First Minister's Environmental Council: first report, key priorities and future work programme
This is the first report by the First Minister’s Environmental Council. It notes Scotland’s ambitions and response to the twin crises, international examples of environmental action, and sets out the directions of the future work programme for the Council.
2. Policy Context
2.1 The Twin Global Crises
Scotland's response to climate change and biodiversity loss is already driving the Scottish Government's key policy decisions and will continue to do so over the coming years. The intrinsic linkage of the twin global crises bring shared risks and challenges, but also the opportunity for common responses.
Scotland's climate is already changing, becoming warmer and wetter. Extremes in weather are also becoming more pronounced globally. Sea levels are also rising around Scotland's coastlines. Current projections indicate that the changes Scotland has already experienced over the last century, will continue and intensify over the coming decades. These extremes will stress current infrastructure and will be a threat to wellbeing and may have disproportionate impacts, for instance, increased storminess on island communities. In other words where there might be unexpected impacts or consequences that are outside our ability to handle them, potentially challenging our resilience.
These trends, as well as others involving patterns of land and sea use, will further impact on Scotland's environment and wildlife by disturbing the ecosystems that support Scotland's plants and animals. For example, climate change projections suggest that mountain top arctic-alpine habitats and the species they support could be displaced by scrub habitats as the climate warms. Ocean acidification from rising levels of atmospheric CO2 is likely to have wide-ranging and complex impacts on marine ecosystems. Habitats that depend on reef-forming corals are likely to be particularly affected. Indirect effects may be just as significant. Changing seasons have significant implications for agriculture, declining winter cold/snow pack, impact on marine food chains from warming seas, arrival of pests and diseases hitherto unknown.
The scale of the wider environmental changes, unrelated to climate change, that Scotland is already experiencing are also considerable. Some pressures on nature in Scotland, notably freshwater pollution, have decreased in recent decades. Other pressures continue to increase such as the continued net loss of biodiversity. Half of Scottish species have decreased in abundance over the last twenty years, primarily due to the intensification of agriculture, changing climate, fisheries, and urban expansion. For example, seabirds, an 'apex' species that sit at the top of the food web, have seen substantial declines in Scotland over the last 30 years. During that time, the average numbers of 12 species of breeding seabirds in Scotland declined by over a third. Surface-feeding seabirds such as Kittiwake, or species that depend on them, such as Arctic Skua, have been particularly affected, with declines of 72% and 77% respectively. This seems to result from a cascade of mechanisms originating with the declining abundance and nutritional quality of Sandeels as a result of the impact of fishing, increasing sea surface temperature, the timing and strength of ocean stratification, and a mismatch in reproductive timings with availability of prey.
2.2 Scotland's response
Against the backdrop set out in the preceding sections of this report, successive Scottish Governments have taken measures to reduce Scotland's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, build resilience to the locked in impacts of climate change and to reverse biodiversity loss.
The Scottish Government's Environment Strategy provides an overarching strategic framework which brings current strategies and plans together, in the context of Scotland's National Performance Framework and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This sets the vision that, by 2045, by restoring nature and ending Scotland's contribution to climate change, Scotland is transformed for the better- helping to secure the wellbeing of Scotland's people and planet for generations to come. The Strategy sets out 6 outcomes which provide a focus for responding to the crisis. Three outcomes describe ambitions for Scotland's environment, focussed on climate change, nature and resource-use. Three outcomes describe the relationship between the environment and wider ambitions for economy, society and international impact.
Figure 1: Figure detailing contribution of the Environment Strategy vision and outcomes to National Outcomes and UN Sustainable Development Goals
Centre: Environment Strategy vision
One Earth. One home. One shared future.
By 2045: By restoring nature and ending Scotland's contribution to climate change, our country is transformed for the better - helping to secure the wellbeing of our people and planet for generations to come.
