The Long Game

08 Jul 2020

Dr Deborah Long, LINK’s Chief Officer, talked to Solape Alatise at the Partnership Bulletin about COP26, the role of the private sector in addressing climate change and the importance of green space.

How would you describe the work of Scottish Environment LINK?
Scottish Environment LINK is a network organisation and our members are the environmental NGOs that work in Scotland. We have 39 member organisations ranging from big and well know organisations like WWF, RSPB and National Trust for Scotland and down to tiny ones like the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society and Frog Life. We are very conscious of the fact that the environment doesn’t have a voice itself, particularly in policy circles and government. The network co-ordinates and amplifies the voice of our members, so we’ve got a voice for the environment operating at a policy level.

On a day-to-day basis what does the work look like?
Our members work in themed groups that are decided by our members according to their interests and priorities for the next 12 months, three years and five years. At the moment we have 15 policy areas we work on, which range from a circular economy group (the bill that’s coming through Parliament) to wildlife groups who are looking at nature-based solutions to climate change – nature networks. We also have a planning group and are launching a legal strategy group which is a completely new initiative for us. The group is trying to set up an environmental rights centre so that communities have access to courts in order for them to have the ability to challenge developers if and when needed. Each policy area that we work on has been defined by the members and is run by the members, with some staff support to help run it and co-ordinate it.

How integral is infrastructure to what you are trying to do?
Of those 15 policy areas, I would say that we have three groups that are working in areas directly linked to infrastructure. One of them is the planning group who are pulling together the response from the current consultations, the current calls for ideas. We then have a group that is looking at land use and land reform, and they are working on issues the Scottish Land Commission is throwing up at the moment, in terms of how we organise land use across Scotland, what that looks like on a regional basis, how regional land partnerships work and how regional land use plans work. The final group is the wildlife group who are specifically working on nature networks. We are saying in the wildlife group that we need a top down and bottom up approach to the natural, green and blue, infrastructures and we need to bring them together.

How important is bringing the public and private sector together in addressing the climate change crisis?
It’s the only way we are going to be able to do it. They are such big issues, both the climate emergency and the nature crises. They’re huge issues that no one sector, not even government on their own, can make the scale and level of progress that we need to see. The only way we can do that is by bringing the public, private and social sectors together. Otherwise we are not going to be able to make the level of changes we need to see.

What should the government’s priorities be – investing in infrastructure that directly combats climate change, such as flood defences, or ensuring that existing and new infrastructure projects have sustainability at their core?
It’s both. The one area of work that we put a huge amount of effort into quite a few years ago now, but has never really delivered what we hoped it would, was the Land Use Strategy. Because we could see this fragmentation. Unless you bring it all together to a sufficient national level, the danger is that you will develop really good regional strategies that are then disconnected from the rest of the country. So they don’t actually operate as effectively at all. Where regional plans need to be particularly effective is in making sure existing infrastructure is fit for purpose and is resilient to change. It’s absolutely crucial that what we have is fit for purpose.

Who should be the main champions in pushing forward the climate change agenda in infrastructure?
Different organisations and different groups of people have got different roles. What you are seeing at the moment, particularly in the climate change arena, is that you’ve got the public who are ahead of the government in many ways, saying: “We want to see dramatic change so that greenhouse gas emissions are going down”. What follows is the government running to catch up. There is a role for government to ensure the national level policies are in place and are contributing across the whole piece to meet the demands of society as well as fit with private business needs so that we’re not just over emphasising economic development above the wellbeing agenda. It has to be everyone, but everyone has specific roles which need to mesh together and I don’t think that has happened yet.

Do you think there is enough of a government budget to address the climate crisis through existing buildings?
It’s a bit like decommissioning either nuclear or oil and gas instillations. You can see that logically there needs to be a point where they need to be decommissioned but it’s just that these things weren’t really considered at the time the installations were set up. The responsibility is collective but at the end of the day it’s going to have to come down to government. We need to learn the lessons of the past so that we’re not sat here in 50 to 100 years times, having exactly the same conversation. One of the big demands is leadership – the best place for that to start is Scottish government so that everyone can see what their role is and how they can contribute to the solution going forward. Without leadership we end up with a very fragmented approach that means we’re losing opportunities and building up challenges, which if we’d had a bit of foresight could have perhaps been avoided.

Is that a big part of your work, communicating with the government and trying to inform potential leaders?
Yes it’s partly communication but it’s also giving them the confidence to act. Because when you think about it, a five year political term, at the absolute maximum, is not long enough if you’re looking at environmental issues. They have to be really confident that what you’re asking for or saying must be done, is something that society is behind. It gives politicians the confidence they need to put through what will inevitably be in some sectors pretty unpopular policies.

How important is COP26 and how much difference will it make to Scotland’s climate agenda as the host country?
It’s absolutely crucial on a global scale as well as a national scale. Scotland is going to be in the limelight for both COPs. We’ve not just got COP26, we also have COP15 and Scotland’s got a leading role in that as well. The whole world will be looking at Scotland which means that Scotland is going to have to walk the walk in terms of delivering on Net Zero targets, delivering on biodiversity targets and showing the way forward for better and achievable biodiversity targets. Having the view of the world is helpful because it means it provides the oxygen of publicity to Scotland, to really up the game in terms of climate and biodiversity and to promote the good things that are coming out of Scotland.

Finally a question we will be asking in all our ’30 minute interviews’ – if you could pass a law tomorrow, what would it be?
One of the things that would be most beneficial for Scotland in terms of its environment and the health, both physical and mental, of its people, is to make sure that every person in Scotland has a healthy green environment that they can access easily, maybe within a mile. Because once people start to interact with nature it makes them feel better and makes them value it a bit more and that’s what it is all about really.

This interview was first published in the Partnership Bulletin in April 2020

Image: Lorne Gill, SNH

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