Why we need a new watchdog to guard Scotland’s natural environment

08 Mar 2019

Photo credit: Gannet, Ben Andrew

This blog is by RSPB Scotland, and was first published on the RSPB site.

Brexit has kicked off a debate across the UK about Environmental Governance, but what do we actually mean by this and how could it affect our iconic wildlife here in Scotland?

Environmental Governance is essentially about environmental protections being turned into action. So, it covers how effective laws and standards are in actually delivering positive outcomes for nature; who has a role in ensuring laws are correctly implemented and enforced; and who has a voice in both environmental decision-making and scrutiny.

Environmental protections are only as strong as the institutions that uphold them.

A country can have the best possible legal protections for nature, but if there are no effective ways of monitoring and applying those laws, or taking action if they are not complied with, then they will be hollow and meaningless. The oversight of EU institutions has been instrumental in safeguarding nature here in Scotland, performing different roles to ensure that environmental laws and standards are really put into practice.

If Scotland exits the EU then we will lose the scrutiny of these institutions, and our ability to hold the Scottish Government and its agencies to account on commitments they have made to protect nature will be significantly compromised. This is what has been called ‘the governance gap’ and it risks leaving our much-loved and important species and habitats without any meaningful protection.

This gap has been identified and explored by a sub-group of the Scottish Government’s Round Table on Environment and Climate Change, who provided a report to the Cabinet Secretary last year.

Exiting the EU will open a governance gap across all of the UK countries, not just in Scotland. Nature crosses borders, and the governments in the UK need to establish how they will work together and ensure that governments can be held to account on transboundary issues like migratory birds, cross-border protected areas, rivers, seas and the spread of invasive non-native species, or on any common environmental standards that are shared across the UK.

Giving nature a voice

One of the most pressing problems if the UK exits the EU will be the loss of a freely accessible complaints mechanism. At the moment, anyone – from an individual, civil society organisation, business or government – can lodge a complaint at the European Commission if they believe an environmental law has been breached. We have no equivalent complaints process anywhere in the UK. The loss of this avenue will be most heavily felt by ordinary citizens and civil society organisations, who face significant barriers to taking action in other ways.

Just how important this process is for safeguarding nature was demonstrated just last year when the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the UK Government had failed to fulfil its obligations to protect the foraging and breeding areas of the harbour porpoise, the UK’s smallest cetacean. This process was kicked off when a formal complaint was made to the EC in 2012 that no protected areas had been designated for the species in UK waters. As a result of intervention by the EU, the UK government and Scottish Government have collectively proposed 6 new protected areas for harbour porpoise, that hopefully will be formally classified soon.

The Scottish Government is now consulting on what it should do about governance issues, if Scotland does leave the EU. As part of the response to this debate, a coalition of 35 environmental charities has set up Fight For Scotland’s Nature, which is calling for an independent and well-resourced watchdog to enforce environmental protections. We are calling for this watchdog to be created through a new Scottish Environment Act, to make it as strong and as durable as possible.

Take our e-action to make your voice heard and tell the Scottish Government what they need to do to protect nature, now and in the future.

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