As Richard Lochhead stood up at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden to deliver his “five green gains of independence”, he aimed to put the environment at the heart of the referendum debate.
His argument was that a Yes vote in September was the only way to create a Scotland that had environmental protection enshrined in a written constitution, was nuclear-free, had a direct voice in the EU on important issues like agriculture and fishing, and a fairer share of EU funding, as well as “a seat at the global top table” when tackling issues like climate change.
Needless to say, this is not an opinion shared by all as Claire Baker, Labour’s shadow environment and rural affairs secretary, says: “I fail to see the environment as devolved. If there’s any issue that needs cross-border cooperation, whether it’s with the UK, Europe or internationally, it’s the environment, I don’t think having a border helps us to address any of those issues at all.
“I don’t think it’s relevant. We have the levers in Scotland to deliver in this area; it needs political will to do it.”
Referendum aside, the last 12 months have been of huge importance for the environment. They have included landmark legislation, groundbreaking international reports and the culmination of protracted EU negotiations.
Climate change was, as ever, the number one issue, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivering a stark assessment on human impact on the globe.
In Scotland, the fifth year of the Climate Change Act was celebrated – but followed by the news that the third annual carbon reduction target in a row had been missed.
If criticism of this fact from environmental groups seemed less than might have been expected, it was in the main down to the fact that in announcing the failure to hit the targets, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse confirmed a new cabinet sub-committee which would be devoted to ensuring all parts of the Government were doing their utmost to deliver in the future – a move which was welcomed by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition.
While in Westminster there had been questions over commitment to action on climate change – with Owen Paterson the deposed UK Environment Secretary railing against the “green blob” of lobbyists haranguing him – there has been no real issues with that north of the border.
Nevertheless, it was still a disappointment that a country which aims to lead the world in tackling greenhouse gases had fallen short.
Baker said: “This year saw the fifth anniversary of the passing of the Climate Change Act, but has had missed targets in a number of areas, most importantly, the emissions targets, which was hugely disappointing and a poor reflection on the Scottish Government, to be honest. They are targets that the Scottish Government promote around the world and are recognised as being ambitious targets – Scotland is recognised as being a world leader in the targets it set.
“Our failure to meet the targets has been increasingly worrying and leads to a lack of credibility for Scotland’s position. We need to see firmer progress.
“While this year the Government did accept a small package of measures, they were very minor measures that don’t deliver the step change that is needed.”
“The new sub committee was a welcome move from the Government – there is always a concern that you have Paul Wheelhouse, the Environment and Climate Change Minister, who doesn’t sit in the cabinet and you really need that political driver, you need other portfolios, whether it’s infrastructure or health.
“I don’t think we know the details yet on how often the committee will meet and we will have to see what it actually delivers in action but in principle that was one of the good things that they did this year.”
One area still of great concern and at odds with Scotland’s green image is the air pollution level in cities. Official estimates are that about 2,000 deaths per year could be caused by air pollution. Health Protection Scotland said the highest number of deaths attributable to pollution in 2010 were in Glasgow (306) and Edinburgh (205).
Friends of the Earth Scotland, which has been leading calls for greater action on air quality, calculated that most cities in Scotland would be 10 years late in meeting 2010 limits on nitrogen dioxide levels – with Glasgow not meeting the target until 2025.
All parties were unhappy at the deal for Scotland under the Common Agricultural Policy agreed across Europe, but Baker said the Scottish Government could still have done more, saying ministers were quite conservative in the amount of money they transferred across from pillar 1 payments for individual farm subsidies, for pillar 2, which included aspects like environmental measures.
She said: “We said they could have done more in that area. Agriculture is one of the areas where there needs to be more focus on the environment. While you can point to individual farms and farmers who are showing a commitment to that agenda, it is not about taking money away from productive farms, it is about trying to make them more environmentally sustainable. There was a missed opportunity for the government.”
According to figures from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), streets in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth and Linlithgow in West Lothian could all breach the European limit in 2014.
Speaking to Holyrood in April, Green MSP Alison Johnstone said these reports highlighted dangers, but the necessary action was not taken.
She said: “We need to take a serious look at how we plan our cities, we need to have a really good look at how we travel around them, because everyone from businesses to pedestrians would jump for joy if someone took serious action.”
With the controversial tram project now finally under way in Edinburgh, she added: “The trams have obviously been hotly debated but there is no doubt we need to invest in mass public transit transport that has the potential to be delivered using renewable energy.”
Scotland’s commitment to renewable energy has continued with numbers of people employed in the sector and the amount of electricity produced increasing – although the future of the industry still depends on the UK Energy Bill and Electricity Market Reform and whether new subsidy levels are able to bridge the gap between encouraging investment and making the business commercially viable.
However, at the same time, the debate over unconventional gas in Scotland has continued.
The Scottish Greens attempted unsuccessfully to convince parliament to pass an outright ban on fracking and other forms of unconventional gas extraction.
The latest findings from the British Geological Society, in a report commissioned by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, showed more modest reserves than previously thought, with between 49.4 and 134.6 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and between 3.2 and 11.2 billion barrels of shale oil are running through the centre of Scotland, but these were only estimates of total reserves – with the report adding that it was not yet possible to estimate how much of these would be recoverable.
The Scottish Government has set up an expert scientific panel on unconventional oil and gas to examine the issue.
Speaking during the debate on a potential fracking ban, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser – chairman of the parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, said that unconventional gas was a “tremendous opportunity” provided the correct safeguards were put in place. He added: “There are those in the environmental movement who have been doing their best to whip up such opposition, going round the country peddling their pseudoscience and their hysterical scare stories about earthquakes, exploding taps and all the rest.”
While the debate over fracking saw both government and parliament in Scotland attempting to get to grips with an issue right at the forefront of the news agenda, the final report from the Land Reform Review Group saw it grappling with something that has been ongoing since devolution and beyond.
The independent panel, chaired by former Church of Scotland moderator Alison Elliot, published its findings on how to solve age-old problems over who can lay claim to the ownership of land in Scotland.
It included recommendations for an upper limit on how much an individual or group can own – which Alex Fergusson, Tory rural affairs spokesman, claimed would “strike fear in the heart of every single land-owning Scot, whether they own 10 acres or 10,000”.
But speaking to Holyrood, Elliot said while the report contained many contentious issues, reform was vital.
“Land isn’t just something to own. It’s something very special that links to our sense of identity. If you think about it, you can do nothing without land.”
But has the issue of the referendum, ever present across news agendas in Scotland, seen the issues of the environment put to one side?
Baker said: “Everything has been dominated by the referendum in the past year, and that overshadows a lot of the debates. If you go back five years when we passed the Climate Change Act that was a big issue in parliament, everybody was engaged with it. When we got to five years later and we missed the targets, it is not as dominant an issue as it could be.
“But I think other organisations such as Friends of the Earth who have been working on air quality and RSPB who’ve been working on wildlife crime have been helping some of these issues up the public agenda.
“When it comes to engagement, there is good engagement with these issues, it is then up to the politicians whether they make that into a reality and deliver on it in parliament.”