Given this environmental backdrop, both sides of the debate must make clear why they think their preferred constitutional option is best for Scotland’s environment.
The twin climate and nature crises have both been officially recognised. We have "net zero” targets and the Paris pledge to limit temperature rise. Governments acknowledge the biodiversity crisis and, at UK and Scottish levels, are now committed to nature recovery targets. Yet, in both cases, delivery of action and results have been poor. Emissions’ targets have been missed, and official advice suggests plans for further cuts are inadequate. Wildlife remains under threat; almost half of Scotland’s species have declined in the last 50 years, and one in nine is at risk of extinction.
The state of the environment is partly natural. However, in the modern world, ecological processes are massively influenced by public policy. These policies, especially how public funds are spent, determine how our land is managed or developed, what emissions of CO2 and pollutants are allowed, what chemicals are permitted in our food, and much more.
So, while the environment crises might be said to have been caused (or, at least, allowed) by government (in)action, they can only be solved by government action. This, of course, needs to be at all levels of government. Last year, in Glasgow, COP26 demonstrated the importance of international action. The Brexit process has also illustrated the importance of EU environment policy, with both the UK and Scottish governments eventually recognising that legislation was needed to replace the EU’s environmental principles and to create new agencies to (partially) replace the role of the Commission.
This illustrates the need for governments to work together on an issue that is inherently cross-border. This co-operation needs to be both across the British Isles and across Europe/the globe. Clearly, each side of Scotland’s debate will claim their option is better placed to deliver such co-operation. Likewise, there will be arguments that a larger “influential” entity can achieve more. Or, that Scotland’s more pro-EU tendency offers a better future. Equally, each side will need to explain how the constitutional arrangements either aid or hinder ambitions to improve domestic action.
In my experience, having worked in all four UK countries, Europe and South Asia, both large and small countries (or sub-national entities), or left-leaning and right-leaning governments, can do well. It is equally possible, and depressingly common, for any or all to do poorly. The key is those in government and in political parties to be committed and be focused on delivery, both with regulation and funds.
Environmentalists will look for an ambitious agenda irrespective of whether a referendum takes place or its outcome. They will challenge politicians, from both sides of the debate, to explain why their preferred constitutional option is best suited to meet the environmental challenges. Let’s hope they have some answers.
In the meantime, of course, both the UK and Scottish governments can and should do better, in the here and now, under current arrangements.
Lloyd Austin is a freelance environmental consultant, working primarily with various voluntary environmental campaigns in Scotland. These views do not necessarily reflect those of any organisation with whom he works.