The 2020 - 2021 Scottish Budget was announced yesterday (6th February 2020). RSPB Scotland's Parliamentary Officer Nora Casey shares our response.

A Scottish Budget for a Nature and Climate Emergency?

Yesterday was budget day, always a big day for the Scottish Government but particularly so this year as it’s the last full financial year of this Parliament before elections in May 2021. Even more significantly, it was also the first budget since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency and announced a ‘Green New Deal’ for Scotland. The Scottish Government’s proposed budget, which was delivered by Public Finance Minister Kate Forbes MSP, identified the Climate Emergency as a key objective. Although expected, this nonetheless represents a welcome shift in Government priorities and hopefully one that will continue as Scotland continues the transformative change required to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to ‘Net Zero’ and to restore nature.

So the budget top line was positive, but what about the details? We’ll be assessing the implications of the Budget over the coming days, but these are some of our initial thoughts.

We welcome recognition in the Budget that improvements in our environment are necessary for prosperity. Similarly, it’s encouraging that the priority for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform portfolio is to respond to the climate and nature emergency, and that this is recognised as needing cross-portfolio effort. However, in order to be truly transformative, we feel that the Government needs to focus on restoring rather than just ‘protecting and enhancing’ nature. It’s clear that we need to protect and enhance the best of what we have left but we also need to restore much of what has been lost - and this needs financial backing.

The Government has announced welcome additional funding for peatland restoration, recognising its importance as a nature-based solution to climate change, and has committed to a long-term investment in peatlands over the next ten years. We welcome the language around this long-term commitment, which we hope will translate into the multi-year funding required to deliver the large scale projects needed for ecosystem restoration. This type of funding is difficult to access and at risk of being lost almost completely through the loss of EU funding.

forsinard flows reserve
RSPB Forsinard Flows. Credit: Eleanor Bentall (rspb-images.com)

While we welcome the Government’s ambition around peatland restoration, this needs to be matched in other carbon-rich habitats. While additional funding has been announced for forestry, this is likely to focus on commercial plantation of non-native Sitka spruce. We would like to see ambitious targets set for native woodland as a significant percentage of afforestation. We also welcome the additional funding for the Biodiversity Challenge Fund as a promising step toward the transformative change in funding and prioritising nature which is required to halt the ongoing loss of wildlife in Scotland, as identified in the State of Nature 2019 Report.

Support for nature- and climate-friendly farming is urgently needed, especially given that the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme has closed to new entrants. We cautiously welcome the initial funding announced for the Agriculture Transformation Fund. This needs to be directed toward nature-based solutions to climate change, and an application and monitoring process that will work for farmers and land managers and deliver change on the ground.

It’s encouraging that the Budget mentions building on the recommendations of the Infrastructure Commission, which has recommended that infrastructure should include Scotland’s natural assets. We therefore await with interest the Infrastructure Investment Plan, to be published in summer 2020 and which should deliver on this recommendation.

While there are small increases in the budgets for Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, these do not yet reverse significant declines in funding for the public bodies responsible for environmental protection and nature restoration, and we would encourage the government to be more ambitious.

We remain concerned about the risks that Brexit poses for nature in Scotland. We therefore welcome mention of new environmental principles and governance arrangements and the forthcoming environment strategy in the Budget. These are priorities that will allow the Scottish Government to maintain the strong EU environmental standards we currently rely on and build on these to create transformative change for nature, climate and people.

It was also encouraging to hear from the First Minister yesterday during First Minister’s Questions that an announcement on plans for addressing environmental governance in Scotland will be made ‘very soon’. These plans must include an independent and well-resourced environmental watchdog to ensure that Scotland’s amazing wildlife continues to be protected effectively into the future.

In summary, from our initial analysis, this Budget is welcomed. The use of innovative funding and increases in spending intended to reduce our emissions shows genuine leadership. More money for peatlands and other nature, in the form of the Biodiversity Challenge Fund, is a step in the right direction and will make a difference in saving species that face extinction. However, as the First Minister rightly stated recently in Parliament, the nature crisis is as serious as the climate emergency – in fact, they are inextricably linked. That’s why we need more investment in restoring all our ecosystems, not just because we need to have space for nature in Scotland, but also because it’s one of our best means of tackling climate change.

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