Q&A with Roseanna Cunningham
The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment on Brexit, climate change and the naughtiest thing she has ever done
A year on from the EU referendum, are you any clearer about how Brexit will affect your brief?
I wish I was and it’s not for the lack of trying. The UK Government has failed to provide clarity and the implications for our environment are deeply concerning. Our membership of the European Union has led to important environmental gains. Water quality and air quality are two issues which immediately spring to mind. I don’t want to see advances in areas like these put at risk in an ideologically-driven rush to deregulate. I have repeatedly made clear that I will fight any attempt to “turn back the clock” on standards of environmental protection. In contrast, the message from the UK Government has been, let’s be kind here, rather confused. One moment we’re told Brexit will result in a bonfire of regulations, then the next moment we’re being told environmental protections will remain in place. No one who cares about the environment should be lulled into a false sense of security – we’re in dangerous territory.
The recent general election was dominated by opposition calls from the SNP Government to get on with the day job. Have you?
I’m the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform – that’s essentially three jobs in one! And, of course, I’m a constituency MSP too. In the last few weeks, I have visited Thurso, Dingwall, Oban, Inverness, Fort William, Islay and Jura. Getting on the road and meeting individuals who are passionate about our country’s environment and its future is one of the great joys of my job. Already in this session, we have pushed ahead with a bold agenda which has seen the creation of the Land Commission, the publication of our draft Climate Change Plan and a new Climate Change Bill. That may help explain why I sometimes allow myself a wry smile when I hear our critics say we should “get on with the day job”. I suspect they wouldn’t know what hit them if they had to deal with my workload!
What are the next steps for improving marine protection?
Scotland is a coastal nation and our marine environment is one of our greatest assets. We have a duty to protect it – not only for its inherent value but also because healthy seas are vital to the culture and economies of our coastal communities. Fishing and aquaculture provide thousands of jobs in many of the areas where we need them most. Our job is to act as stewards for the marine environment, while securing a sustainable and profitable future for these industries. The decisions we make will always be based on the best available scientific advice from Marine Scotland and our agencies. In future, I want to see a greater focus on the impact of plastics on the marine environment. This is an area of growing and entirely legitimate public concern.
The Environment Committee recently warned there is an alarming level of distrust between different groups working to tackle wildlife crime. How can the Scottish Government encourage better relations between the different groups in PAWS?
I want to see everyone working together to fight wildlife crime – wherever it occurs. My mailbag clearly demonstrates the demand for progress. The illegal persecution of birds of prey is the cause of particular controversy. The public have clearly run out of patience and I don’t blame them. That’s why I recently set out a series of initiatives designed to secure real change. If we all work together, we can and will make a difference for wildlife in Scotland. That’s the message I want to emphasise. But I’m absolutely determined to push ahead – these abhorrent practices must end.
How damaging is Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement and what can the Scottish Government do about it?
Ironically, President Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement has only made the international community – nations, states and cities around the world – more united than ever in their resolve to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change.
The First Minister has signed a co-operation agreement with California to support the Under2 Coalition of 176 state and city governments from 36 countries and six continents committed to climate action. That agreement represents more than 1.3 billion people, equivalent to 16 per cent of the global population and 39 per cent of the global economy.
Scotland had cut its emissions by 41 per cent in 2015. We propose to increase our long-term target to reduce emissions by at least 90 per cent by 2050, which will maintain Scotland’s position as a world leader in the transition to a low carbon economy.
The science is clear and the need for greater ambition is clear.
You recently warned that more must be done to tackle air pollution. What action will the Scottish Government take to reduce car use?
I’m not a driver and, apart from when the job requires me to travel by car, you’ll usually find me on the bus or the train. I also enjoying walking and it’s heartening to see how many people are choosing to make everyday journeys by bike. I want to encourage other people to do the same. The best way to do that is by providing high quality infrastructure. Public transport and active travel are, of course, the key to success. But we also need to go further, faster in decarbonising road transport by encouraging those who do need to drive to car share or switch to electric vehicles. Our aims are ambitious. We want to have the best air quality in Europe. That won’t be easy, but there are huge potential benefits for the natural environment and our health.
What challenges will climate change pose to biodiversity in Scotland?
Climate change is already having a major impact on our ecosystems and biodiversity. That’s beyond doubt. In order to mitigate against its impact, we created a biodiversity route map which includes twelve priority projects. These are designed to tackle the impact of climate change on biodiversity in the run-up to 2020. Notable achievements to date include the restoration management of 10,000 ha of peatland, our target of 80 per cent of natural features on protected sites to be in favourable or recovering condition has been met, and extensive habitat improvements have been delivered across central Scotland.
They say a week is a long time in politics but over the last twelve months we have had an EU referendum, a Scottish Parliament election, local government elections and a general election. How has it been for you?
It’s been hectic. It’s been hard at times. But it’s also been inspiring – we shouldn’t forget the energy which continues to surround Scottish politics. That is a good thing. After all, there’s plenty to debate!
What is the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?
That’s easy – I can vividly remember being offered a cigarette, at the age of eight, by a steward on the ship carrying the Cunningham family to Australia. I stood happily puffing away on deck until my dad appeared at the top of the deck stairs. Cue ballistic dad – quite rightly!
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