AS London fiddles and Rome burns, the Scottish Government bears a heavy burden of responsibility. While the leaders of the main parties at Westminster dither and dawdle over climate change, millions across the UK are starting to look north for courageous leadership.

For the past 20 years, Scotland has punched well above its weight on electricity decarbonisation. We have vast potential for marine renewables. But generating more and more energy ad infinitum – even of the clean and green variety – is only part of the solution. It can only take us so far.

The greatest contribution that Scotland can make over the next century to stabilising and eventually reversing climate is to be found, literally, under our feet. Scotland’s peatlands for example are of global significance. As a major feature in the New York Times put it last year: “Although rare in most of the world, peatlands cover about 20% of Scotland, giving this country of just 5.5 million people an outsize role in the campaign to slow the planet’s rising temperature.”

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Right now, though, 80% of our peatlands are degraded – drained and burned by humans seeking to reclaim what was, until recently, considered worthless wasteland. As a result, most of our peatlands today are like giant power stations pumping destructive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every second of every day. If these were visible to the naked eye, they would be permanently swathed in dense smog.

To its credit, the Scottish Government has established a £250 million fund for peatland restoration. But on the ground, landowners are failing abysmally to deliver the action that is urgently needed. As a result, the Scottish Government achieved less than half of its own peatland restoration target for last year, and just a fifth of the more ambitious target urged by its advisory scientific body, the Climate Change Committee.

To be fair, there is a skills shortage that need to be addressed. But there also inertia on the part of many large landowners. They eagerly apply for woodland grants knowing that when return when the trees are felled and the timber sold, the cash will come rolling in. But there are no profits to be made from peatland restoration.

Land agents report that degraded peatland now commands a higher price on the markets than healthy peatland

Worse still, land agents report that degraded peatland now commands a higher price on the markets than healthy peatland. Investors have calculated that the price of carbon will continue to rise as the climate crisis deteriorates, so the longer they hold onto degraded peatland, the bigger the financial returns in the they can expect in the future.

Then there are the tens of thousands of square kilometres of Scotland’s moors and uplands managed primarily for sport shooting. Managed for nature and climate, many of these bare and desolate landscapes could be swathed with perpetually regenerating native woodlands and associated habitats.

Instead, they are overgrazed by deer to ensure an abundance of stags during the summer and autumn months, or burned and drained to maximise grouse numbers come the Glorious Twelfth of August.

The John Muir Trust strongly supports the efforts of the Scottish Government and its agencies such as the Scottish Land Commission, Nature Scot, and Forestry and Land Scotland to drive forward change in the way land is owned, used and managed. There is no single panacea that will instantly redress centuries of social injustice and ecological damage across rural Scotland.

The National: The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood from Salisbury Crags..Pic Gordon Terris/The Herald.9/1/21.

On top of other measures already underway, a well-designed Carbon Emissions Land Tax could help us achieve rapid transformation at scale. To ensure compliance with the current powers available to Holyrood, the tax would require to be set and collected at local authority level, following the introduction of enabling legislation by the Scottish Parliament. Councils would then retain all revenues. Beyond that, the precise details of a future carbon emissions land tax are up for discussion.

It is incongruous that Scotland’s two and half million households contributed almost £3 billion last year to local councils for the properties they own or rent, while 750 large estates, spread over more than half of Scotland’s landmass, paid not a penny towards local or national public services.

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A successful carbon emissions land tax could pave the way for the introduction of further local land-based taxes in the future – on the profits made by Green Lairds for example, from carbon offsetting, or by developers who reap lucrative profits from buying up land for luxury housing and other commercial projects.

Scotland has a huge landmass relative to the size of our population – more than six times that of England. Most of that land is of low agricultural productivity. But it has colossal potential for delivering public goods such as reducing carbon emissions, restoring biodiversity, developing native woodlands, and regenerating rural economies.

A carbon emissions land tax would not be a silver bullet. But it could be a turning point.

Alan McCombes is public affairs manager for the John Muir Trust