Analysis: Another turbulent year in Scotland's environment and rural briefs
From concern over Brexit to obstacles closer to home, it has been another eventful year for Roseanna Cunnigham and Fergus Ewing
Wind turbine - credit: PA
Brexit may mean Brexit, but a year on from the vote, what it means for Scottish environmental and rural policy is still pretty unclear.
These areas are not alone – a growing sense of panic seems to be gripping sectors ranging from business to education – but it is probably fair to say the two briefs held by Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing – the respective cabinet secretaries for environment and rural economy – are more reliant on European regulation, and so more affected by the UK’s vote to leave the EU, than any other.
Concern over how big an impact Brexit could have on the environment arrived pre-referendum, with Cunningham then using a committee appearance, just weeks after the vote, to warn that, as far as the Scottish Government was concerned, its effect on environmental policy was a “big unknown”.
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The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform said the vote “puts everything in my portfolio into a slightly different light” and it was this uncertainty which pushed the Scottish Government to convene a round table of experts, chaired by Professor Dame Anne Glover, to advise its Standing Council on Europe on how an exit from the EU could affect environmental and climate change policy.
Time did not alleviate concern. As Cunningham put it in January: “The European Union has been a significant driver of environmental policy and legislation for the last 40 years. As consumers we have benefitted from EU rules and as a society we have achieved a high level of environmental protection and measures to combat climate change. This has helped Scotland progress our world leading low carbon ambitions.”
Fergus Ewing’s portfolio was also thrown into confusion, as the effect of Brexit on both the Common Agricultural Policy and the fishing industry loomed large over the brief.
Ewing had already been under pressure before the vote, with the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity forced to deal with criticism over the Scottish Government’s handling of CAP payments, after the introduction of a new IT system, costing £178m, led to repeated delays in administering payments.
Opposition parties branded it a scandal and by last month it had emerged that Scotland faced being fined for its failure to make the payments on deadline, after the European Commission rejected a request for an extension. It was the second year in a row ministers had been forced to seek an extension and even by August around 12 per cent of farms were yet to be paid.
Meanwhile with the Scottish farming industry heavily reliant on migration from the EU, and Theresa May unwilling to offer guarantees over the future of EU citizens already living in Scotland until negotiations are settled, the Scottish Government became increasingly concerned about how Brexit would affect the rural economy more widely.
Nicola Sturgeon said as much in June, telling the Royal Highland Show: “EU workers are important to virtually all parts of the modern farming industry – from the laboratories of our research institutes to the fields of our fruit farms.”
She added: “Scottish agriculture, and Scotland more generally, has benefitted enormously from freedom of movement. So as things stand, there is still a real danger that the UK Government will abandon something which is good for Scotland – membership of the single market – in order to restrict something else which is good for Scotland – freedom of movement.
“It’s a perfect example of the absurdity of the hard Brexit case that the UK Government was making. And it is a good demonstration of why the UK Government must change its approach.”
These question marks remain. But while the two cabinet secretaries turned their heads to international affairs – particularly amidst concern the UK’s repeal bill, turning EU law into domestic legislation, would lead to a Westminster “power grab” on devolution – criticism from the opposition focused on matters closer to home.
The draft climate change plan, released in the new year, sets out how ministers intend to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next 15 years, with plans centred around a 66 per cent reduction in emissions by 2032.
But while the aim of the plan was laudable, it was the lack of detail provided by ministers which attracted criticism from campaigners and opposition parties.
Both the Scottish Wildlife Trust and RSPB Scotland used submissions to the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee to question the ambition of proposals to reduce emissions in agriculture, while transport group Transform Scotland said the draft proposals for promoting walking, cycling and bus use were “weak”.
Perhaps more significantly for ministers, the Scottish Parliament’s committee system itself expressed doubts over the plan, with the four committees to examine different aspects – the environment, rural affairs, local government and economy committees – questioning the Scottish Government’s ambition.
Given that the transport sector accounts for 28 per cent of harmful emissions, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee questioned why targets for the sector were weaker than in other areas.
It also called on the Scottish Government to create a ‘Plan B’ in case its assumptions on how carbon capture and storage could help emission reductions prove unrealistic, while recommending ministers provide more detail on emission reductions across all sectors.
Meanwhile, the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee reported concerns that targets for a six per cent reduction in heat demand from Scotland’s homes by 2032 could be viewed as “business as usual”.
The Rural Affairs and Connectivity Committee recommended that greater consideration should be given to policies that will encourage a shift away from private cars, while warning that “many stakeholders have said that the draft Climate Change Plan for the agriculture sector is not ambitious enough and that some proposals lack detail”.
So it was a fairly bruising experience for the Scottish Government. And while climate campaigners questioned how the proposed plan would affect emission levels, others pointed to more localised effects of a stubborn refusal to take tougher action on transport.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told Holyrood: “We have had a climate change act since 2009 but transport has done almost nothing at all [in terms of emissions reductions].
“There is a huge resistance to doing things differently – it’s a business as usual strategy and that concerns me. The consequence of that is that we are not going to get enough reduction in climate terms, and then in local health terms, it is the air pollution question.”
It was the issue of air pollution which forced the UK Government to announce plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, as part of the Clean Air Plan.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said the move showed the UK Government was “determined to deliver a green revolution”, but environmental groups were less impressed, with WWF Scotland arguing that “the clean-up needs to happen much faster”.
The Scottish Government did not escape criticism for its clean air strategy either, with FoE Scotland saying it showed “a remarkable disregard for public health”.
Environmental lawyers ClientEarth, which has been involved in a long-running legal battle with the UK Government over its response to high levels of pollution, then wrote to the Scottish Government to question how plans to trial a low emission zone in one Scottish city would help reduce dangerous levels elsewhere north of the border, while warning that unless ministers take tougher action then Aberdeen and Edinburgh will not meet legal limits until 2020, and Glasgow will not comply until 2024.
Clearly then Cunningham and Ewing have had busy years, but given the pair will need to navigate issues ranging from a controversial decision over fracking to the upcoming climate change bill, and from the current mess surrounding CAP payments to the future of fishing access after Brexit, things don’t look like calming down any time soon.
Meanwhile with Donald Trump, a climate sceptic, in the White House, the future of the Paris Agreement too looks to be far from secure. And so the political year seems likely to end as it began – Ewing and Cunningham may have plenty on their agenda at home, but international issues look capable of presenting further complications.
Q&A with Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity
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Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing announces £8.4m in funding, which will be divided between 86 projects to help upgrade or modernise equipment