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01/05/14 16:29

Independence and the environment

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Wednesday April 30, 2014

It’s certainly a pleasure to be back at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I can’t quite believe it’s now five years since I nailed the first plank to the John Hope Gateway.

Tonight, I want to speak about Scotland’s environment so it’s fitting to be doing that at one of Scotland’s leading centres of conservation and public engagement.

The Garden is home to 15,000 species and the 800,000 visitors it attracts each year illustrates its ability to inspire.

And the herbarium, holding nearly 3 million specimens - more than half of the world’s flora - is a testament to the Garden’s role as a world renowned centre of scientific expertise.

The Garden engages both the heart and the mind, but perhaps its work is captured most succinctly in its mission of ‘exploring and explaining the world of plants for a better future’.

And this idea of a better future provides a fitting platform for tonight’s event.

It is now less than five months until those of us living and working in Scotland will have a say over our future. We will be asked the simple question:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

It will be an historic opportunity to decide on the kind of country in which we want to live.

Tonight I will set out the key opportunities independence will deliver for the environment both here and abroad: how a progressive approach to the environment will be at the heart of how an independent Scotland will engage locally, nationally and internationally.

I expect everyone is this room will want an independent Scotland to play a leading role in tackling the big environmental challenges of the 21st century.

I recall visiting here in the aftermath of the storms at the beginning of 2012 to discuss with staff the damage to the Garden.

The destruction that the Garden and the rest of Scotland witnessed illustrated the power of the natural world.

And as recently as this past winter, Scotland experienced more devastating effects that extreme weather can bring.

A succession of major storms saw disruption across our transport network; thousands of homes without power; traffic accidents and, tragically, the loss of life.

This was another reminder that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and that environmental changes can have profound impacts upon people and communities.

The latest evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sends a starker warning than ever before that human activity is changing the global climate, and it is affecting every continent.

Heavy rains and floods are now common place in Africa, with devastating effects in countries such as Sudan and Somalia; north-eastern Brazil has experienced its worst drought in the past 50 years; and Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall, devastated parts of the central Philippines with tragic results.

The impact is also being seen in our seas and on our coastlines.

With a significant threat of coastal erosion due to a global sea level rise of up to 82cm by the end of this century being forecast, that would displace millions and cause economic damage.

So climate change is a threat to Scotland and the world.

And there other challenges.

There are indications we are approaching a range of limits in the natural world that we should not go beyond.

We face increased pressures on freshwater and land use and we see continued biodiversity loss.

WWF has estimated that the global biodiversity has declined by over a quarter since the 1970s.

And just last month a prominent scientist from NASA claimed we need the equivalent of three planets due to the stress we are placing on the Earth.

These are just some of the very real issues we all face.

We cannot continue with business as usual because society relies on the natural world. Our food, health, identity and even our economy are inseparable from our environment.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to make the choices that can stem these trends.

We find ourselves at a crossroads, both locally and globally, with choices and vital decisions that need to be taken.

A Vision for Scotland’s Environment

But before choosing our path we need a vision of what we want Scotland’s environment to be.

In Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote simply about “the beauty [and] the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” That’s a sentiment that rings true for me.

The Scotland I have grown up in is a country that is defined by its beauty and natural diversity.

We are blessed with natural resources.

Our coasts and estuaries, machairs, mountains and moorlands, woodlands, lochs, rivers and peatlands create an unrivalled variety of landscapes and habitats.

Our seas are the fourth largest in the EU and home to half of Scotland’s wildlife, including 45% of Europe’s breeding seabirds - approximately 5 million of them.

I want to live in a country where my children and their children and all future generations have the same opportunities to experience our natural world.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch pinemarterns playing near my home, eagles soaring in the Ardnamurchan skies and basking sharks and dolphins gracefully dancing in the Tiree seas – and then there was the badger that walked right past me in my back garden a few days ago!

I want future generations to enjoy similar moments that enrich their lives.

I want a Scotland that recognises the value of nature in all its forms; and a Scotland that is a beacon of environmentalism.

I want us to recognise the role our environment has in improving people’s quality of life - where it’s understood that tackling poverty and disadvantage is not all about economics.

We need to use all our resources to reduce inequality and tackle poverty, rather than misuse our resources as is happening at the moment with Westminster policies pushing up to 100,000 more children in Scotland into poverty by 2020.

