Why do we need a watchdog?

14 Nov 2019

WWF campaigners presenting messages from members of the public to Mairi Gougeon, Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment. ©Maverick/WWF Scotland

This blog is by Lottie van Grieken, campaigns and policy intern at WWF Scotland.

The need for the creation of an environmental watchdog in the face of lost EU environmental protections in a post-Brexit scenario

A report by Professor Campbell Gemmell on environmental governance, commissioned by Scottish Environment LINK, highlighted the need to embed and safeguard environmental policies in Scotland, particularly in the face of a possible no deal Brexit.

Scotland’s nature is in crisis, with the 2019 State of Nature report showing that 11 per cent of species are at risk of extinction. We are also facing a global climate crisis, which is causing many species to be driven northwards in Scotland, has increased the frequency of fires in uplands and woodlands (which are crucial to carbon storage), and is putting pressure on our coastlines with rising sea levels. In order to protect and restore our natural environment, we need a step change in ambition.

European Union (EU) protections have played a significant role in protecting our natural environment and stemming the tide of environmental decline in Scotland.

There is a risk that many of these protections will be lost if the UK leaves the EU. Regardless of the Brexit scenario, the joint nature and climate crises mean that the Scottish Government needs to strengthen environmental laws, to enforce environmental protection and reverse the declines of habitats and species. For these reasons, urgent action is needed to safeguard and embed policies into Scots law.

‘I’m standing up for bees’ – messages gathered by WWF at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. ©WWF Scotland

In particular, the following four EU environmental principles are fundamental and at risk post-Brexit:

  • Precautionary principle – intervention where there are grounds for concern of risk or harm
  • Polluter pays principle – those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or environment
  • The rectification at source principle – damage should be rectified at the source wherever possible e.g. tackle the roots not only the consequences
  • Preventative action principle – take measures to address today’s issues rather than future consequences

In a Scottish Government consultation, 70 per cent of respondents agreed that the Scottish Government has a duty to integrate regard these EU principles in the formation of new environmental policy.

Professor Gemmell’s report also highlights two major actions which are needed for environmental protection in Scotland:

1) The creation of a specialised environmental court;
2) The need for a regulator which can adjudicate and regulate environmental policy.

The court and watchdog would operate in the space in which the European Commission and Court of Justice currently operates across the EU, holding governments, businesses and individuals to account for breaches in environmental law.

The commissioner and the court would also have the power and resources to make independent checks and investigations and provide scrutiny to check that environmental regulation is implemented, as well as sanction legal breeches.

It is crucial that both are independent from the government, thus able to scrutinise and hold the government, organisations and individuals to account fairly and autonomously.

Within the aforementioned Scottish Government consultation, over half (62 per cent) of respondents thought a new function was required to replace the European Commission in receiving complaints and concerns from individuals and organisations about environmental law compliance. This highlights there is public awareness of the need for this watchdog.

Environmental protections are not only essential to safeguard social and economic factors but are also crucial to our human rights. The creation of a dedicated parliamentary commission has the potential to consider environmental issues as under international human rights law, and to regulate policy in relation to human rights and the environment.

Climate change is of growing concern across the UK, with 85 per cent of respondents to a poll conducted this summer saying they are concerned, or very concerned (52 per cent) about climate change. Alongside this increased awareness and apprehension, people are aware that urgent action is required by the Scottish Government to tackle climate change, particularly in the event of a no deal Brexit.

We are pleased to see the Scottish Government’s recent announcement of an environmental advisory panel in the event of a no deal Brexit, and await further detail on the panel’s remit. In addition, regardless of the Brexit situation, environmental legislation needs to be strengthened and embedded in Scotland. We look forward to details of the Scottish Government’s long-term plans for environmental governance.

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