention and I have only a few minutes left.

The report references the six islands that were announced last May, the criteria by which each island was selected and some of the measures that the Scottish Government is looking to take. However, there is still a lot that we do not know: what the project really means in practice; how it will affect islanders in their everyday lives; what measures communities will need to take to achieve carbon neutral status; and what investment the Scottish Government will need to make. I hope that the minister might be able to address those concerns in summing up, because although we support the project and will work constructively to ensure that it can be realised, we think that a number of questions remain unanswered.

I know, too, that there is support from the communities on the islands that have been selected in principle. In August, I visited Barra and had the pleasure of meeting members of the Barra and Vatersay community council—Alasdair Allan has already mentioned them—who were enthusiastic about the project. They told me that Voluntary Action Barra and Vatersay, which is the local anchor organisation, has already taken the initiative by developing local projects that will help to meet the island’s carbon neutral goals.

My colleague Jamie Halcro Johnston organised the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on islands, at which we heard that Orkney is driving forward the green agenda through projects such as ReFLEX Orkney, which our amendment specifically mentions. Liam McArthur has spoken about Orkney, too.

I was encouraged to hear about the work of the Islands Centre for Net Zero, which brings together partners from Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to work towards decarbonisation. The centre has been backed by the islands growth deal and has received £16.5 million of investment. That is another example of the positive things that can happen when the UK and Scottish Governments work together. Collaborative working—not just between the Scottish Government and the UK Government but between local authorities and the communities that have been selected to deliver the project—is vital.

However, there are some issues, which other members have touched on and which I will repeat. There needs to be more mention of island depopulation and the associated issues that contribute to it. It is the single biggest threat to island life, and we have to tackle it and its causes head on if we are to achieve well-intentioned aims, such as carbon neutral status. We have debated that issue many times in the chamber.

There has to be a renewed focus on the need for more affordable, energy-efficient housing on our islands. In addition, as others have mentioned, there is the—again, much debated—on-going crisis engulfing Scotland’s ferry network. We have to move forward and deliver new ferries that not only meet the needs of island communities but are as carbon neutral as possible. The use of fixed links, which has been mentioned, is imperative to develop the project, and I welcome the call from Beatrice Wishart yesterday for a debate on that issue.

We support the aims and ambitions of the Scottish Government’s carbon neutral islands project, although we are frustrated by the lack of detail. How will we help those islands to achieve carbon neutral status? We need more clarity on the role that transport will play, with a focus on ferries, and on the role that housing will play, with a focus on energy efficiency. I hope that, when we next debate the issue, we will know more about those questions and about how the Scottish Government will bring together those different components to achieve meaningful and lasting change.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I have enjoyed listening to the speeches of colleagues from right across the chamber. We have heard about some challenges and concerns, but overall we are optimistic about our island communities and islanders, and about the talent and ideas that they bring to the debate. I hope that island communities feel that their voices are being heard.

As a member who represents the Central Scotland region, I am a bit of an outsider in the debate. However, many of my constituents in Lanarkshire and Falkirk are from island communities and have family, social and business connections to our islands. I have come to appreciate and understand that more as a member of the Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.

Similar to Fiona Hyslop and Liam Kerr, who are colleagues on that committee, I take the issues of the debate seriously. We are looking for innovative ways to ensure that island communities are heard in the Parliament. I have in recent months enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in Orkney and the Western Isles in order to hear directly from islanders. We had online engagement this week—including with young people, in order to ensure that they are represented. I am glad that the cabinet secretary touched on that important point in her opening speech.

The diversity of Scotland’s islands enriches our culture. Alasdair Allan touched on that point well.

My interest in the carbon neutral islands project and the decarbonisation journey is in relation to transport. Liam McArthur, in his amendment and speech, touched on a vital point about the decarbonisation of

“lifeline ferry services across all routes that serve Scotland’s island communities”,

which Labour members feel strongly about, too.

I welcome the progress report. The very first sentence, which is in the cabinet secretary’s name, says that

“Climate change and nature loss are the greatest threats facing our planet.”

I hope that we all focus on that during the debate. I agree with the cabinet secretary that island communities should be

“front and centre in the journey to net zero.”

