The colour of hope: a green recovery in Scotland.

21 Apr 2021

On 17th April 2021, LINK’s Chief Officer Deborah Long spoke to the 2050 Climate Group’s Zoom Out: taking action for the Green Recovery event, part of their Young Leaders Development Programme, which aims to engage, educate and inspire young leaders. This blog is based on the talk she gave.    

So here we are: all living on planet earth. Scotland is a tiny geographical speck. But Scotland has a role much larger than its geography implies. In 1700s, Scotland was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, when today’s relentless rise in carbon dioxide levels began. In 1950s, the UK began a drive to become self sufficient in food we could produce here with the start of mechanised farming and large scale production methods and the acceleration in biodiversity loss that has reached crisis point today. Having played significant roles in both crises – one globally and one at home, it is only right that we are at the forefront of tackling both these crises.

It would be fair to say that Scotland has recognised that we have this role: there is recognition at highest level of Government in Scotland that both climate change and nature loss are existential crises for Scotland: The challenges facing biodiversity are as important as the challenge of climate change, and I want Scotland to be leading the way in our response. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, July 2019

We’re seeing political commitment and progress towards the 2045 target on climate change in Scotland, albeit with bumps in the road. What we’re not yet seeing is the same level of commitment to nature loss. We need to change that if we are to make progress on both these crises.

There are three world changing emergencies facing us:

We are suffering human disease on a scale not seen since 1918’s Spanish flu. We are in a climate emergency with global temperatures rising at unprecedented rates and severely impacting on communities and natural habitats on land and at sea. At the same time, we are in a nature emergency where the rate of species extinctions is rising exponentially and where global changes are for the first time being caused by human activity. While we can’t solve all three emergencies at once, one thing we mustn’t do is solve one while making the other two worse. We need to act: but to be effective we need to act together.

On the climate emergency, the Scottish Government is making the links between climate and nature: There is a global climate emergency.  The evidence is irrefutable.  The science is clear.  People have been clear: they expect action……Another UN body, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, issued a warning about the damage human beings are causing to the planet…..Both these reports highlight that it’s not too late for us to turn things around, but to do so requires transformative change. This is not just about government action.  And it is not something that only affects Scotland.  All countries must act and must do so quickly and decisively…Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary For Environment, Land Reform and Climate Change, May 2019.   

The nature emergency is defined by the loss of species, which was reported in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global assessment published in 2019. This showed that 1 million species across the world are threatened by extinction. This is being driven by five direct drivers of change, which in descending order are:

(1) changes in land and sea use;

(2) direct exploitation of organisms;

(3) climate change;

(4) pollution

(5) invasive alien species

Some of the statistics in that report are bleak:  

  • Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions.
  • More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
  • The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45%.
  • Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface,
  • In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
  • Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
  • Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
  • Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the Report, except those that include transformative change.

At the launch of the report, Robert Watson, IPBES Chair said: The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”. He continues: “The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said. “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals.

The nature crisis and the third emergency, the global pandemic, are very closely linked: the covid-19 pandemic has reached us as a result of close contact with wild species and is a direct outcome of today’s nature crisis. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; unsustainable trade, production and consumption are disrupting nature and increasing contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. Almost all known pandemics, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, and COVID-19, are caused by microbes from animals. The frequency of new diseases emerging in human population is now increasing and the reservoir of currently undiscovered viruses thought to exist in mammals and birds is massive, c1.7 million; 48% of which could have the ability to infect humans.

In 2020, IPBES ran a workshop on nature and pandemics. Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of IPBES workshop on pandemics said: Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases….. “The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,”. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

Even here in Scotland, studies show that since 2008 infection rates of Lyme’s Disease are rising across the UK but especially in Scotland. Scientists say that it is “highly likely” that the abundance of ticks in our outdoor environments is associated with the rise in deer numbers over the past 50 years, and that in turn may have contributed to increasing incidences of Lyme Disease, as more people and

So how do we build a green recovery that tackles all three emergencies?

We need to tackle both the climate and nature emergencies together. That means that solutions for one mustn’t make the other one worse. There is potential for this for this to happen with biofuel production replacing food production on good agricultural land or natural habitat in key areas or with trees planted in the wrong place, for example. Both are clearly potential solutions to climate change – but they also could make the nature crisis worse. We have other solutions though – nature based solutions that tackle both: nature friendly farming, protecting marine habitats, natural regeneration of woodland, peatland restoration, better soil management for example.

