Roseanna Cunningham: Scotland! We need your help to save the natural world

Today the Scottish Government is launching a consultation on future environmental standards, writes Roseanna Cunningham.
One of the Cadzow Oaks  reputedly dating from the 12th century  in the Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve (Picture: Donald Macleod)One of the Cadzow Oaks  reputedly dating from the 12th century  in the Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve (Picture: Donald Macleod)
One of the Cadzow Oaks  reputedly dating from the 12th century  in the Clyde Valley Woodlands National Nature Reserve (Picture: Donald Macleod)

Scotland’s natural environment is our greatest national asset. It sustains and nurtures our lives, refreshes our spirit and is central to our national identity. We all have a duty and responsibility to protect it – for its own sake but also because the success of our nation depends on it. It is vital to our well-being and achieving a sustainable, inclusive economy.

I am proud of the bold, imaginative action people across Scotland are taking to protect our environment and help our country to become a world leader on global environmental issues. From communities tackling the litter on their streets to local beach cleans, people across the country are embracing grassroots action to help protect our environment.

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However, our momentum cannot be undermined. Despite the on-going chaos created by Brexit, we must keep a clear focus on the challenges and opportunities that will influence the health of our environment in the coming years.

Ever since the referendum on EU membership in 2016, I have been concerned that our natural environment may be at risk under future trade relationships.

EU membership has enabled us to apply high and improving environmental standards to the benefit of our most precious natural assets. The EU provides a system of environmental protection, agreed across a community of 500 million people. These standards exist hand in hand with the single market and customs union. All member states keep to the same standards, and trade arrangements ensure that these standards are not undercut by imports and that there is no downward spiral to lower environmental standards to make cheaper goods. To ensure the effectiveness of this system, environmental standards are backed by credible enforcement by EU authorities.

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We face losing so much from leaving the EU, but this must not come at the expense of Scotland’s environment. Although the people of Scotland did not want to be in this position, it is Scotland’s business to secure our environment for the future. The Scottish Government has committed to maintain or exceed current EU environment standards.

This is essential to secure all the benefits a healthy natural environment brings to our economy and society, and to protect the treasures of our environment for generations to come.

The future relationship between the UK and the EU is still uncertain and the UK Government remains unable to provide much needed clarity about the future. My choice would be to remain fully within EU governance systems. However, as a responsible government, we need to prepare for whatever the future brings. That is why, today, I am publishing a consultation to gather views on the best approach to underpinning future environmental standards. We need to ensure that our policies continue to reflect the four key environmental principles that have formed a solid foundation for EU law.

We need to secure clear, appropriate governance arrangements to challenge the Scottish Government and public authorities if we fall short of our obligations. These governance arrangements must complement the existing role of Parliament in holding Government to account and respect the role of the Scottish courts in interpreting and upholding the law.

Moreover, we must have a role in developing future trade agreements as they will affect so many devolved policy areas, including the environment. It is vital that these agreements include full mutual respect for environmental standards in order to prevent a race to the bottom.

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The Scottish Government has been clear that powers in currently devolved areas like the environment must transfer directly to the Scottish Parliament in the event of withdrawal from the EU. However, during the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 there were sustained efforts by UK Government to introduce wide-ranging restrictions on currently devolved powers.

Maintaining environmental standards is a matter for Scotland. While we will continue to work with our partners across the UK where this is in our best interests, we need to find solutions that meet Scotland’s unique aims and ambitions.

Having broken our relationship with the EU, the UK Government must not be allowed to use that resulting damage as a reason to creep into devolved areas.

It is right that we take this systematic approach to safeguarding Scotland’s environment in the event of an EU exit. I will not, however, allow Brexit uncertainty to derail our ambitions for the future.

I have been leading a discussion on Scotland’s environment strategy to define our long term, guiding ambitions for the environment and our role in tackling global challenges. It will provide the setting within which our future environment governance will work.

I launched an online discussion last year seeking views on these ambitions and on the evidence base that supports decisions on future priorities for action. I was pleased to see so many people engage in this discussion and today I am publishing an independent analysis of the responses.

The strategy will demonstrate how a healthy environment is fundamental to the well-being, equality and prosperity of Scotland’s people. It will therefore be vital to take time to engage widely during its development, to ensure it reflects these wider impacts and works for all of Scotland. This work will be undertaken in close connection with the development of future arrangements for environmental principles and governance.

Protecting our environment and fulfilling our role in tackling global challenges is a moral obligation and one that the Scottish Government is fully committed to – whether by ensuring the right and proper environmental governance is in place, as a necessary but unfortunate part of our EU exit preparations, or by progressing our ambitions to develop an environmental strategy that will safeguard our environment for generations to come.