The report talks about “net zero gap skills”. I think that it should be “skills gap”—Liam Kerr made that point. In our work in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, we hear about the need for more training, more investment and more joined-up working and partnership working. Those are issues that the Government cannot fix alone. We need collaboration and partnership, but investment is absolutely key. I have not yet met anyone who is resistant to the net zero agenda, but we require more practical support and sustainable investment, including for third sector organisations, which bring many skills to the table.

I mentioned young people; the Young Islanders Network is clearly important. It is good that we have visitors from it in the public gallery today.

As for all such debates, the publication of a strategy and report is welcome, but it is through actions and in delivery that change really happens. I understand why there is some concern from Conservative members about that; Liam Kerr made some important points, as did Jamie Greene. I know that the action plans will be published later in the year, but that work is crucial.

As a citizen of Scotland, I do not particularly like to hear the UK Climate Change Committee, when it comes to the Parliament, warning us of the danger of “magical thinking”. We must pay attention and wake up to that. I am not sure that Lord Deben was saying that Scotland has been overambitious. I am not sure whether that was exactly what he said—perhaps Liam Kerr got that a little bit muddled. However, the point is well made that we can be ambitious and have targets, but we need the delivery plan to ensure that we deliver and work at pace. It is a warning to us all that there is no room for complacency on this issue.

The Labour amendment is really important because we must frame the debate in the context of what is happening in the here and now—the cost of living crisis and our efforts to achieve a just transition. Mercedes Villalba made important points about the need to have the right investment and the right job creation so that we can tackle wealth inequalities and the fuel poverty that many colleagues have mentioned. When I visited Orkney and spoke to some of the constituents whom Liam McArthur talked about, I was extremely concerned to hear about the high levels of fuel poverty there. We must grapple with such issues.

It is worth repeating Rhoda Grant’s point about the fact that the carbon emissions from interisland ferry services will not be included in the audits. Other colleagues are more familiar with the issue than I am, but I recognise the frustration and disappointment around that. Ministers say that the reason for that is that local authorities, not the Government, have responsibility for those services, but we know that four of the six islands in question are served by CalMac. More credible responses are required.

I agree with colleagues who are optimistic and who can see the opportunities, but we must ensure that the delivery plan and investment are up to scratch.

I call Jackie Dunbar, who will be the final speaker in the open debate.


Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

As a member of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I am happy to speak in this afternoon’s debate. As the member for Aberdeen Donside, I want the innovative work of the carbon neutral islands project because I believe that supporting our island communities on their journey to net zero is crucial for Scotland as a whole.

Carbon neutral islands will be in the vanguard in our reaching our net zero emissions targets by 2045: they will lead the way on the journey to net zero while supporting other areas across Scotland. Islands can lead the way in offering solutions for current and future challenges. Scotland’s islands have been leaders in renewable energy development and innovation, so the Scottish Government is determined to harness that potential and build on that success to meet Scotland’s 2045 net zero ambitions.

The carbon neutral islands project will embrace the opportunity for island communities to lead the way in realising Scotland’s climate change ambitions. In directly supporting six islands on their journey to be carbon neutral by 2040, the project will not only benefit the environment but will support local economies, facilities and general wellbeing through investment in communities.

I am enjoying Jackie Dunbar’s comments. Does she welcome the UK Government’s investment in carbon-reducing initiatives on Scotland’s islands?

Jackie Dunbar

I am an Aberdonian: money is money, as far as I am concerned. As long as it is new money and there are no strings attached, I welcome it.

The innovative carbon neutral islands project highlights islands as hubs of innovation in our move towards becoming carbon neutral. The project is underpinned by three key principles: alignment, fairness and replicability. First, the project aims to align with existing island-based climate change efforts and to avoid duplication of those efforts. Secondly, the project will support islands to become carbon neutral in a just and fair way. Thirdly, the project will provide opportunities for all Scottish islands through an effective process of learning and sharing good practice related to net zero and climate resilience.

The project also provides an opportunity to demonstrate the low-carbon energy potential of islands as hubs of innovation in relation to renewable energy and climate change resilience, which will positively impact on island economies, facilities and general wellbeing by allowing for reinvestment in the communities.

Our island communities are directly benefiting Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland by bringing in a new era of renewable energy potential while sustainably transitioning away from traditional oil and gas mineral extraction. The six islands in the project will act as catalysts for decarbonisation across all Scottish islands.