Inner ring: Environment Strategy outcomes
Scotland's nature is protected and restored with flourishing biodiversity and clean and healthy air, water, seas and soils
We play our full role in tackling the global climate emergency and limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C
We use and re-use resources wisely and have ended the throw-away culture
Our thriving sustainable economy conserves and grows our natural assets
Our healthy environment supports a fairer, healthier, more inclusive society
We are responsible global citizens with a sustainable international footprint
Middle ring: National Outcomes in the National Performance Framework
Children & young people; Communities; Culture; Economy; Education; Environment; Fair work & business; Health; Human rights; International; Poverty;
Outer ring: Sustainable Development Goals
1: No poverty; 2: Zero hunger; 3: Good health and well-being; 4: Quality education; 5: Gender equality; 6: Clean water and sanitation; 7: Affordable and clean energy; 8: Decent work and economic growth; 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure; 10: Reduced inequalities; 11: Sustainable cities and communities; 12: Responsible consumption and production; 13: Climate action; 14: Life below water; 15: Life on land; 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions; 17: Partnerships for the goals
Source: The Environment Strategy for Scotland: vision and outcomes, 2020, page 6
Scotland's emissions have halved since 1990. The Scottish Government has committed to further accelerating the pace of emission reductions. The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 introduces a legal requirement to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 (compared with 1990) and to net zero by 2045. These are ambitious targets which will end Scotland's contribution to climate change within one generation. A key challenge for the Scottish Government will be to build upon emission reduction to date to deliver the scale of decarbonisation required across all sectors of the economy, including in relation to how land is used (e.g. through forestry, peatlands and agriculture) See figure 2. The updated Climate Change Plan, published in December 2020, sets out the pathway by which the Scottish Government intends to meet emissions targets out to 2032.
Scotland's approach to climate change adaptation is set out in the second statutory Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme, which covers the period 2019 to 2024. The Programme is outcomes based and aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (s), with two of the high level outcomes directly related to the resilience of the natural environment to the impacts of climate change. The Scottish Climate Change Act requires that a new Programme is prepared every five years.
Figure 2. This graph presents Scotland's annual greenhouse gas emissions for various sectors since 1995 in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. Data is presented by sector for energy supply, transport, business, agriculture, residential, waste management and land use, land use change and forestry. The graphs shows the relatively rapid declines in emissions from energy supply and waste management.
Scotland's successes in relation to biodiversity are more fragile and tentative but reflect the increased understanding of the importance of biodiversity loss since the beginning of the century and the time-lag around species recovery and habitat restoration. In general, the decline in biodiversity is continuing, albeit with some trends appearing to stabilise. There is an increased understanding of the linkages between climate change and biodiversity loss and the fact that nature is key to addressing the former.
The Scottish Government is committed to tackling the two crises hand in hand. Scotland's approach to reversing biodiversity loss is set out in two documents which together constitute the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy although these should have been refreshed in 2020 following agreement of a new global biodiversity framework. Delays in negotiation of that framework due to Coronavirus () led to the publication of the 2020 Statement of Intent - 2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity pending production of a new Scottish Biodiversity Strategy due in Autumn 2022. The Statement of Intent reflects Ministers increased ambition for improvements in biodiversity, making several important new commitments, such as to increase protected areas to 30% of Scotland's territory by 2030, and to introduce new nature networks, building upwards from locally agreed and negotiated partnerships, rather than as a centrally-driven initiative. This will be further supplemented by a Natural Environment Bill which will establish statutory targets for restoring and protecting nature, to be introduced in the Parliament in 2023-24.
Progress towards the objectives set out in the existing biodiversity strategy are reported on every three years. NatureScot, Scotland's nature agency, also published in 2019 an assessment of the country's progress against the 20 global targets. These targets were set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Aichi Targets, which were to be met by 2020. Of the 20 Aichi targets, nine were assessed as being on track, and the other 11 as showing progress, although not sufficient to meet the targets. Although this performance compares relatively well both within the , regionally within Europe and globally, it also reflects the overarching fragile and tentative successes outlined above, meeting fewer than half the global targets.
