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Interview: environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham on COVID-19, lockdown and the environment

David Anderson/Holyrood

Interview: environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham on COVID-19, lockdown and the environment

Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown changed the work of every government department almost overnight.

Officials, at every level and in almost every country, scrambled to react as the pandemic took hold and spread.

Talk turned rapidly to protective gear, testing and controls on movement of people. Workplaces were shutdown and globally, the streets emptied.

In Scotland, meanwhile, new legislation of all kinds was put on hold. Emergency measures brought in response to COVID-19 were introduced at breakneck speed, but for most other areas the pandemic has meant one thing: postponement.

For the environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, the disruption meant delays to publication of the climate change plan – originally expected to be released in April – as well as legislation based around the circular economy.

In international terms, it also meant the postponement of COP26, due to take place in Glasgow in November.

And while the lockdown has caused huge problems for the business of government, it has also brought massive change to almost every aspect of our lives.

Cunningham is spending lockdown at home, which she admits to finding challenging, though she also stresses that with a department to run she has not yet found time for any new hobbies.

She tells Holyrood: “Because I am alone, and therefore I am exercising alone, the isolation part of it seems to be fairly to the fore. That’s challenging, just from a human perspective.

“I’m conscious I’m lucky – I live in a small rural town and five minutes from my door, in any direction, there are lots of walks I can do that aren’t on the road.

“That’s the upside, though it doesn’t remove from the isolation because I have to do it on my own, I don’t have a household to walk with.

“Like most people I have times when I’m fine and times when I’m a bit overwhelmed by it, just on a personal level, but I guess that’s the same for everybody.

“I’ve been down to parliament once since it started, and I think I’ll be going down next week, the minister for parliament business is just trying to manage the rota in terms of who goes and who doesn’t go.

“I am doing virtually everything from home at the moment, and so the challenges of wifi and managing connectivity, and the telephone conferences with people logging on, logging off again, and I’ve had that all morning.

“I think we are all kind of learning a slightly different etiquette that fits around these things.”

Cunningham talks to Holyrood shortly before her first virtual question session. The team will do a practice run first, which is possibly for the best given she admits she hasn’t actually had time to tune into Scottish Parliament TV and watch one of the sessions via videolink since the crisis began.

“I do have some trepidation,” she admits. “We have a rehearsal today and then the thing itself, so it is actually quite time consuming because you have there are whole sections of stuff outside the actual 45 minutes that have to be done. That’s proven quite difficult to manage and a bit disruptive."

She adds: “My portfolio, certainly at the beginning, didn’t have as much front facing stuff that would interact [with COVID].

“That’s not to say there aren’t parts of my portfolio that are impacted by it, of course there are, but for those first weeks, understandably, it was all about health, and that’s where the support and resources had to be prioritised.

“What’s happening now is that emerging economic issues have come to the fore, and there are a number of issues in my portfolio that relate directly to that, and then there are others, such as climate change, that are more future facing.

“It’s been a process of being able to identify and pinpoint, within the portfolio, areas of immediate concern and then the areas where we will have longer term issues to address.”

The climate change plan appears to be one casualty of that process.

Expected by the end of April, the plan’s release was then delayed after the outbreak of the pandemic, with the environment secretary describing it as “recognition that we are operating in a changed landscape”. So when might we see it?

“We are beginning to discuss that”, she says. “It’s not just a case of picking it up again and rolling it out a bit later in the year. It is a case of thinking of what is now required, because of what has happened in the economy as a whole.

“There are issues across the economy, which will impact directly on how we emerge from this crisis, and the recovery from it.

“I don’t want to give the impression that all we are going to do is pause and then at same point pick up again from where we were.

“There is a great deal more to be done, because in a sense it needs to be reformulated completely, and we are starting to do the work on what will be necessary to get that off the ground.

“That is meshed in with the economic recovery group, which has been tasked with the more immediate issues. That group has to have mind to net zero by 2045.