We’ve already shown that nature based solutions can help with that.

For years, Castlemilk Woodlands on the edge of Glasgow were neglected and run down, a focus for anti-social behaviour and a blight on the area.

Through the Central Scotland Green Network, not only is the area transforming but so are the lives of many local residents.

Unemployed youngsters are given the practical skills and support to transform the Woodlands and also earn the qualifications and life skills they need to enter employment.

Through their efforts, invasive non-native species are removed and the biodiversity of the woods increased.

And we know a healthy environment supports healthy living.

More Scots than ever before are walking and cycling in our forests and woodlands which are now playing an increasing role in promoting health and wellbeing. .

Indeed, group walking sessions reduce social isolation and increase levels of well-being, particularly amongst older residents.

We need more of these transformative projects where the environment is at the heart of urban and rural communities.

Government clearly has a vital role to play.

But often the most effective action comes from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Sometimes the best thing a government can do is simply encourage success and recognise that there often isn’t one model, but a thousand.

Like stars in the sky, our land should be dotted with points of light.

Places where individuals and communities have forged their own success.

And we can build success on the natural resources our planet has gifted to Scotland: our land, water, wind and waves to build a prosperous, low carbon, sustainable Scotland.

Assets we need to safeguard.

I’m proud to have been part of a parliament, and a society, that has already done much to work towards this.

Successes since devolution (the first step in building that vision)

Since it was reconvened in 1999, we’ve seen the environment move to the heart of our national parliament’s agenda.

Barely a day goes by without the environment featuring in the business of Parliament.

Only yesterday we debated how to support sustainable inshore fisheries.

Our devolved parliament has given us the ability to debate and decide upon the shape of our environment.

We have been bold and willing to tackle the biggest of all challenges.

Because collectively we recognised that climate change is one of the biggest threats to our world.

And we acted on this.

Our Climate Change Act is the most ambitious piece of climate change legislation anywhere in the world and, whilst there are no doubt many challenges ahead, Scotland is making progress with the biggest fall in emissions in Western Europe.

Our spending plans for the next few years outline almost £1.3 billion to support the delivery of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And we are committed to decarbonising the energy sector by 2030.

And central to our vision is our commitment to renewable energy.

We now generate 46% of our equivalent electricity demand from renewable energy, up from just 14% a decade ago, and on track to meet our target of 100% by 2020.

The renewables revolution is a long-term strategic project.

But we have also taken actions that impact upon our wider countryside in direct and immediate ways.

We recognised that our game laws were outdated, that we needed to do more to protect our wildlife and meet the threat from invasive non-native species.

So we passed the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act to tackle these important issues.

Our species have also been supported by our growing expertise in restoring natural habitats, improving the quality of our rivers and lochs and building the value of our natural capital.

We are committed to creating a further 100,000 hectares of new woodland by 2022 - expansion that is nearly three times as much as the rest of the UK.

And in our marine environment we not only recognised the importance of Scotland’s seas for our wildlife and our communities today, but their potential to contribute even more in the future.

This progressive thinking underpins the Marine Act, which aims to boost economic investment and grow areas such as marine renewables, while at the same time introducing a statutory duty to protect and enhance the marine environment.

Our Conservation Credits scheme has attracted international acclaim by encouraging fishermen to adopt sustainable fishing by giving more time at sea to individual vessels that undertake conservation measures.

This approach has delivered real change.

Through the scheme, Scottish fishermen are helping cod onto the road to recovery.

Scottish discards of North Sea cod have reduced by nearly half since 2007: the greatest reduction anywhere in Europe.

We’ve been able to do all this because the structure of our parliament means that people can interact more fully with accessible politicians and this is reflected in the active role played by many of you here today.

We are a small country, where we can easily get round the same table and focus on our national interests.

And that allows all of you to hold your Government to account and often lend your support to Team Scotland.

And we know that’s what your members want.

The goals and aims of each individual organisation may differ but the fact that Scottish Environment LINK represents 500,000 members is an indication of how important the environment is to the people of Scotland.

So we should all be proud of what we have achieved so far.

Achievements that relied on an ambitious and progressive vision from a forward thinking Scottish Parliament and an empowered civic society

Demonstrating that devolution, taking decisions in Scotland for Scotland, has worked to the benefit of the people and the environment of Scotland.