Both public and responsible private sector investment in Scotland's natural capital is central to responding to both climate change and biodiversity loss and, if implemented correctly and with ambition, can often support both goals simultaneously.
For example, increasing Scotland's forest cover can mitigate impacts of climate change through sequestration, enhance biodiversity by providing habitats and provide space for recreation. In 2020, Scotland created 10,660 hectares of new woodland, equivalent to approximately 80% of all new woodland in the that year. Under current plans, woodland creation will increase to 18,000 hectares a year by 2025. The most recent Scottish Government Programme for Government also commits to increase annual expansion of native woodlands which can bring particular biodiversity benefits in addition to sequestering carbon.
Where trees are planted has a huge impact on the environmental and social benefits and costs they generate. Planting on carbon rich peatlands can negate the sequestration attributes of the trees themselves in terms of their overall effects on emissions. Whereas woodland creation can be one of the responses to the joint climate and biodiversity challenge that offers best value for money. If tree planting is targeted according to the carbon storage, biodiversity, environmental access and hence equality benefits woodlands can generate, taking account of their impacts on other land use such as agriculture.
Restoring Scotland's degraded peatlands, which are a significant source of emissions, is another example of enhancing the natural environment. Peatlands can simultaneously contribute to multiple goals such as climate change adaptation through natural flood management and restoring natural habitats for wildlife. The government is investing £250 million in funding to support the restoration of 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030 which has the potential to transform, and enhance, many areas of Scotland.
Other land-uses also have an important impact on climate change and biodiversity. For example, agriculture, in addition to being a key source of Scotland's food supply, is a large emitter of emissions, particularly from livestock. By 2030, agriculture is expected to be the third largest source of emissions in Scotland after transport and industry.
Farming practices have also had a negative impact on biodiversity over recent decades, however in recent years efforts to fund targeted activities that are positive for biodiversity have seen some results. For instance, some farmers and crofters are managing their land with nature and the environment in mind and show how biodiversity can benefit with the right support. Leaving space for nature with wildlife-friendly practices such as enhanced field margins, good grazing management, reduced inputs of pesticides and fertilisers, and mowing and cutting at the right time can also have major benefits.
A key challenge in the coming years will, therefore, be the reform of agricultural support in Scotland to ensure that it can balance the need to reduce the sector's contribution to emissions and biodiversity loss, align to other land uses such as expanded forestry creation, whilst continuing to support sustainable food production and broader social objectives (including in the face of the risks associated with a changing climate). This is likely to require a significant reappraisal of the nature and role of government support for the agricultural sector.
2.3 Balancing competing priorities
It is important to acknowledge that determining the optimal mix of land use to achieve climate, biodiversity and other economic and societal outcomes, in a given location, involves a complex set of interlinked considerations that are sometimes in tension, and involvement of all concerned in making those considerations. This is particularly the case for some forms of land use and both biodiversity and climate mitigation. For example, ensuring that peatlands become carbon sinks - as well as sustaining biodiversity - needs changes in current land use.
Similar trade-offs also occur in the marine environment. For example, offshore renewable energy production is needed to achieve the Scottish Government's emission targets. They may also enhance the marine environment through the introduction of what amounts to new artificial reef structures. However the scale at which it is deployed has the potential, if not carefully managed, to negatively impact on some components of marine biodiversity, existing marine carbon stores and traditional marine sectors such as fisheries.
Furthermore, and if carefully planned, the marine environment has the potential to very significantly reduce the emission load from our food production systems. As with land-based agriculture, the type of aquaculture sector we develop matters tremendously, with the potential for either substantial benefits or costs depending on the nature and location of its activities. However, the potential certainly exists for great improvements in food production through careful use of the marine environment.
