‘Transformative’ change, but twin climate and biodiversity emergencies ahead: 20 years of devolved environmental policy

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe has been publishing twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of 2019.  Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs.

Scotland is renowned for its natural environment – its iconic species, habitats, and landscapes. In a previous SPICe 20 year anniversary blog, we noted that the environment, and climate change in particular, has been a dominant issue for the Scottish Parliament. And indeed, twenty years of devolution has seen far-reaching and wide-ranging legislative action in environmental areas including climate change, nature conservation, planning, the marine environment, waste and pollution – in some areas exceeding standards at wider UK or EU level.

At the same time – the forces of international and domestic policy have not been sufficient to stem the tide of increasing climate instability and biodiversity loss – with the Scottish Government declaring a climate emergency this year, and recognising in its Programme for Government that biodiversity loss and the climate crisis “are intimately bound together”. These escalations followed the publication of two of the most in-depth international scientific studies to date on the state of the climate and biodiversity in the preceding year: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report, and the Intergovernmental Science Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report this year. Both set out the scientific case for urgent and systemic change.

Against this backdrop, SPICe asked some key figures operating in the environmental sector during this period to set out their thoughts and reflect on achievements made, and outstanding challenges faced by the Scottish Parliament in the devolved area of environmental protection. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the authors, not of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

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Left: Part of the campaign for the 2009 Climate Change Act. Credit: Maverick

Dr Sam Gardner, Head of Climate Change and Sustainability, Scottish Power

“In June 2009 I sat in the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament alongside many other climate campaigners from across the country and applauded as the Chamber unanimously passed what was ground breaking climate legislation.  The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 was the product of a minority government and political parties from across the chamber engaging with an incredibly effective civic society voice all set against the backdrop of powerful climate science.  A situation that has, ten years later, just been repeated with remarkable similarities; with just the climate science being ever more powerful and the need for action even greater.

The 2009 Act locked in powerful tools that have helped to elevate action on climate change across the public and private sectors in Scotland.  The combination of annual emissions targets, the requirement for a package of policies and proposals to hit those targets, the scrutiny of the UK Climate Change Committee and a suite of reporting requirements to the Scottish Parliament have all helped shape decision-making and policy design in Scotland.

While the last ten years have seen transformational change in our power sector and the creation of thousands of low carbon jobs, we must now massively accelerate our collective efforts to cut emissions.  For instance, emissions from surface transport rose for the last 4 years and they must now reduce by 5% a year.  We need to double the annual rate of energy efficiency improvements to approximately 80,000 homes and connect upward of 70,000 homes a year to a renewable heat supply.

The recently passed Climate Change (Emission Reductions Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, should fire the starting gun for this accelerated transformation.  The climate and nature emergency is playing out around us right now; we must respond with action to match our ambitions.”

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Left: Seabirds on the Shiant Islands. Credit: Jim Richardson

Anne McCall, Director, RSPB Scotland

“I’ve been working on environmental sector since the early 1990s, (public, private and third sectors). Without a doubt the single biggest change during that time has been the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

With the creation of the Parliament came more accessible Ministers and MSPs, individuals who were willing to meet and discuss issues and to respond to the concerns of civil society, such as wildlife crime.

The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 have provided steady improvements to the legislative framework yet the illegal killing of birds of prey continues. The recent review commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary reflects this ongoing travesty and will hopefully lead to further changes enabling licensing of driven grouse moors.

The success of cross-party working on key issues such as the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 is both notable and hugely welcome. Following the inquiry by the Environment Committee there were commitments across manifestos on marine issues – demonstrating that the parliament can, and has, taken important steps to set its own agenda.

Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in tackling climate change, there is much which could be said about this area of work but one aspect, that of the Land Use Strategy, is not replicated anywhere else in the UK and offers a uniquely valuable tool for addressing land use and climate issues.

We need a wise parliament to help us address both the biodiversity and climate emergencies. I’m pleased we’ve been able to recognise the contributions of some individuals over recent years through our Nature of Scotland Awards and hope to see many more in the future.”

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Left: Little Loch Broom by mariejirousek, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Campbell Gemmell, consultant and former CEO of Central Scotland Countryside Trust, SEPA and the South Australian EPA

“The Scottish Parliament has played a central and transformative role in enabling and empowering environment protection, whether emanating from Europe or home-grown. Among the main achievements have been: supporting the formation and delivery of world-class arrangements for the water environment; delivering a flood risk management framework; world-leading climate change policy and targets; early steps on land reform and generally acting on a cross-party basis on some of the most important pieces of environmental legislation.

Lest we and Parliament rest on any laurels it’s also worth saying sometimes there could be greater pace, more robust interventions urged from government and delivery bodies and more severe penalties sought for operators and landowners wilfully damaging environments.

Ahead, in the short term, minimising the worst effects of Brexit and the damage already done as well as ensuring continuity of leading European policy and practice and, if exit goes ahead, a speedy return to the EU family, would all be welcome.

In the slightly longer term, albeit right in front of us already, well-resourced and energetic action is essential to tackle the twin emergencies affecting our climate and ecosystems. These coincide with the various pressures of environmental degradation, and legitimate social and economic demands. Systematic and integrative action and greatly improved control and governance are needed to tackle these needs if we are to become the well-educated, dynamic, multi-cultural, progressive, caring and healthy country we can and should be.”

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Left: Cuan Sound, Argyll. Credit: Calum Duncan/MCS

 Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society and convener of Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group.

“Life in the ocean faces a battle for survival, as climate change brings rising temperatures, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, plastic pollution chokes our seas and overfishing drives biodiversity decline. Marine resources are vital to Scotland – with 61% of UK waters within Scotland, internationally important wildlife and an economy dependent on a thriving marine environment.

A decade ago a lack of effective protection had resulted in a decline in the health of Scotland’s seas. Since 2007, marine and environmental charities working together through the Save Scottish Seas partnership have worked closely with Parliament, civil servants and other stakeholders to help secure world-leading legislation, charting a course for ocean recovery.

The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 included vital duties on Scottish Ministers to create a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), a National Marine Plan and to “further the achievement of sustainable development, including the protection and, where appropriate, enhancement of the health” of Scotland’s seas. The Act led to 31 new MPAs, an ecosystem-based National Marine Plan and developing regional marine plans. The Act was a major achievement of the Parliament, with cross-party support, but progress has slowed and there remains a long way to go.

Recent reports starkly underline that we are amidst climate, nature and ocean emergencies. Yet we are in the mere foothills of recovery and deep, transformative change is needed. Seabird, harbour seal, shark, skate and ray populations are still declining and vast important habitats, ecosystems and nursery areas remain unprotected. The recovery of nature at sea must be at the core of all marine planning, licensing and fisheries management going forward.”


The contributions above, for which we are grateful to the contributors for their time and insights, express an appreciation for what the Scottish Parliament has delivered, and its capacity to listen and respond to serious societal challenges. However, they also unanimously issue a stark ‘call to arms’ to the legislature to robustly tackle the linked climate and ecological challenges facing Scotland.

Looking to the New Year, and potential opportunities to take up that challenge begin to appear rapidly on the horizon, with the expected scrutiny of the next Climate Change Plan, an Environment Strategy for Scotland, proposed Circular Economy Bill, and potentially new environmental governance arrangements in the proposed Continuity Bill. This ‘call to arms’ serves as a reminder, that in taking forward that work, there is a global and science-based demand for transformative change.

Alexa Morrison, SPICe Senior Researcher

Feature image: “DSCN8977” by gertjanvannoord is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0