The Scottish Government is working closely with Community Energy Scotland to deliver the project. For each of the islands, the Scottish Government is developing in-depth carbon audits, community climate change action plans and climate change investment strategies. On each carbon neutral island, the Scottish Government’s delivery partner, Community Energy Scotland, is working closely with a steering group that is made up of key members of the island community.

Although we must acknowledge that our island communities face unique challenges, we must also acknowledge that the Scottish Government is committed to supporting those communities. The Scottish budget for 2023-24 commits overall funding of £3 million for carbon neutral islands for creating jobs, protecting our island environments from the impact of climate change and contributing to delivery of Scotland’s statutory climate change targets. In September 2022, the Government announced that

“Six island local authorities will receive a share of £4.45 million to assist critical projects on climate change, population retention and tourism.

A total of 11 projects, spread across 31 islands, have received funding for the current financial year as part of the Islands Programme.”

On 9 December 2022, the Scottish Government announced a £1.4 million islands cost crisis emergency fund that targets immediate support at those who are struggling with the cost of living crisis, with the money to be shared either through existing schemes or as new support. The successful roll-out of the £30 million islands programme is funding projects that will encourage people to live healthier lifestyles and improve their resilience. I welcome that.

Scotland is delivering lasting action to secure a net zero future in a way that is fair and just for everyone. Scotland can rightly be proud of the action that it has taken so far to respond to the climate crisis. The Scottish Government has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2045, with an ambitious interim target of a 75 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. Those targets, including one to decarbonise the north-east, form the heart of the Scottish Government’s indicative nationally determined contribution to the Paris agreement, which was published ahead of COP26. Scotland’s emissions are down by 51.5 per cent since the 1990 baseline, and Scotland continues to outperform the UK as a whole in delivering long-term reductions.

I again welcome the debate and the steps that are being taken in the face of the global climate emergency.

We now move to the closing speeches.


Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

This has been a genuinely good debate that has shown what debates should be about: the exchange of ideas. We may not necessarily agree on all the ideas, but the debate has served a useful purpose. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s confirmation that she will support my amendment and the amendment in the name of Rhoda Grant. I find her reason for not supporting Liam Kerr’s amendment rather strange.

As I said in my opening remarks, it is absolutely right that the Government is taking a local, islands-based approach, looking at the six islands as lighthouse communities. Anchoring the initiatives in each island with a single organisation, supported by Community Energy Scotland, and taking the collaborative approach that Alasdair Allan referred to seems to me to be absolutely right.

Mercedes Villalba was right to ask how any learning will be extended beyond those six islands. As well as exchanging ideas about good practice, it is important to learn lessons from things that do not work.

I share some of the surprise expressed by Donald Cameron and Jamie Greene that the Government cannot support the Conservative amendment. The local activity that we are talking about cannot be disconnected from on-going action and support from both the Scottish and UK Governments. I talked in my opening speech about the imperative to develop creative financial mechanisms and models to support the work on the ground. That will require Government intervention at both Scottish and UK levels. In an excellent speech, Fiona Hyslop talked about strategic support and local leadership. That is the symbiotic relationship that we are looking for.

Liam Kerr opened the debate by talking about the challenges that we face in meeting our climate targets. There is no lack of ambition. We have regularly congratulated ourselves on what are seen as world-leading targets, but I think that we are all seized of the concerns that the UK Climate Change Committee has been expressing for some time about the absence of detailed plans and pathways to the achievement of those targets. Monica Lennon was right to pull up Liam Kerr in relation to Lord Deben’s comments, which were not a criticism of the ambition but more a plea for detail to be put forward on how it could be met.

That has been reflected in some of the debate that we have heard today in relation to the progress report. A key aspect of that has been fuel poverty, which was very much a feature of Rhoda Grant’s comments. We know that the situation in islands is bad, but it is legitimate to say that we do not necessarily know quite how bad it is, which impedes our efforts to tackle it.

Rhoda Grant and Alasdair Allan echoed concerns that I have expressed about the fact that the way in which the energy market is currently regulated hinders our ability to tackle fuel poverty and works against the interests of island communities more generally. It certainly stands in the way of innovation that could enable us to achieve some of the ambitions that we have talked about today.