So how are we getting on?

If we look at some of our progress to date:

On climate action: we have updated the Climate Change Plan in Scotland – that’s good. And we are making progress towards the 2045 targets. Globally we’re not moving fast enough and there is of course the argument that we should and could be doing more in Scotland.

On nature action: we’ve missed most of the Aichii biodiversity targets in 2010 and in 2020 in Scotland and globally – we cannot afford to fail in 2030. But unlike climate, we don’t have yet any agreed targets for nature: we’re making it up as we go along, each doing our own little bit but the sum of the parts isn’t adding up to a whole. It is adding up to a hole, but not one with a w.

And finally on political and public will: there is a loud public voice calling for transformative change – but we’re not breaking through yet. And as a result, political will is lagging behind.

Both the nature and climate emergencies are really that; we have a decade to change direction: to meet net zero and to build a nature rich world. That is not long: it is two parliaments and it is within the current decade, declared by the UN as the Decade for Ecosystem Restoration. Bringing about this level and scale of change needed is not easy: halting and reversing ongoing biodiversity loss has no easy solutions and compromises will have to be made. However, the need for change is incontrovertible.

A green recovery to these 3 emergencies relies on 3 tactics: all around diversity. We need diversity in strength; diversity in cooperation and diversity of action in time and space:

  1. Diversity in strength:

Numbers matter: the more people talking about this, the louder the voice for the environment.

Targets matter. We need to have something to aim for – we need something to measure progress against. Targets are hard though. They are hard to define in the first place, especially for nature and they give ordinary people, a measure of progress so we can see when governments, industry and society is not doing enough. We can and should use targets to monitor progress and point out when it falls short.

  1. Cooperation matters too:

This is all too big for government, too big for business, too big for society:  we need to work together.  Today it can feel like there are too many silos all shouting at each other, while nature breaks and climate warms. There are 2 barriers facing those who are trying to make progress:

The first barrier is shifting baselines and nature deficit disorder. The change in nature loss is largely incremental: which means that as we lose things, we don’t notice.

Nature, as a general rule, has astonishing powers of recovery. It is pretty good at bouncing back from things that kill it, if the killing stops before it’s too late, or is reduced to sustainable levels. What it’s not so good at is recovering when the very ground beneath it is altered….Sometime these changes are visible, but often they are not. …If we have our wits about us we may notice. If not, we don’t notice. It can be hard to see something that isn’t there, impossible to hear nothing. Conor Mark Jameson, Silent Spring revisited 2012

Also, we all start to suffer from shifting baseline syndrome exacerbated by Nature deficit disorder, where fewer children are coming into regular contact with nature and the outdoors across the UK. Even by the 1970s, which is when we started to collect decent data on nature trends, the changes had set in. And since then they’ve accelerated.

How many of our parents and grandparents went fishing for sticklebacks or shrimps? How many collected bunches of wild flowers? How many collected wild berries to make jams or pies? The Natural Childhood report 2012, National Trust found that:

  • Fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local ‘patch of nature’, compared to over half of all adults when they were children.
  • Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places; compared to almost half a generation ago.
  • Children spend so little time outdoors that they are unfamiliar with some of our commonest wild creatures. According to a 2008 National Trust survey, one in three could not identify a magpie; half could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp; yet nine out of ten could recognise a Dalek.

Competing priorities are the second barrier. Climate change and nature loss are both important and urgent and they both suffer from the Eisenhower principle: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.“ President Eisenhower, 1954

This means they never reach the top of the To Do list. There is always something more urgent: a financial crash, a referendum, a global pandemic. The irony of the latest urgency is that it is the direct result of the fact we have ignored the needs of our environment for too long and it’s starting to impact us directly. And while the ecological certainty continues to degrade, political solutions keep taking up time and effort that should be spent taking these ecological crises. That bring me onto the final diversity tactic:

  1. Diversity in time and space:

These are planetary emergencies but the solutions lie locally. The pressure for change to incremental problems is not going to come from politicians – it’s going to come from communities:

But though our knowledge is immense, our collective political will is not strong. The energy for change – and thus our preservation – will have to come from grass-roots networks, which is where it’s most often come from. Margaret Atwood, 2012

A Parliamentary term of 5 years is too short and there are too many dependencies and consequences for politicians to be able to act on a longer term basis. Today’s nature and climate emergencies need to be solved in the next 10 years. If politicians start to act 10 years from now, it will arguably be too late. And that’s why change for these type of emergencies comes from grass root communities: they see beyond the next 5 years.

