Q&A: Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio area over the last year? Even before lockdown, we were encouraging a fundamental re-think of how we use and look after our natural environment and tackle the global climate emergency. Our 2019 Climate Change Act raised the bar in terms of climate change ambition in response to the UN Paris Agreement. The Act sets new, world-leading, targets – including for net-zero emissions by 2045 at latest, with a 75 per cent reduction from baseline levels by 2030. We remain fully committed to these targets as part of a green recovery from COVID-19, one in which how we work, how we travel, how we use our land and other natural assets are all re-imagined in order to protect Scotland’s future. Scotland’s natural environment is our greatest national asset and it is vital to our health, our quality of life and our economy. Alongside the climate legislation, our new Environment Strategy, published earlier this year, sets out the vision for Scotland’s environment including how we can promote a sustainable economy that conserves and grows our natural assets whilst ending our contribution to climate change.
Single-use plastic use is rising again globally. How can this be combatted? Whilst the full picture is still emerging of how public attitudes and consumption of plastics and other packaging may have changed as a result of Covid-19, we remain committed to long-term initiatives to tackle our throw-away culture and encourage a circular economy. Last year, Scotland became the first country in the UK to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds, whilst in May, Parliament passed our plans for Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme, which is expected to capture 90 per cent of single-use aluminium and steel cans, glass and PET plastic bottles once fully operational. Additionally, the Scottish Government has committed to meet or exceed the standards set out in the European Union’s Single Use Plastic Directive and the Expert Panel on Environmental Charges and Other Measures (EPECOM) will soon publish its second and final report, looking holistically at the issue of single use items.
How can Scotland generate a ‘green recovery’ from the damage done by the lockdown? The Covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented global crisis which has fundamentally changed every aspect of our lives. It has and continues to be very challenging but to my mind it has also reaffirmed the need for us to make the transformational journey towards net-zero, and make it together, placing people’s wellbeing and the principles of just transition at its heart, alongside recognising the importance of nature, including to people and the economy.
We are already taking bold steps to ensure a green economic recovery from the pandemic and drive our long-term ambition to end Scotland’s contribution to climate change. These include our ongoing commitment to substantial peatland restoration, a £62m Energy Transition Fund to help the sector continue to grow and diversify whilst supporting our net-zero ambitions plus £66 million to kick-start a green recovery as part of the £230 million return to work package announced in June.
The lockdown seemed to reduce air pollution in Scotland’s cities. To what extent do you think the improvement will be temporary? It is true that the lockdown prompted a reduction in air pollution in some, particularly urban, areas. At the height of the lockdown, monitoring stations picked up decreases ranging from 49 per cent at Atholl Street in Perth to 72 per cent at Hope Street in Glasgow.
As we continue to ease out of lockdown we can expect to see an associated increase in levels as industry restarts and travel increases
. What is fundamentally important is that we learn from our experience of lockdown – how we work, how we travel, how we live – and apply this to our approach to becoming a net-zero society. These issues will be considered as part of the ongoing review of our Cleaner Air for Scotland strategy.
Has COVID-19 pushed the importance of fighting climate change further down the agenda? The immediate focus for Governments around the world has, rightly, been to protect lives and livelihoods in the past months, but the climate emergency has not gone away and will be central to our recovery. For my part, I am still deeply committed to ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045. Our starting point has most definitely changed but our ambitions have not, and what is important now is that we use the experience of the pandemic to re-imagine the world around us and take this opportunity to build a greener, fairer and more equal society and economy. I am looking forward to further discussions with the Sustainable Renewal Advisory Group, which includes other party representatives, academia, industry and environmental interests, to progress our agenda for change.
What effect will the postponement of COP26 have on the talks next year? I am pleased that a new date for COP 26 has been secured and we look forward to welcoming delegates to Glasgow for a successful event that can build on green recovery plans and help set the world on course to net-zero in a way that is fair and just. I am clear, however, that the delay to COP26 should not, and must not, mean a delay to collective global action on tackling climate change. Scotland will become European Co-Chair of the Under 2 Coalition in September, we will seek to use this role to help us drive momentum towards COP26 in a way that is fair and just.
Time is running out for the UK to reach a deal with the EU. How worried are you by the prospect of a no deal Brexit and what would it mean for your brief? The overwhelming majority of people in Scotland have consistently said they want to be in the EU and, despite Brexit, we are doing everything we can to stay close to our European partners. Whilst the Prime Minister and the UK Government presses recklessly ahead with Brexit, the world is grappling with an unprecedented, dangerous and damaging pandemic. Covid is primarily a health crisis but is has significant economic implications. Scottish Government research suggests that that ending the Brexit transition this year would result in Scottish GDP being between £1.1 billion and £1.8 billion lower by 2022 compared with ending transition at the end of 2022. This is not a price worth paying and we have continually pressed the UK to seek an extension. In the meantime, we are taking pragmatic steps to try and prepare for exit. In June we published plans which will enable us, in devolved areas, to keep pace with Europe, when appropriate and practicable to do so.
The Continuity Bill includes proposals on environmental principles and governance to help us maintain high environmental standards, in line with the EU. These important measures, which include the creation of a new governance body, Environmental Standards Scotland, complement our Environment Strategy for Scotland vision to help us as we protect and restore Scotland’s natural environment and strive to live within our planet’s sustainable limits.
What did you learn from the experience of lockdown? I’m not sure I learned anything from the experience, other than there is a limit to the usefulness of teleconferences and video conferences involving huge numbers of people!
Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown OR what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted? I missed the most just being able to go out for a coffee in a nice café.