I echo the comments that a number of speakers made about transport—notably Liam Kerr’s comments on the EV charging network. However, it is not just about the numbers; it is about making sure that the maintenance of that network is sustained in a way that we are not necessarily seeing at the moment.

I will not repeat what I said earlier about lifeline ferries, although I very much welcome Monica Lennon’s endorsement of that. I cannot avoid feeling that the laudable ambition of creating carbon neutral islands will lack credibility for as long as that fundamental issue remains unaddressed. I think that it was Jamie Greene who talked about having carbon neutral islands with polluting ferries ploughing back and forth delivering vital services and the population back and forth. To me, that does not feel terribly sustainable.

We are not moving from a standing start here, and Alasdair Allan reminded us that islands have not waited to be invited to take action to tackle the climate emergency. They have taken action to deliver a degree of self-sufficiency and climate mitigation. Each will have different challenges, but there are common issues as well. The solutions will need to be tailored to meet the needs and circumstances in each island.

Jenni Minto, as usual, advocated passionately for what is happening in Islay. I commend her for her personal involvement in a lot of that activity. Slightly more surprising, perhaps, was Fiona Hyslop’s position as an evangelist for Shetland, which I very much welcome. It gives me an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon and do likewise for Orkney and our credentials. I would say that we are the energy islands, given our track record on the development of renewables, marine, onshore and, soon, offshore. The ReFLEX project, which many members mentioned, brings together the issues of generation and deployment to meet the challenges of transport and heat.

Our islands have the skills, the incentive and the appetite to embrace what we are trying to achieve through carbon neutral islands. We need to flesh out the detail and the pathway to achieving that, but I hope that the local development officers who are sitting in the public gallery can take some reassurance from the fact that their endeavours enjoy a degree of cross-party support. I very much look forward to supporting Aisling Phillips and others who are involved in the project in Hoy, not least by getting the lessons from that rolled out elsewhere in Orkney. I also look forward to working with the Government to take the project forward.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

It is just under a year since the Scottish Government announced the six islands that would be part of the carbon neutral islands project. As Liam McArthur said, this has been a good debate about that project. I welcome the chance to acknowledge the work in not just those six islands but all 93 of Scotland’s inhabited island communities as part of our transition to net zero.

Decarbonising six of those islands with a combined population of less than 7,000 is an important target, albeit a modest one. However, the real benefit of the project could well come from the development of initiatives that can be scaled up and implemented in other communities as part of a Scotland-wide journey to net zero. As Mercedes Villalba said, if something works for our islands, given all the pressures and difficulties that they face, making it work for the mainland must surely be achievable.

The progress report that was published yesterday sets out the framework for the carbon neutral islands project and acknowledges the diversity of the six islands—Barra, Great Cumbrae, Hoy, Islay, Raasay and Yell—and therefore the importance of providing decarbonisation support that suits local needs. However, as Monica Lennon stressed, what will be crucial is the delivery, later this year, of comprehensive and detailed action plans for how the Government and communities will confidently meet the commitment for those islands to be carbon neutral by 2040.

Those plans will need to show how that transition will be just. The Climate Change Committee’s recent progress report to the Parliament could not have been clearer. The cabinet secretary said in her opening comments that efforts were being stepped up with legally binding targets; however, as the committee highlighted, the problem is that Scotland lacks a clear plan to deliver on those targets. The publication last week of the Government’s “Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan” did little to change that perception. It was very much a rehash of existing policies, which we know do not go far enough. The further behind we fall, the less likelihood there is that any transition will be just.

Given that families across Scotland face a cost of living crisis, a just transition is particularly crucial for our island communities, who already pay more for basic necessities such as energy and food. An important theme in the debate is the extent to which our island communities suffer from extreme levels of fuel poverty. That is getting worse. Fiona Hyslop said that the latest figures from Energy Action Scotland show that fuel poverty affects a shocking 40 per cent in the Western Isles. The average fuel bill there has increased by 240 per cent. According to the Western Isles poverty action group, it is likely that fuel poverty there could rise as high as 80 per cent. Electricity costs are higher on the islands, and 60 per cent of households have a dependence on oil boilers for domestic heating.

I agree with Colin Smyth’s points about fuel poverty in the Western Isles. Would matters be helped if the UK decoupled the price of renewably generated electricity from the arbitrary price of a unit of gas?

