Scotland must respond to David Attenborough's warning over species extinction and climate change – Iain Gulland

We need to stop wasting our limited resources and develop innovative schemes like insect farming to turn food waste into animal feed, writes Iain Gulland.

Sir David Attenborough's latest BBC documentary, Extinction: The Facts, should not be treated simply like a piece of grimly fascinating entertainment (Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
Sir David Attenborough's latest BBC documentary, Extinction: The Facts, should not be treated simply like a piece of grimly fascinating entertainment (Picture: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

“Together we can create a better future... if we make the right decisions at this critical moment. What happens next is up to every one of us.” Sir David Attenborough’s parting words at the end of his latest documentary, Extinction: The Facts, on how we’re all destroying our planet were as grimly familiar to viewers as the dramatic footage of burning forests and dying wildlife.

Our TV schedules now list programmes like this as if they’re just another form of entertainment, like some kind of dark, environmental version of a Tartan or Nordic Noir.

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This time there was an unexpected new villain in the form of Covid-19 – and warnings of more to come.

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But while Covid has brought widespread devastation, it also brings – in a strange twist to the tale – by far the greatest hope yet that we can end the climate crisis. No one wanted or expected this deadly pandemic, which has caused great hardship and taken so many precious lives and livelihoods around the world.

Yet as a result of lockdown, we now know that we can make swift and radical changes to the way we live and work in order to overcome a global crisis.

Many staff at businesses here and around the world, including Zero Waste Scotland, are continuing to work from home permanently after finding that they don’t want or need to go into the office to do their jobs.

The daily commute and other staff travel is by far the greatest cause of the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis for service industry organisations like ours. Homeworking long-term is undoubtedly one of those “right decisions” that Sir David is urging us to make now to reach the target of ending Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2045. Obviously working from home is not feasible or desirable for everyone. But the future of work needs to be different for us all.

Sir David’s documentary included an interview with Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, the respected environmental economist at the London School of Economics, who called for “dramatic” change to reduce the damage our wasteful mass production and consumption of resources is doing to biodiversity.

But amongst all the doom and gloom, viewers might have missed the meaning of Lord Stern’s next sentence, which was: “That’s the big prize.” We have a crucial opportunity to turn all this waste into value, creating new, sustainable jobs and businesses at the heart of the green recovery and well-being economy which the Scottish Government is rightly striving to forge.

To ‘Build Back Better’, we need to stop wasting our limited resources and make things last. That’s what the circular economy does, by keeping things in circulation as long as possible through reducing, reusing, repairing, remaking and finally recycling.

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We are about to publish new research revealing that nearly one in ten jobs in Scotland is already in the circular economy. That’s significant, but to really make a difference we need to score ten out of ten.

Our forthcoming report also identifies a range of diverse and exciting new jobs to help do that by developing the national circular economy we need.

Insect farming is among the most interesting and beneficial with the power to turn Scotland’s food waste into valuable feed and also end our imports of crops like soy which devastate the world’s rainforests, an issue also highlighted by Sir David in the documentary.

The need for change is clear.

The headline statistics which the documentary rammed home are stark: the rate of extinction is now 100 times faster than it would be under natural evolution. Thanks to the actions of one species, us, a million other species globally are at risk of being wiped out for good.

That grim figure was first announced by the United Nations in May 2019.

I launched Zero Waste Scotland’s corporate plan a few months later with an equally stark statistic: four-fifths of Scotland’s carbon footprint comes from the vast amount of goods, materials and services which we produce, consume, and too often throw out after just one use. Around half of this stuff is imported from overseas, where – as the programme stressed – we are exporting the harm which our over-consumption wreaks.

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Like Sir David, however, I remain optimistic that we can turn things around. We have to.

Thanks to the Scottish Government’s ambitious renewables policy, Scotland now has the world’s third greenest grid. This can power the recovery we need, creating yet more sustainable jobs and reducing environmental damage overseas.

Tackling our over-consumption and switching from our wasteful, traditional linear economy – of ‘take, make and bin’ – to a more circular one will not only reduce the destructive impact we are all having on our planet. It will also start the much-needed regeneration of our natural world, increasing biodiversity and building back resilience into our ecosystems, which ultimately support us all.

We all need to make sure we look at every single thing we buy and use as consumers and businesses and ask if it’s having a positive or negative impact on the planet.

That’s another of those “critical, right decisions” which Sir David reminds us to take immediately. And we really do have no more time to waste.

Iain Gulland is chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland

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