Here’s an example: the kelp industry meets global demand for alginates, used in foods, textiles, pharmaceuticals (bulking, gelling, stabilising). In 2018, Ullapool seasavers started #Nokelpdredge campaign to halt mechanical kelp dredging along the west coast of Scotland. They worked with Parliamentarians, celebrities and eNGOs and watched the Crown Estate Bill voted through the Scottish Parliament to prevent mechanical kelp extraction. This is just one example of saving today’s nature for tomorrow’s future.

What sort of thing do we need?

So before we look at what we can do, I just want to explore some of the things we need. This is not an exhaustive list: it relates back to the key issues of the environment, the economy and our health:

  1. Nature targets: so we can measure progress. In 2019, we published the State of Nature Scotland It showed that 1 in 9 of Scotland’s species are in danger of extinction: 49% of Scottish species have decreased since the 1970s. Nature is changing rapidly, with 62% of species showing strong changes. Drivers of change in Scotland include land management, pollution, invasive non native species, and marine climate change and fisheries.

But while we need targets here in Scotland, we need global ones too. This is where we are looking to the Biodiversity Cop15 in Kunming in October. We’re working with our sister LINKS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and we’re calling for commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2030 and recovery by 2050.

  1. Resilient ecosystems on land and at sea: we need protected areas because they are the refuge for many of our rare and not so rare species. It is from these refuges that they can spread when conditions are right or when their current habitat changes so they can’t stay. Protected areas need to be flexible enough to build resilience in habitats and amongst species populations; they need to be protected against fragmentation; and they need to be properly protected from damaging activities.

Nature networks are a key way to link up our landscapes so species can move, habitat can expand and contract and ecosystems become more resilient to changes from climate for example. Nature networks are not necessarily contiguous but they build in ecological connectivity so that ecosystems become resilient to change. This short film explains what they are and why we need them.

  1. Circular economy: a circular economy enables us to live within planetary limits: it extracts less from the planet, re-uses what we’ve already taken and reduces our waste. A circular economy bill would lay the foundation for this. Our Circular Scotland project explains more.
  2. Access to a healthy environment: everyone living in Scotland needs to have easy access to a healthy environment. 20 minute neighbourhoods should include ecologically functional greenspace within 20 minutes active travel from everyone’s home. Active travel itself needs infrastructure right across Scotland from urban cycle ways to long distance cycle routes and footpaths. And everyone in Scotland needs the skills and confidence to access the outdoors: the conid-19 pandemic clearly underlined how important being outside is for physical and mental health. The Out there Award at Ramblers Scotland is one example of doing that.

What can we do?

As individuals, we can add our voice to campaigns to demonstrate our support on key issues.

For example, LINK is running a campaign for people to sign up to demonstrate their support for more action for nature, championing nature. In parallel we have a Nature pledge for all candidates standing for election in May 2021.  #oorfootprint is a wider social media initiative that demonstrates our connectedness with the planet and each other.

The importance of talking to other and spreading the word cannot be overstated. Again, Ullapool seasavers are showing a way forward by working together, highlighting local and global issues and bringing others on board by inspiring, and sometimes, shaming, them to act.

Obviously Government can do a lot through legislation to protect and enhance the environment and to build in, guide and enforce change. Over the last 20 years, we ‘ve seen some great examples of ambitious and world leading legislation in Scotland, our access laws for example. But we’ve also seen how ambitious world leading legislation doesn’t always lead to effective, timely action. LINK’s Rhetoric to Reality report, published 10 years ago remains valid today.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, watch This is Scotland here, commissioned from Maramedia, who are responsible for Stormbound. This is about Scotland’s nature and why we need to do more, as funders, as people living in Scotland and as visitors. This film is for anyone who supports Scotland’s nature today and wants future generations to enjoy it too.

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of Nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter….. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring 1964.



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