Colin Smyth

I absolutely agree with that point, which we constantly stress to the UK Government.

No homes on Orkney or Shetland use mains gas, and 88 per cent of households in the Western Isles are off grid, as Alasdair Allan knows.

As Liam Kerr highlighted, however, there is a lack of clarity on the future heating options for many of those households. If those communities are to achieve a just transition to net zero, we need to support them to properly insulate and retrofit their homes, as Rhoda Grant highlighted—reducing fuel use and, therefore, cutting bills and emissions. It is therefore disappointing that, in last year’s budget, the Scottish Government cut the energy efficiency budget by £133 million instead of tackling the reasons why there was not a higher uptake of some of the Government schemes.

A just transition for our island communities needs to be jobs led, as Mercedes Villalba stressed. The proportion of people under the age of 25 on Scotland’s islands fell from 28 per cent to 24 per cent between 2001 and 2020, as more and more young people were forced to move away to find jobs. National Records of Scotland statisticians have forecast population reductions for all Scotland’s island local authorities over the next 20 years.

I wish all those who are involved in the carbon neutral islands project well, including the community development officers, who are employed by local steering groups and who have joined us in the gallery. I was particularly encouraged to hear the cabinet secretary say that some of them were young people from the islands who have returned to work on those projects.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, when growth in renewable energy production did not translate into growth in jobs. The journey to net zero is an opportunity for job creation and skills development right across Scotland, with our rural and island communities at the heart of the transition to renewable and green energy—not least in what Alasdair Allan described as largely untapped sources of energy, such as tidal.

Meeting that jobs potential will need better, more reliable connectivity. Too often, as Monica Lennon and others highlighted, too many of our island communities are being failed by the current ferry network. Transport remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland, being responsible for more than a third. Investment in decarbonising that ferry network is therefore needed more than ever, as Rhoda Grant and Liam McArthur rightly highlighted.

In island communities, a car is often a necessity, not a luxury. Liam Kerr was right to highlight the importance of making electric vehicles and charging points much more accessible and affordable. The Climate Change Committee has said that Scotland needs 30,000 charging points by 2030, but the Government still has no plan to deliver that number.

Labour will support the motion and all the amendments. The carbon neutral islands project is an opportunity for Scotland to demonstrate that we can deliver a truly just transition to net zero, albeit on a modest scale. On our islands and across Scotland, we need to ensure that that transition not only meets our climate targets but is a just transition that tackles fuel poverty and delivers economic security for all our communities.


Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am delighted to close for the Conservatives. It has been an interesting debate that has highlighted the role that our islands are playing in driving decarbonisation and the on-going opportunities that islands have to be at the forefront of efforts. Like colleagues, I am still slightly confused by what the SNP has found that it cannot support in our amendment, but we will be supporting all the amendments.

The Scottish Conservatives fully support the ambition to help Scotland’s islands to become carbon neutral. However, what we must see, and what islanders will expect, is that ambition being backed up with practical steps and support by the Scottish Government. As my colleague Liam Kerr highlighted, we know that this Government is good at setting targets and talking about climate change, and not so good at delivering on those targets. As an islander myself, I have seen commitments to islands come and go. The islands bond was hailed by ministers, then dropped. We have seen promises on reduced ferry fares made and forgotten. Even the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, with its commitment to consider the impact of legislation on island communities, is viewed with some scepticism by some in the islands and, of course, by my colleague Jamie Greene.

Five of the six islands that make up the project are in my Highlands and Islands region. One of them, Hoy, sits just across Scapa Flow from my home in Orkney, and I can watch the Hoy Head ferry travel across the water. The ferry is a vital lifeline link for residents of Hoy, but she is also part of the problem, because she is coming up to 30 years old. As Liam McArthur, Liam Kerr, Rhoda Grant, Jamie Greene and others have highlighted, one of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions on the islands is ferries, which use millions of litres of fuel a year. In response to a freedom of information request by Beatrice Wishart, it was shown that, in just three years, on just three routes in Shetland, nearly 18 million litres of fuel were consumed. We know that, nationally, the SNP is further away from its commitment to ensure that 30 per cent of Scotland’s state-owned ferries use environmentally friendly technology by 2032 than it was when it made that commitment. Instead of greening Scotland’s fleet, the Scottish Government is actually going backwards on low-emissions ferries.

