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By Neil RiddellSeptember 29th 2022

With a background in mechanical and architectural engineering, Claire Ferguson is delighted to have returned to Shetland to lead the local council's climate change strategy team. She is embracing the challenge, and the freedom that comes with island living.

“All jobs should be green jobs in the future, because we need to get away from thinking it’s specific things that are going to drive it. It is a transformational change across everything we do, and it needs to become second nature that everything you do is climate-conscious.”

Those are the words of Shetland Islands Council’s climate change strategy team leader Claire Ferguson. She has spent her first 18 months in the job getting to grips with the scale of a formidable challenge: how to transform a community that has grown rich on oil and gas revenue into an innovative zero-carbon centre for renewables and green technology.

“We’re sitting on the potential to become a significant energy hub of the future, on a large scale,” she says, “and there are really exciting jobs that will open up as a result of that.

“Whether you’re looking at renewables, technological innovation, or any kind of job that helps us to build a greener future, it’s a dynamic industry and as a community Shetland really has so much to offer.”

While the well-documented shift towards wind, tidal and hydrogen energy sources will play a big part, she emphasises that achieving the ambitious target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2045 goes far wider than skilling up existing and future workforces to go into renewables.

Claire took on the climate change remit within the council in spring 2021. Since then she and her staff, based in offices at Gremista in the north of Lerwick, have been busy drawing up “route maps” not just for the local authority as an organisation, but for the community as a whole.

Whether you’re looking at renewables, technological innovation, or any kind of job that helps us to build a greener future, it’s a dynamic industry and as a community Shetland really has so much to offer.

Claire Ferguson

While councils throughout Scotland have similar organisation-wide route maps, Shetland has gone further by covering the wider area and drawing key industries – including big hitters such as fishing and the oil-and-gas sector – into the conversation.

That has involved bringing national and local data together to build up the most accurate picture possible, Claire explains: “It has been great because it really highlights where our highest sources of emissions are, and helps us to really think about appropriate targets that we can put in place across all of the sectors that are ambitious, but also make sense for us in Shetland.”

The 35 year old, who possesses a sharp intellect and a strong grasp of the policy landscape globally, nationally and locally, previously worked as a mechanical engineer in the building services industry in Scotland’s central belt. Prior to that she had graduated with a masters degree in architectural engineering from Heriot-Watt a decade ago.

Moving into the public sector allowed her to take some of the skills she’d learned when looking at zero-carbon technology and minimising energy use in the design of buildings and apply them to the connected but much wider challenge of bringing Shetland’s emissions down across the board by the middle of this century.

“It’s a change to what I was doing in the past,” she acknowledges. “I’m still drawing on the technical engineering aspects of energy reduction, but looking at that bigger picture, where it weaves into policy, strategy, community engagement, consultation.

“It’s taking a step back from that focused area of buildings to look across the whole spectrum of transport, energy, buildings, waste, business and industry, examining land and nature-based solutions, building up a picture of our emissions and then how we can work to get those emissions down.”

With policy-makers often reaching for the lowest hanging fruit, each new carbon-cutting target becomes harder to achieve, Claire acknowledges.

But she points to encouraging signs both large and small – ranging from ongoing work that will culminate in the council moving away from its ageing, polluting fleet of inter-island ferries to a plethora grow-your-own, reuse and recycling schemes and a thriving charity shop sector. “There’s a lot going on in Shetland that has all the principles that are needed.”

She says the legally binding target to reach “net zero” by 2045 had helped focus minds on the challenge, adding that measures designed to tackle climate change “more often than not have wider economic, social and environmental co-benefits too”.

One such example is improving insulation and energy efficiency in homes, which would bring down emissions and also help mitigate the debilitating effects of fuel poverty.

Within a couple of minutes’ walk you can be on the beach, and if you have kids you can give them that freedom and that extra bit of independence.

Claire Ferguson

Moving north to take up her post has had its “co-benefits”, too, for Claire, her husband Aaron – originally from Donegal on the west coast of Ireland – and their two young daughters Nuala (5) and Mhairi (2).

She sees the lifestyle as a huge selling point for anyone looking to work in renewables – or indeed any of the green occupations likely to spring up in the years ahead.

“The fact that you could have a great job and live somewhere like Shetland that has all the benefits of getting away from that built up city life is just brilliant,” Claire says. “Within a couple of minutes’ walk you can be on the beach, and if you have kids you can give them that freedom and that extra bit of independence.

“That was one of the big selling points for us, the fact that Nuala can go out and play. When we were in Edinburgh, if we were cooking the tea or finishing off bits and pieces of work, she would’ve had to be in the house, watching TV or looking at a screen, whereas here she can be outside in the garden or along at her friend’s house.”

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, Aaron was able to move to working from home in his job as an actuary with Lloyds Banking Group. When we meet Claire, he is away in London but it is only the third time in 18 months where he’s had to travel to the mainland for work.

Quality of life

The family take regular advantage of the “amazing” facilities at Clickimin Leisure Complex, just across the loch from the family’s extensively and beautifully renovated Lerwick home.

Claire’s palpable enthusiasm for the Shetland way of life is perhaps matched only by a similar level of zeal for the professional challenges that have come her way, and she seems to be truly relishing starting afresh in the community where she grew up.

“We haven’t compromised anything with moving up here from Edinburgh,” she smiles. “The kids have got a much better quality of life and I’m able to enjoy an exciting, dynamic, fast-paced job on the one hand, balanced with this kind of lovely, relaxed lifestyle on the other.”

Learn about Shetland's ambitions to become "clean energy islands".