It has provided the platform on which we can build a better environment if we have the powers to do so.

The current debate on Scotland’s future is not about the weeks and months and even years immediately following the vote.

Independence is about the kind of Scotland we want to build for the long term.

And safeguarding and promoting our environment requires long term thinking not short term thinking.

And I believe it is through five key, green, gains of independence that we can create and realise a long term vision for Scotland’s environment.

Gain 1 – Written Constitution

The first gain is the opportunity for an independent Scotland to enshrine the protection of the environment in a written constitution.

A written constitution is the highest and strongest of laws - so much more powerful than framing sustainable development in individual pieces of legislation or policy documents.

It is a statement of the fundamental principles by which a country chooses to live regardless of the leanings of those in power.

It has even been described by some as “a mirror of a nation’s soul”.

In 1976, Portugal was the first country to include the right to a healthy environment in their constitution. Now over 90 countries have granted similar constitutional status to the environment.

In nearly all of these nations there is evidence that environmental laws have been strengthened, enforcement improved and public participation increased.

What’s more, these countries are more likely to have smaller ecological footprints, ratify international agreements and make faster progress in tackling pollution.

I believe that there is, and always will be, a moral duty to provide a healthy environment in Scotland and that should be built into our country’s foundations.

Shaping that constitution is something of which we could all be proud, and which you will all have the opportunity to contribute to.

One of the first tasks of the independent Scottish Parliament elected in May 2016 will be to establish a constitutional convention to debate and draft a written constitution.

The full range of civic, political, business, local and third sector interests will be involved in shaping a new constitution, but we intend that the process will be led by the individual citizens of Scotland.

The convention will be independent of both Parliament and Government. The Scottish Government will be just one voice amongst many in that exciting, dynamic debate.

Following a vote for independence in September, a Scottish Independence Bill will be introduced to the Scottish Parliament. This would form the interim constitution for Scotland until the constitutional convention has completed its work.

Before the summer, we will publish for consultation a draft of that Scottish Independence Bill and I look forward to hearing your views on that.

Gain 2 – Nuclear Free

The power of a written constitution is also at the heart of the second green gain of independence – ensuring that an independent Scotland is a nuclear-free nation – free from weapons of mass destruction and no more nuclear power stations.

Where billions of pounds are not wasted on dangerous technologies we don’t want and don’t need.
In Scotland, our vision is of a future powered by clean, green energy that harnesses the renewable resources that we have been blessed with.

But decisions taken in Westminster mean that the subsidy the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station will receive, from the taxpayer, could be as much as £35 billion.

That’s over four times the cost of support to all renewable development projects across the UK over the last ten years.

Scotland has also been home to one of the largest concentrations of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world.

Weapons which continue to be based in Scotland despite majority public opposition and the views of civic society, our churches, trade unions and a majority of Scotland’s MSPs and MPs.

With Independence, Scotland will be able to reject nuclear weapons and any proposed new nuclear power stations and we would have the opportunity to write this into our constitution.

Scotland could make one of the biggest statements of principle:

‘We will be a safe country, a clean country, a nuclear-free country.’

This would give a clear message that Scotland will lead by the power of our example, and not by the example of our power.

Gain 3 - Funding

Independence means we can choose to invest in the things that matter to the people of Scotland.

Not only that, we would have control over our own revenues.

With independence we would have the opportunity to consider how our tax system reflects our values.

To consider how we can incentivise the things we want and tax more of those things we don’t want.

Having access to the funds we need is the third green gain of independence.

Our economy – our world class food and drink industry, for instance - largely depends on our natural resources.

So we must protect the biodiversity and green image that our reputation for high quality and provenance is built upon.

But, despite being a member of the EU for decades, we still lag behind others when it comes to the resources available to support our biodiversity simply because the UK Government has other priorities.

We don’t need to look far to see what a difference independence can make.

Ireland has secured about 2.2 billion Euros of rural development funding over the next six years - four times the 478 million Euros Scotland is getting.

The UK negotiated Scotland to the bottom of the league table for rural development from which agri-environment schemes are funded.

Access to our fair share of funding could open all sorts of possibilities for Scotland – possibilities like substantially increasing agri-environment schemes or forestry enabling us to better fund co-operative action to support the stewardship of our land.

As it is, the lack of EU rural development money has led to tough decisions in Government.