The problem will only get worse as Scotland’s fleet—both state owned and that run by local councils—gets older and less efficient. The Scottish Government must ensure that a new, greener fleet is delivered. Although low-emission vessels will have a role to play, other countries, such as Norway, have been operating electric ferries for years. Norway’s busiest ferry connection is already served on its 10-mile route by the world’s largest electric ferry, which can accommodate 600 passengers and 200 cars. Other countries have ambitions on ferries that we can only dream that the Scottish Government had.

Of course, there is also the opportunity for developing more fixed links, such as bridges and tunnels. Serious consideration should be given by the Scottish Government to fixed links replacing ferries, where suitable. There are communities across our islands where that would work, and where it would improve social and economic connectivity. That should not be seen as a pipe dream. The Faroe Islands are investing in tunnels, which they believe can play a crucial part in building sustainable communities. I hope that the Scottish Government will be more open to opportunities in our own islands.

I have seen the Faroe Islands tunnels that the member refers to. Would he support the Scottish Government having the same kind of borrowing powers that the Faroese Government has to achieve such a thing?

Jamie Halcro Johnston

A point being made by the Faroese is that the tunnels are essentially direct replacements for ferries. The Scottish Government has a commitment to deliver ferries, although, as we have seen in the past few days, the UK Government has, thankfully, stepped in and is providing the community on Fair Isle with a ferry. That is something that we, as a chamber, should welcome.

The motion says that

“the six Carbon Neutral Islands will demonstrate Scotland’s climate change ambitions on the international stage.”

However, Scotland’s ambition and success is already on the international stage and has been for some years.

Not to be outdone by Liam McArthur on my Orkney credentials, I note that—as he mentioned—Kirkwall airport in Orkney is home to the UK’s first operationally based, low-carbon aviation test centre. The UK Government, through its industrial strategy challenge fund, is trialling an electric aircraft on routes in the islands.

Orkney has been at the forefront of marine energy development. The European Marine Energy Centre was established in 2003, following a recommendation by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee two years earlier. It is now self-sufficient, but it was previously supported by the UK and Scottish Governments as well as by the European Commission and the Carbon Trust.

As Donald Cameron mentioned, there is also the work of the islands centre for net zero, and—as other members have mentioned—the ReFLEX Orkney project. That innovative project, funded by the UK Government, has been doing work that can provide a model for communities on our islands and throughout the country. It is about digitally integrating different types of renewable energy generation in an innovative way that can be managed by the local community and can maximise energy use. It involves co-ordinating and combining multiple energy assets across electricity, transport and heat. If members are not aware of ReFLEX Orkney, I very much suggest that they look it up.

I was delighted to welcome Gareth Davies from ReFLEX Orkney to a recent meeting of the CPG on islands, which I convene. The meeting was focused on decarbonising our islands. It was highlighted that energy usage on the islands differs from that in other places and that the average island household uses twice as much energy as the average UK household. However, it was noted that, even with the work of ReFLEX Orkney, only 15 per cent of total energy demand was accounted for by electricity, while the other 85 per cent of energy demand was ultimately still sourced from fossil fuels.

The current energy crisis has highlighted that need for change. That is especially true in our islands, where households are affected to a much greater extent by the knock-on effects of the increases in fuel and energy prices.

I turn briefly to the Labour amendment, which Scottish Conservatives will be supporting. We are already energy rich in the northern isles, but—as Rhoda Grant rightly highlighted—too many households are in fuel poverty and are not seeing the benefits of the energy that is generated on their doorstep. That anomaly must be addressed.

The issue is wider than our islands. According to the Renewable Energy Foundation, in 2020, constraint payments to onshore wind in Scotland amounted to some 3,460GWh, costing around £243 million. I do not have the latest figures for that, but it is still happening and it involves public money being spent not to generate energy during an energy crisis.

I turn back to the carbon neutral islands project. I was pleased that the project leads for Yell, Reuben Irvine of North Yell Development Council, and for Raasay, Rosie Macinnes, were able to attend the recent CPG meeting. I wish them, and all the project leads, every success.

