The horizon is a long way off

23 Jun 2020

A first and personal take from LINK’s Chief Officer on recommendations for a green and fair recovery.

On 22 June, the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, published a series of recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider as part of an economic recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland. Here at LINK, we responded to the Group’s request for our thoughts. You can read what we said here. This afternoon, on 23 June, the Scottish Parliament debates the Group’s recommendations.

Our first impressions are that the Group’s recommendation to shift toward a wellbeing economy is welcome and we welcome the recognition of the important role nature-based solutions to climate change can play in a recovery. However, the report has not set out an ambitious vision for what a post-pandemic Scotland could be and how we can make changes to radically improve people’s lives while tackling the climate change and reversing biodiversity loss.  The report acknowledges that a green recovery is central to Scotland’s economic recovery. The vision of the green recovery could be much wider: we need to go beyond green energy generation and circular economy. The examples in the report peer though the traditional lens of exploiting natural resources: whether through green energy, carbon storage.

COVID-19 has highlighted what is really important and what matters to many of us. We must ensure that this realisation underpins what we do next. It’s taken a global pandemic to remind us that nature calms us down and reassure us. That community is a great source of strength, comfort and ability to get things done. That connections to friends and family maintain us and keep us going. That arts and culture feeds our soul in many and diverse ways. That those who work in the emergency and front-line services provide an actual lifeline and that we really appreciate what they do for us all.

This is what matters. We’ve also realised what doesn’t matter: unnecessary travel and commuting;  fast-fashion and take away coffee. Going forward then, what we need, and what we hope for, is a  way to ensure we can all access everything we need and find ways of building and protecting access to that for us and future generations, while halting behaviours that work against that or that we no longer need.

This is why the next steps for Scotland as we recover from the pandemic require vision and ambition. Steps that put us on a path to where we need to be in the decades ahead. This report describes its approach of handing onto future generations a world as good as the one we inherited. We need to go further than that and build on Scotland’s strengths to ensure we hand on a better world.

And that is why my first reading of the recommendations from the Advisory Group have left me feeling rather let down. It’s hard to find the vision of a better world in here. This report rests on the old school approach to ‘what can we get’. This is encapsulated by its approach to nature, or natural capital: it looks at how we can continue to exploit nature but says very little about restoring it. The examples it gives of forestry, offshore energy, carbon capture, agriculture seem to be focus on getting more for less: with recommendations for actions limited to measuring Scotland’s natural ‘balance sheet.’ With only 10 years to go to reverse trends in climate changes and biodiversity loss, now is the time to act, not prop up old ways of working and a focus only on measuring what we are losing.

Where is the wider vision, identifying what we need to build on to make the world, and the country a better place, socially, environmentally and economically? If society’s response to the pandemic has been to recognise the value of nature, communities and essential workers, these recommendations should recognise that we all deserve to be able to access a green space, that rural communities depend on sustainable tourism and a healthy environment is not just about production.

For example, the Scottish National Investment Bank must be a force for good that invests in socially just, green initiatives. Bringing forward its ability to issue bonds will be a valuable tool to, as the Advisory Group note, ‘effectively address Scotland’s grand challenges’. The Bank needs to drive innovative investment at scale which delivers a positive impact for communities and the environment.

Government ownership stakes in business, strategic business support and foreign investment are obviously going to be important – but they must be steered towards initiatives that protect and restore what’s important – the environment, society and culture. If we are to learn the lessons from the 1980s, tax incentives must be socially and environmentally responsible. Lessons from 2008 show that bail outs must come with conditions of wider benefits to society, not just stakeholders. Planning and investment in natural capital must be targeted towards a vision at scale – both geographically and across time – in an ecologically coherent context. Marine renewables may be part of a wider solution but must be within the context of managing energy demand and contributing to climate and biodiversity targets. It is too easy for renewable infrastructure to do more harm than good.

Nature-based solutions to climate change in Scotland are going to be central to our recovery: peatland restoration and forestry, along with agriculture that works with nature are absolutely key. Scotland already has mechanisms in place to deliver some of these solutions, through forestry schemes and the Peatland ACTION Fund, but the fact is this is not enough. There is a vast untapped potential for ecosystem restoration that deliver multiple gains including restoring local landscapes, bringing new business opportunities, and building skills and new jobs in rural communities. Other countries are leading on this – New Zealand, a country with similar population size as Scotland, is investing NZ$1.1bn to create 11,000 jobs in large-scale nature restoration projects.[1]

This vision is missing from the economic recovery conversation – so far. Investment in large scale restoration projects that bring skilled work and employment opportunities, a restored environment and healthier lifestyles.

I recognise the Advisory Group’s  report is a first step – and that often the first step is the hardest. But these recommendations need to go much further if we are to become the innovative, sustainable and forward-looking country we could be. This is not, yet, the pivot from the old way of thinking into a new way of investing in what really matters. Scotland needs to think big and act accordingly. At the same scale as our mountains, wide open landscapes and stretching coastlines. The horizon is a long way away.





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