For the past few years environmental charities have been working hard to ensure that protections for nature are strengthened, not rolled back, as the UK exited the EU. In this blog, Isobel Mercer gives us a stocktake of progress in Scotland and a look ahead to how we can build from nature’s protection to nature’s recovery in 2021.

From nature protection to nature’s recovery: nature laws in Scotland outside of the EU

Until now, around 80% of environmental laws in Scotland came from the EU, covering things like improving the condition of rivers and lochs, and protecting important species and nature sites. As the UK prepared to exit the EU, RSPB Scotland called for safeguards to our existing nature laws in Scotland, to build a solid foundation for responding to the nature and climate emergency. This is vital, given that the world missed a critical moment for nature in 2020, failing to meet internationally-agreed biodiversity targets, and Scotland met less than half.

Now more than ever, we realise that nature is important to our health, wellbeing and livelihoods. As we begin our first year outside the EU, we have an important responsibility to protect, restore, manage and advocate for nature. Below is a summary of where we are now:  

An important Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament in December and became law in January. The Continuity Act rolls over some key EU environmental protections into Scots law, creates a new environmental watchdog and a way for Scotland to stay aligned with future EU environment laws.

RSPB Scotland and many of our supporters joined 37 other environmental charities in the Fight for Scotland’s Nature, a campaign led by Scottish Environment LINK that called on MSPs to strengthen the draft bill. So how successful were we in securing nature protections?

red squirrel

  1. EU Environmental Principles

The Continuity Act includes five key EU environmental principles: the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle, rectification at source, integration and prevention principles. These are now in Scots law and policymakers must have due regard to the principles when developing new policy.

This is hugely positive and provides a framework for strong decisions to be taken to safeguard the environment. Previous examples of the principles being applied to prevent environmental harm include informing decisions not to allow fracking and genetically modified crops in Scotland. This new law ensures the principles will continue to be at the forefront of policymaking.

  1. A robust independent environment watchdog?

Good governance ensures that nature protections are properly applied and achieve positive change on the ground. EU institutions have played a huge role in this in Scotland, providing oversight of environmental decisions, and a clear route for civil society to raise concerns.

The Continuity Act creates a new body ‘Environmental Standards Scotland’ (ESS) to oversee the implementation of environmental law by the Scottish Government and other public bodies. This is a good start and we hope ESS will be a leader in effective environmental governance in the UK.

Unfortunately, MSPs chose not to support our calls for the new watchdog to take action on public complaints about individual decisions that could cause environmental damage. This is disappointing, as this ask was at the heart of the Fight for Scotland’s Nature campaign. The inability to address individual decisions that are not in step with environmental law must be addressed in the future.

  1. Environmental standards

The Bill was an opportunity to deliver on the Scottish Government’s commitments to ‘maintain or exceed’ environmental protections and drive a race to the top on environmental standards across the UK.

Whilst the Continuity Act does not include a ‘non-regression’ commitment, it does include ‘keeping pace powers’ that enable the Scottish Government to stay aligned with EU laws in the future. It is positive that the powers have an overall purpose, to advance environmental standards and social rights where possible.

wildflower machair

Looking ahead, 2021 is going to be a critical year for nature with upcoming Scottish Parliament elections in May and important international conferences on the environment later in the year.

We currently face a crisis on many fronts: public health, the economy, climate and nature. However, we also know that nature’s recovery is an effective way to address these multiple challenges. We must build on the nature protections secured in this new law to achieve nature’s recovery.  The year ahead is a chance for us to act for nature, establish a new relationship between people and the environment, and build a more resilient future for us all.