There is already much to build on, with Nova Innovations’ offshore tidal array off Yell powering local homes and businesses since 2016. The Isle of Raasay distillery is working towards reducing its carbon emissions by 83 per cent to enable the production of net zero whisky products.

Scotland has 93 populated islands, and there is great scope for expansion of the work. Progress is about getting it right, learning from each other and building on experience and work that has been happening for years in our islands. We support the carbon neutral islands project, but our islands are already playing their part in decarbonisation and tackling climate change.


The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

I am pleased to have the chance to wind up the debate for the Scottish Government and to have been able to listen to the exchanges. I will respond to some of what we have heard this afternoon, which has been constructive and varied. Before I do so, however, I will highlight from my portfolio perspective some of the stand-out points in what I think is an excellent project that the cabinet secretary, her islands team and of course the islanders themselves have been leading.

First, I will touch on our natural environment and its centrality to the challenges that we face. As the cabinet secretary said, the dual crises of climate change and ecological breakdown are the single greatest long-term threat that we collectively face. The scale and pace of that challenge means that we have to work fast to undo damage and, at the same time, build a resilient future.

Owing to the enormity of that challenge, it can feel daunting. In my job, I meet a lot of young activists in particular, who, despite being utterly committed to fighting climate change and so brave in their pursuits, admit to me that they have huge feelings of anxiety. That is only natural when we are confronted with a task of this size, and none of us can be in doubt about the seriousness of the problem.

The point that I want to make is that, amid all that difficulty, there is opportunity. Of course, the first and foremost, and the most fundamental, opportunity is to salvage the equilibrium in our natural world and to deliver an inhabitable planet in the future. However, opportunity is also available in the here and now, at the socioeconomic level, the community level and even the personal level.

For example, we know that we have to replace fossil fuel demand with zero-carbon technology. That means making fundamental changes in how we travel and heat our homes and in many people’s employment. Doing that can feel deeply challenging, and to avoid the mistakes of the past, it must be managed fairly. That is something that the Scottish Government is committed to and that the Parliament legislated for when it underpinned our climate targets with a commitment to just transition.

My point is that we know that there is also opportunity. With Scotland’s vast capacity for renewables, we are able to build green energy systems of the future. As has been narrated by colleagues around the chamber, much of that already is, and increasingly will be, centred in our rural and island communities. Not only does it tackle climate change, it can create jobs, bring us greater energy security and, if done correctly, help us to tackle fuel poverty. Our recently published energy strategy and just transition plan sets out our vision for that.

Moving away from energy and looking at our natural environment, we similarly know that we have to plant more trees so that they can sequester carbon and support wildlife. The Scottish Government has very stretching targets for woodland creation, and for the fourth year in a row we have managed to plant over 10,000 hectares of new woodland and exceeded our target for native woodland creation. Likewise, we have to restore degraded peatlands so that they, too, can lock up greenhouse gases, and we are investing a quarter of a billion pounds over 10 years to do that. We must also protect our waters and our coastlines and the vital blue carbon that is in them.

All of that requires land use change. Again, that can be challenging but, as with the energy transition, it poses a huge opportunity for good green jobs in our island and rural areas and for our communities to benefit.

I say all this because, in many ways, I believe that our islands and the people who make them home, although they are diverse among themselves, embody so much of both the risk and the opportunity of the climate challenge. I think that much of that is captured in the carbon neutral islands project.

Liam Kerr

I do not disagree at all with what the minister has just said. However, it strikes me that the preparation of the carbon audit, the action plans and the investment strategy under the report will require professional help. What professional help has been identified as being required, and when will it be available to islanders?

Màiri McAllan

I was just about to talk about some of the detail of the audit process. First, though, I want to reiterate to the Conservatives, who seem to have had a slight issue with this this afternoon, that the project is community led by the islanders themselves. Whether it is to do with the amendment or the detail, which many of the Conservatives have said is lacking in what the cabinet secretary has published, the point is that this is being led by people on the ground right now, and they will provide the detail.

However, yes, they will work with professional organisations. I do not have the detail of that to hand, but I am more than happy to update the member on whom communities are working with.

I was going to go on to say that the audit process is exceptionally valuable. It will provide that accurate local information on a multitude of factors, from energy to transport, housing to waste, and—of particular interest to me—land and blue carbon. It will provide that baseline from which to both mitigate the risk and maximise the opportunity.

