Every day brings new illustrations of the climate and nature emergency we’re facing across the world: food insecurity, water shortages, pollution, unaffordable costs of living and overwhelmed healthcare. To treat the symptoms, we must treat the cause. The twin crises of a warming planet and widespread nature loss are deeply connected and mutually reinforcing.
Both crises have been driven by humanity’s exploitation of land and its resources. Our fossil fuel based economy, driving how we use our land, has contributed to unsustainably high greenhouse gas emissions and the depletion of nature. Changing how we use our land is now crucial – to reverse biodiversity loss, to store carbon, and to adapt for a warming planet.
Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to industrialise from the 1820s. Since then, we have released a huge amount of carbon dioxide, contributing far more than our fair share to the warming of the planet. Following World War II, Scotland also industrialised its agriculture, switching to more intensive production methods. It’s clear that from when reliable data began to be collected in the 1970s, Scotland’s nature has declined significantly, leaving us with one of the most ecologically degraded landscapes in the world.
As an early adopter of industrialisation, Scotland has a moral responsibility to act and to demonstrate global leadership. But we also have enormous potential to restore nature while mitigating against climate change.
This urgent need to act offers huge opportunities not just for the planet but for local communities too. Creating nature rich landscapes can protect towns and villages from flooding, support healthy soils able to produce food, and ensure we have clean air and water. It can also create long-term rural jobs. An ambitious approach to restoring nature would allow Scotland’s rural areas to support more jobs with wider skill sets, bringing opportunities across the generations and revitalising rural communities.
However, land use change does not happen in the abstract. Modern patterns of land ownership and land use have deep historical roots and are often sources of bitter controversy. While the benefits of environmental action are shared across humanity, policymakers must be conscious that the impacts of specific changes are felt much more locally.
The overarching principle determining Scotland’s approach to land use change should be to ensure a Just Transition. Action to restore nature must decrease existing inequalities and create good jobs, thriving ecosystems that can protect us from climate change, and diverse and resilient communities.
Land ownership in Scotland has been and remains one of the most skewed in the world: about 2% of Scotland’s population owns about 60% of its land. While some large landowners are doing great things for nature, for climate and for local communities, a more equal distribution of land ownership would allow for a fairer distribution of the benefits of restoring our natural environment.
Ultimately, nature restoration will need to be undertaken by everyone, including the public sector, charities, communities and private landowners. However we manage land in future and whoever owns it, there must be ways for local communities to participate meaningfully in land use decisions, so that they, as well as the rest of the planet, benefit from nature restoration appropriate to local circumstances and priorities.
Written by Dr Deborah Long is chief officer of Scottish Environment LINK, this piece was published as a Friends of the Scotsman piece on 30 August 2022