Unless a Scottish Government can represent the needs and priorities of Scotland in Brussels this will always be the case.

Gain 4 - EU Representation

Of course, an independent Scotland would be a welcome and enthusiastic member of the European Union.

And it’s not all about access to support - it’s about using our voice to show leadership on the environment.

This direct representation in Europe is the 4th green gain of independence.

Other similar sized countries have led the way in setting and delivering progressive agendas in the EU.

Connie Hedegaard from Denmark is the EU Climate Change Commissioner

Janez Potocnik from Slovenia is European Commissioner for the Environment

Ireland and Lithuania held the EU presidency last year and Latvia and Luxembourg will be taking the chair in 2015.

Smaller countries can - and do - drive change.

But to do so they need a strong voice and they need to be able to pursue their own priorities.

An independent Scotland, already respected in the EU, would certainly have this strong voice.

Our opinion will be valued and we are well placed to help Europe meet its own challenges.

One of these big challenges is the need to produce clean and secure energy.

Scotland has 1% of the EU population but 25% of the EU’s offshore wind and tidal power potential and 10% of its wave power potential.

We have the energy resources to power Europe. We have the potential to lead Europe.

Gain 5 - Global Representation

An independent Scotland, with its own voice, in institutions such as the EU and UN, we would also be better able to promote our example of high ambition in tackling climate change, and our championing of climate justice.

So having influence on the global stage is the fifth green gain of independence.

Climate change threatens to roll back global gains on human rights and Scotland is determined to play its part in securing an ambitious climate change treaty in Paris in 2015.

I want to be part of a Scotland whose commitment and conviction inspire and influence others on the global stage.

And not just in areas such as low carbon but also in development of policy on natural capital. Especially after the massive success of the World Natural Capital Forum hosted in Edinburgh by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and addressed by the First Minister.

Our desire to show leadership is also why, two years ago Scotland launched a climate justice fund – the first by any national government. A fund that the First Minister doubled to £6 million last year.

The Fund is endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has received strong support from Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It is helping communities affected by climate change in Malawi and Zambia – improving access to clean water and educating and empowering women to play a leading role in their local communities.

This is the kind of support that makes a real difference to people’s lives.

And in 2012, Ban Ki-moon asked the First Minister if Scotland would be a formal partner in the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All global initiative.

So Scotland has committed to continuing such contributions to the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

But it’s only a start.

As an independent country Scotland would build on these foundations.

We will act on our responsibilities as one of the wealthiest nations on the planet - working in partnership with the developing world to share Scotland’s knowledge and technical expertise globally.

And just as the right to a healthy environment would be one of the founding principles of an independent Scotland, it would also be one of the key pillars of our approach to international development.

This approach reflects that Scotland has always been an outward facing nation.

But, until we have a presence at global negotiations and can argue for the principles of climate justice our impact will be limited.

Instead, we are represented by the UK Government.

Just think, a Government where my counterpart is pro-foxhunting, pro-GM, pro-nuclear and often reported to be climate change and Euro-sceptic and yet is Secretary of State for Environment!

No Scottish Parliament would appoint anyone with those views.

And yet it is the UK Environment Secretary who represents Scotland – represents all of you - on the European and global stages and it’s his Government that continues to take many of the decisions that affect our environment.

The House of Commons is famous for its green benches but in Scotland we should be proud that our Parliament is becoming known for its green principles.

Ladies and gentleman, I started this evening by quoting the mission of the Royal Botanic Garden - exploring and explaining the world of plants for a better future.

This evening I have explained why independence would lead to a better future for Scotland’s environment and our people.

Independence will bring five key green gains for the environment:

We can have a nuclear free Scotland.

We can seize the opportunity and place the environment at the heart of what we do in a written constitution.

We will have access to the support and funding we need to support a healthy environment

We will be represented at the EU and have the opportunity to drive the agenda

We will have a voice on the global stage to tackle climate change and champion climate justice.

Scotland faces two futures in the referendum on the 18th of September.

A vote for independence isn’t a vote for me, or Alex Salmond or the SNP – it’s not about the future of our politicians – it’s about Scotland’s future, your future and the future of our environment.

Together, we can build a successful and sustainable Scotland – and on 18th September we can begin building that exciting future by choosing an independent Scotland.

Thank you.