Having touched on the environment and what I see as the central role of island communities in a lot of the challenges that we face, I want to turn to the other side of my portfolio, which is land reform and communities. As the cabinet secretary said, we have in the Parliament’s public gallery some of the community development officers who are funded as part of this project and who are passionately working on each carbon neutral island. They are so enthusiastic, skilled and passionate about their homes. They are not only drivers of the project but an invaluable resource for their home islands. Certainly, in the Scottish Government, we know that it is our responsibility to continue to foster their talents and passions so that the islands and the project can continue to benefit and thrive.

As I said, the project is for, with and by the community. As Fiona Hyslop said, islanders are experts on their needs and aspirations. I know that the cabinet secretary and I look forward to seeing the results of the action plans later this year.

Jamie Greene

If we cut away all the jargon, we can see that we will not get carbon neutral islands unless every household and every islander is on board, which requires the Government to be clear with them about what is required of them in their day-to-day lives. I suggest that the Government should do a door-to-door drop informing every person in all of the six islands exactly what is being asked of them. I think that that should be quite simple to deliver and not terribly difficult to do, but it would be helpful.

Màiri McAllan

That is a great suggestion, and I know that door-to-door work has already been done by some of the project officers on some of the islands. That is the granularity that this project seeks to achieve.

Of course, that local community is important. However, I am also speaking of a community that is not limited to Scotland. Climate change is a global issue and we do not have time not to collaborate. The carbon neutral islands project recognises that, continuing Scotland’s long tradition of internationalism by actively engaging with partners in Malta, Finland and Ireland, and I am particularly pleased that conversations with Vanuatu have commenced. At COP27, I had the pleasure of meeting Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change. We held bilateral discussions on the threats that low-lying island communities face, and we both took part in a joint press conference calling for action on loss and damage, which we were pleased to eventually see come to pass.

I will turn to some of the points that were made in today’s debate. Transport was obviously a dominant theme. I begin by clarifying something that was said during the debate regarding the inclusion of ferry emissions in the audit process. I confirm that they absolutely will form part of that. The distinction around interisland ferries is that local authorities are responsible for them. However, they will still form part of the audit, and that is why we are working closely with local authorities as part of the project.

Another transport theme was electric vehicles and the need for charging infrastructure. It is already happening. Orkney is leading the way and numbers are steadily increasing. We recently supported two new charging stations on Islay, through the community-led local development fund, and if Cumbrae does not have enough, that will be flagged up by the audit process that will be undertaken.

The cost of living crisis was another important theme, and it is something that the Scottish Government absolutely recognises, particularly with regard to the additional exposure of islanders to it. That is, in part, why we created the £1.4 million islands cost crisis emergency fund, which I must point out is an example of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 in action. The fund has gone to local authorities, for them to decide how best to help alleviate the cost crisis, and some have used it to double the Scottish welfare fund crisis grant.

Energy efficiency was also, rightly, mentioned, and we are supporting that through our area-based schemes, delivering energy efficiency improvements for households that are living in or are at risk of fuel poverty. That includes an uplift for our island communities.

Liam McArthur

On the specific point about energy efficiency, a concern has been raised about the up-front capital cost, and I reflected in my speech on the need to look at more creative financing models in order to shift away from just private sector or just public sector investment in order to ensure that the gap between the £33 billion that is required and the £1.8 billion that has been committed by the Government can be bridged. Would the minister be prepared to consider that?

Màiri McAllan

I absolutely agree with the member’s point. As with so much in the climate crisis, the costs are eye watering—that is not an unreasonable term to use—and the Scottish Government very much recognises that the public purse cannot fund the response alone. I think that it was Jenni Minto who made the point that we have to work to leverage responsible private investment and other methods that we are turning our minds to.

I want to give Rhoda Grant some assurance on a couple of points that she raised. She wants island communities to be at the heart of the approach. That is absolutely what the project is about. I think that Ms Grant also made a point about other islands being able to benefit from the process. It is absolutely our intention that the learning on the islands, which were picked for their diversity, can be replicated in other parts of Scotland.

I realise that time is against me, so I will conclude.

The project is a very exciting one with huge potential. It recognises how close our island communities are to the threats of climate change and to the solutions, and therefore how central islanders are to the biggest issues of our day.