The Scottish Government has recognised these trade-offs and emphasised the need for a 'Just Transition' to ensure that both the outcome which it is seeking to achieve - a net zero, climate resilient, nature positive and fairer society - and the means by which it is achieved, are equitable. It has committed to producing just transition plans for the transformation to net zero across key sectors, co-designed and co-delivered with a diverse range of stakeholders and advised by a Just Transition Commission to support the production and monitoring of the plans.
2.4 Consumption – a critical factor in the twin crises
Whilst the way in which Scotland's land and marine environments are used, and how communities are involved in those decisions, are key issues when considering how the government can meet its environmental priorities, the resources consumed by Scottish households and businesses also have a significant environmental impact, both domestically and internationally. Household consumption is a key driver of climate change and biodiversity loss worldwide. The impact that consumption has on the natural environment is a major challenge that all countries will have to address in the coming years. There is an opportunity for Scotland to demonstrate leadership in this area as it progresses towards its climate change and wider environmental objectives.
At present, around 80% of Scotland's carbon footprint comes from the goods, materials and services which the country produces, consumes and disposes of. About half of these emissions occur overseas. This imposes an environmental burden, which is often borne by other countries, through the depletion of scarce resources, environmental degradation, and emissions generated in both production processes and the subsequent disposal of products when they are no longer required or functional.
The world's economies are stretching the planet's regenerative capacity beyond sustainable limits, with demands on nature far exceeding its supply. It is estimated that 1.6 Earths would be needed to sustain humanity's current demands – or nearly 3 Earths if everyone lived as we do in Scotland. Scotland's raw material consumption per capita, also known as a Material Footprint, was 18.4 tonnes in 2017. That's equivalent to each person in Scotland using their body weight in material every 1.4 days. The evidence is clear: the way we consume materials today is unsustainable and contributes to many global environmental and social problems, from climate change and biodiversity loss through to issues of economic inequality.
There are significant environmental and economic benefits which can be accrued by moving to a circular economy model which maximises the value from the goods already in circulation, and promotes the manufacture of products that are designed to last as long as possible and are repairable. It has been estimated that such circular actions could reduce Scotland's carbon footprint by up to 20% by 2050. Reduced resource consumption can also bring economic benefits, for example re-engineering production processes to minimise resource inputs can simultaneously minimise costs and the environmental impact of production.
Likewise, with waste disposal, particularly waste going to landfill, generating around 1.5 Mt CO2e annually and reducing the resources which can re-enter production processes, the need to maximise recycling rates, and directing waste to more productive uses, is key.
The Scottish Government has been taking a number of important steps in this area. Household recycling rates have steadily increased to 45% in 2019, and volume of biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill has fallen from 2.0 Mt in 2005 to 0.7 Mt in 2019. These, and other measures, have contributed to GHG emissions from waste declining by three quarters since 1990 (figure 3). The government is investing a further £70 million in improving recycling infrastructure across Scotland over the coming years. This reflects the fact that a further step change will be required to meet the Scottish Government targets of reducing food waste by one third by 2025 and recycling 70% of all waste by the same date. The Scottish Government is also due to introduce a Circular Economy Bill during the current parliamentary term to implement new measures to reduce wasteful resource use, such as single-use plastic items, and increase the recovery of materials.
However, it is important to acknowledge that waste is a direct consequence of consumption, as well as of the nature of the production process. The more materials we consume the more waste we will produce. To ensure true circularity of the economy and minimise waste, therefore, consumption needs to be reduced.
Figure 3. This graph presents Scotland's annual recycling rate, since 2005, as a percentage of waste generated, the annual amount of biodegradable waste landfilled in millions of tonnes, and the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. The graphs shows the decline in greenhouse gas emissions, the commensurate decline in biodegradable waste landfilling and the rise in the recycling rate, since 2005.
Source: Household waste data | Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Waste data for Scotland | Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) * a change in how the data was recorded from 2006 means the data is not comparable with 2005.
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