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A Change of Scenery – Experiences of an Environmental Economics Summer Internship at the Scottish Government

A Change of Scenery – Experiences of an Environmental Economics Summer Internship at the Scottish Government

It feels like the timing was very apt to be welcomed onto the Climate Change Division through the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences (SGSSS -the first of many acronyms!) summer internship program. The strange sense of irony in finishing my Scottish Government internship on a sunny September day in Edinburgh has not escaped me. Especially following a soaked Scottish summer, whilst wildfires, droughts, and floods elsewhere in the world have been captured news headlines. The impacts of climate change have become increasingly unignorable over the last few years, with the scale of its implications adding to the usual mix of end-stage PhD existentialism.  


Environmental existentialism and PhD fatigue aside, working with the Climate Change Division has been an absolute pleasure. Over the last few months, I have been fortunate enough to work with an incredible team of driven, hardworking, and most importantly welcoming and supportive individuals. The Climate Change Division work tirelessly away at updating, negotiating, and managing the Scottish representation in the UK ETS. This involved a stream of meetings with UK government, Welsh Senedd, and Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. My role in the team was to evaluate the UK Emission Trading Scheme (UK ETS) effectiveness in reducing emissions in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. And what a project this has been.  


But I’m getting ahead of myself – what is the UK ETS?  Well, the UK ETS works on the ‘cap and trade’ principle, where a cap is set on the total amount of certain greenhouse gases that can be emitted by sectors covered by the scheme. By limiting the total amount of carbon that can be emitted, and gradually decreasing that limit over time, the ETS is theorised to make a significant contribution to meeting the Net Zero 2050 target and other legally binding carbon reduction commitments. However, as any researcher will know, theory does not always match practice. And so, evaluating the UK ETS’s effectiveness in meeting its goals was necessary. This is where I got the opportunity to apply the PhD research skills to such a global-impacting task. 


This involved grasping the mechanisms of the ETS, understand its operation within a global context, and to evaluate its impact in reducing emissions. This meant understanding the theory, understanding the legislation, and evaluating the extent to which legislation matched theory, and evaluating the overall end effect the ETS had in sustainably reducing emissions. For a clinical psychology PhD student with little experience in economic and environmental research, it was time to explore what career advisors frequently describe as “transferable skills”. Immediately I was diving into the deep end of legislation work, sifting my way through 300+ pages of legislation, trying to understand the layers, details, and nuances of how this scheme operated within the UK and within other systems (such as the 300+ pages of EU legislation). Alongside the legislation readings was the consultations, detailing the views of stakeholders about the changes they wanted to see being implemented. And to top it off, was the dive into economic policy research. As a psychology researcher with an interest in quantitative methods, and an envious eye on higher wage power the field commands for the similar skills… this was the stuff I was really excited about digging into.  


What a strange experience it was digging into economic policy research. The 300+ pages of legislation, spanning various policy changes over the many years of existence, summarised into a little dummy coded variable within a multiple regression table stacked full of “exogenous” and “endogenous” variables (that would be independent and dependent variables in non-fancy economic talk, or as I prefer “predictor variables” and “outcome variables”). More shocking was the absence of theoretical justification in many papers, with complicated mathematical justifications presented instead. Meanwhile, systematic reviews/meta-analyses of ETS lacked any the Cochrane standards we see in clinical focused research. To top it all off, the subject is an incredibly politicised area, and so ghost authorships and lurking thinktanks hide around every corner, ready to pollute the scholarship with their own bias. As such, economic policy evaluation in this field felt like the wild west of research.  


Yet despite the challenges/frustrations of working with economic evaluation research, there were also some gems that seem ripe for using in health research. The difference-in-difference analysis of policies and utilising artificially missing data to compare the reality of a policy intervention against a simulated “what-if-we-hadn’t-done-this” data was a very exciting concept of analysis. Furthermore, working with the highly motivated and effective team of the Climate Change Division was an amazing lesson in project management. All the political cogs, the legal levers, and stakeholder bolts were constantly and elegantly managed with ease as the team simultaneously worked to meet their own targets. I watched with awe as the team leader switched from one meeting to another, covering completely different aspects of climate change and just transition policies, whilst also having the patience and energy to make sure her team felt supported.  


I finished the project with hope that we do have passionate and effective members in the Scottish Civil Service, who are doing an incredible job at fighting to ensure Scotland and the UK meet their climate goals. I finished the project with some healthy cynicism of traditionally well-funded research areas. And I finished the project with some exciting new ideas buzzing for future research projects. Overall, I’d say the internship was a fantastic success. I am incredibly grateful to SGSSS for facilitating this opportunity, and incredibly grateful to the Climate Change Division (Patrick, Lucy, Mariana, and Susan) for making the experience so welcoming, interesting, and fun. Keep on fighting the good fight. 

If you would like to learn more about the SGSSS internships, more information is available here:  



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