“The climate change plan update/replacement has to work on the basis of the targets for 2030, but the two are connected and that’s the way we are going to have to operate.”

Yet while it is obvious coronavirus will leave a different world behind it, it is far harder to identify how exactly our lives will be changed.

Cunningham expresses her thanks to opposition parties and stakeholders for their recognition of the current uncertainty, while she has also sought advice from the Committee on Climate Change.

“I understand they are hoping to give us their advice in May. I’m hoping by that stage we will already have the wheels in motion.

“I’m interested to see what the CCC thinks is a potential way out. There are various things people are immediately pointing to, but I am a little cautious about some of the assumptions that are being made, and I just want us to think really carefully.”

The plan is delayed, but what effect could lockdown have on the environment more widely? Emissions will likely fall, at least temporarily, while air quality has improved, and active travel rates are almost certainly at an all-time high. Could there be positive effects from lockdown?

“I wouldn’t want to use too much upside language, because I don’t think that would be appropriate.

“I guess air quality is a way of framing some of it, which is that people see what it’s like when you drastically reduce traffic.

“It would be a shame if, having seen that, we didn’t then engage in a slightly different conversation with people about what urban areas in particular might look like in the future when there is a phased return to normality and whether or not we want to go back to the previous normality.

“On the biodiversity side of things, I think people are also acknowledging how fast nature returns to spaces.

“People are noticing, of course, because they have the time to notice, they’re now perhaps out in areas they haven’t been before and they are seeing it.

“So again, we have the opportunity to reframe the conversation around some of that, and the benefits of it.

“Across quite a lot of the portfolio there is the likelihood of reframed conversations around areas which may not have been right to the fore of people’s minds.

“But I really want to emphasise that a lot of this will depend upon a deep analysis of what’s been happening. We need to get an actual understanding of what the real changes have been.”

Yet while lockdown may well change our thinking – Cunningham says she expects some businesses to continue greater use of remote working in the long term – there is no getting away from the fact that the last couple of months have been hugely damaging.

The decision to postpone COP26, set to be held in Glasgow in November, will surely have come as a disappointment to Cunningham on a personal level.

The UN is currently working on a date for next year, but for campaigners any delay in the effort to coordinate a global reduction in emissions will be deeply worrying. How big a blow was the postponement?

“The postponement was inevitable,” she says, “so I don’t think there’s much sense in raking over that. Quite clearly it would have been physically impossible to do that.

“I understand the UN is hoping to be able to decide on a point next year when it can be re-established, but there hasn’t been a decision yet.

“It’s one we are waiting for, but I have no information about when that might be and I know there are a number of other things that are getting rolled into next year as well, so 2021 has the capacity to be an incredibly crowded calendar, assuming that by 2021 we are actually phased out of the lockdown, which I think at the moment is an uncertain assumption.

“It’s difficult, but what we are absolutely clear about is that whenever it is, Glasgow will deliver a successful COP on the ground and there will be engagement right across Scotland on that.

“The Citizens’ Assembly on climate change was originally meant to dovetail with that [the climate talks], but clearly the timescale for the citizens’ assembly needs to be rethought as well.

“There are a variety of things where we need to think about managing the timescale available to us, when we don’t actually yet know what that timescale is."

Yet while these delays represent a blow in the fight against climate change, Cunningham appears determined to remain philosophical.

“We are all incredibly realistic about the reality that’s facing us at the moment. I’m not going to stamp my feet and say ‘we must do this’ when in reality this colossal challenge is confronting the whole of government.

“We have had to make very careful decisions about what can and can’t be progressed, and some of that has to do with the actual resources available, because we have had to make sure the health emergency and the economic emergency are properly supported, in terms of resources in government.

“I try not to be despondent about it because we have actually still delivered on a very significant part of it, and we will continue to be able to do so.

“That’s important, and we are determined to take forward the climate change agenda. It cannot be set aside.”

Read the most recent article written by Liam Kirkaldy - Kirsty Blackman stands down as SNP deputy leader at Westminster

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