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28 August 2013
Think naturally

Think naturally

One of the big national marketing campaigns for Scotland in 2013 was dedicated to perhaps the best thing it has to offer – its environment.

The Year of Natural Scotland’s aim was to get people – particularly those living here – to get out and enjoy parts of the country they had never seen before.

CNN named Scotland the world’s top travel destination for 2013, a fact not lost on the Scottish Government and its tourism minister, Fergus Ewing, who would make several references to the accolade during parliamentary questioning and beyond.

But this was also the year ministers were put under pressure to deliver on the Government’s lofty environmental aims – not least meeting carbon dioxide emissions targets – as well as serious questions being asked about policies on both offshore and onshore wind.

A surprise reshuffle in September saw Paul Wheelhouse, one of the 2011 new intake, replace Stewart Stevenson as Environment and Climate Change Minister and he was expected to hit the ground running.

Environmental groups were eagerly awaiting the launch of the Draft Second Report on Proposals and Policies, setting out how emissions would be reduced between now and 2027, but although expected in late October 2012, the publication date was put back until 2013 for more work to be carried out.

In his first interview after taking the job, Wheelhouse told Holyrood he would be an “effective champion” for climate change and encourage his ministerial colleagues to work together to reduce emissions.

While there were welcome inclusions in the lengthy document, such as plans to restore thousands of hectares of peatland to prevent CO2 being released into the atmosphere, organisations like Stop Climate Chaos Scotland criticised the lack of concrete proposals to tackle the really difficult sectors like transport or housing.

Wheelhouse told Holyrood he was disappointed at some of the reaction which he felt was “perhaps a bit kneejerk”. But when the final report was presented to Parliament on the last day before summer recess, he again had to defend against criticism that the document was not detailed enough.

For the second year in a row, targets for carbon emission reductions were missed. Whereas in the first year a harsh winter was blamed, this time it was attributed, partly, on a revision of historical data but Wheelhouse maintained the country was still on track to meet the 42 per cent reduction target by 2020.

While he told MSPs the plan was “credible, deliverable and fair”, Tom Ballantine, the chairman of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, claimed it failed to deliver the required “step change” and said: “It’s very worrying to see no increased effort in transport, where emissions are as high now as they were twenty years ago, and with a plan that doesn’t contain a single Scottish policy to reduce emissions from that sector.” But while this debate continued, it was the impact on the physical environment that was perhaps put under most scrutiny.

As the SNP Government affirmed its goal of providing the equivalent of 100 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2020, the ongoing row over wind turbines continued.

Th e John Muir Trust, whose petition for a map of ‘wild land’ across Scotland was discussed by the parliamentary Petitions Committee, lodged a petition to the Court of Session for a judicial review into plans for an 83-turbine wind farm in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains.

Speaking in November, Stuart Brooks, JMT chief executive, said that while the organisation was not anti-wind, it feared that “wild land resource is diminishing, and really rapidly at a scale we’ve never seen.” While protesters again rallied at the SNP conference in Inverness, perhaps the strongest image of wind energy versus the environment was when a rare White-throated Needletail was killed after fl ying into a turbine on the Isle of Harris, in front of dozens of birdwatchers who had travelled to the island to catch a glimpse of the bird, which had not been seen in the UK for 22 years.

Yet the Scottish Government stuck to its guns over wind, buoyed by support for its policies in polls, including research from YouGov/Scottish Renewables in March that revealed 62 per cent of people, generally, would support a large-scale wind project in their council region, while 69 per cent said the presence of a wind farm would not put them off visiting an area.

Th e topic even fi ltered into the independence debate, with a leaked Scottish Government report saying that increasing reliance on renewable forms of energy in an independent Scotland could help move away from “damaging, price volatile fossil fuels” and that greater acceptance of renewables in Scotland could help other parts of the UK, where it is less popular.

But UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned, in an interview ahead of the SNP’s conference in March, that there was no guarantee that the rest of the UK would buy its electricity from Scotland, should there be a Yes vote in next year’s referendum.

He said: “With Scotland as part of the UK, it’s our fi rst stage, our top priority.

“But if I wasn’t Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, with responsibility for energy and climate change in Scotland, then that wouldn’t be my fi rst priority, constitutionally.” However, this focus on renewables did not undermine the Scottish Government’s support for oil and gas. Th at sector, which has been a major player, economically, for more than four decades, is still viewed by ministers as a major lynchpin of the industry, post-independence.

Th e report, ‘Maximising the Return from Oil and Gas in an Independent Scotland’, said companies were planning to invest at least £100bn in future years and that this would create more tax revenue. But, it also argued that the industry would have an “important role to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy”, adding that “hydrocarbon-rich nations have a responsibility to lead this transition.

Elsewhere, there were key pieces of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament relating to the environment. Th e Water Resources (Scotland) Bill was given Royal Assent in April, enshrining a duty on ministers to develop the value of Scotland’s water. Under the Act, which will serve the Scottish Government’s ‘Hydro Nation’ agenda, ministers have decision-making powers over large abstractions of water and it extends the remit of the publically-owned Scottish Water.

Despite inspection reports in February revealing that the corrosion problems on the Forth Road Bridge – that had heralded the building of the new £1bn crossing – had been resolved, the Forth Road Bridge Act was given Royal Assent in June and after a public vote, the bridge has been named Queensferry Crossing.

Politicians tried to resolve a long-running spat between fi sh farm and wild salmon producers with the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Act, which imposed tougher conditions on fi sh farming. Scottish salmon is now Scotland’s single largest food export, with a worldwide retail value of over £1bn, employs more than 1,000 people in rural areas and produces over 158,000 tonnes of salmon a year.

But the evidence sessions for the new Act – which sought to reform the whole industry – saw arguments between the wild and farmed sectors.

When the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee published its report, after the Bill’s second reading, convener Rob Gibson, said: “These sectors are clearly at loggerheads over a number of issues, which has hindered our scrutiny of this Bill.”

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