Environmental governance in Scotland post-Brexit

4 January 2024

Environmental governance in Scotland post-Brexit

Reported by Carmen Smith, Engagement Coordinator, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

The Cambridge Zero Policy Forum met Dr Mark Roberts, Chief Executive of Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), to discuss environmental governance in Scotland post-Brexit, as well as ESS’ current and future work on climate change and some of the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Environmental Standards Scotland

ESS is a new organisation with a broad remit. Originally set up in January 2021, and taking on its full powers in October 2021, it replaces some of the functions that were carried out by the European Commission before Brexit. ESS assesses Scottish public bodies’ compliance with environmental law and has powers to ensure compliance. It also assesses the effectiveness of implementation of environmental legislation in Scotland and aims to influence future legislation. Its remit spans climate change, biodiversity loss, waste management, water quality and air quality. Importantly, ESS works independently of government and reports directly to the Scottish Parliament. Similar arrangements in England and Northern Ireland are carried out by the Office for Environmental Protection and there are interim, non-statutory arrangements in Wales.

The Scottish context

Scotland differs from other parts of the UK in that the Scottish Government seeks to maintain alignment with EU legislation. The current SNP/Green alliance means that the environment has maintained a high profile. The devolution settlement with regard to the environment is complex. In the main, protection of the environment is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, there are aspects of environmental policy and legislation that are not. For example, in energy and climate change policy, while Scotland has huge potential renewable resources in terms of wind and the marine, the Scotland Act 1998 means that the Scottish Government can promote renewable energy but all other powers relating to energy remain reserved to the UK. Since Brexit, this complexity has increased with the advent of the Internal Market Act 2020 which seeks to establish a level economic playing field across the UK. The effect of this legislation was illustrated by the postponement, and accompanying controversy, of the Scottish Government’s glass bottle return scheme following the UK Government’s refusal to grant an exemption for Scotland to act differently from the rest of the UK.

Climate change

Scotland has an ambitious set of targets in place to meet net zero by 2045, including annual emission reduction targets. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 puts duties on all Scottish public bodies to produce plans and report on climate targets. Local authorities (LAs) have an important leadership role in promoting, and taking, action on climate change. To date, no Scottish LAs are in the financial position that Birmingham City Council faces, but addressing climate change has to happen within the context of very stretched public finances. ESS has been in discussion with LAs about the pressure they are under to deliver their core statutory services (education, social work and housing) and how challenging it will be to invest for the long-term to achieve net zero and adapt to future climate change (as illustrated by the recent flooding in the east of Scotland caused by Storm Babet).

Scotland faces challenges in other areas of devolved policy relevant to climate change. For example, Scottish housing stock is poorer than in other parts of the UK, with a relatively large proportion of tenement housing and other flats (together making up 40% of all housing in Scotland). There have been a number of pilot projects to retrofit existing 19th century housing to improve its energy efficiency but this presents a real practical and financial challenge.

In its latest report on climate change in Scotland, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) report was strongly critical of the Scottish Government for having a disconnect between its ambitions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reality of its plans for delivery. ESS has memorandum of understanding with the CCC and there is an intention to do joint work in coming years. The CCC’s remit gives it a more top-down approach, focusing, in particular on national emissions budgets. ESS has an important complementary role to play in evaluating how public bodies plan, deliver and report on climate change targets.

Land use and biodiversity in Scotland

There is increasingly a clear connection being made between the need to address climate change and the need to reverse the loss of nature. Land use represents a significant difference between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Over a fifth of Scotland’s land is covered by peatland which stores a significant proportion of the UK’s carbon stores. Due to environmental pressures, 75% of this land is now degraded and losing water. Despite there being a lot of focus on the need to restore peatland, Scotland is falling behind its targets for peatland restoration. Developing the necessary infrastructure and workforce in peatland areas is critical to accelerating restoration but demographic pressures (a reducing working age population and reductions in in-migration post-Brexit) make this difficult.

Overgrazing by sheep and deer is a major issue for biodiversity in Scotland and there is a growing interest in rewilding programmes such as in the Glenfeshie Estate. There is increasing interest from private investors in programmes aimed at restoring nature and expanding biodiversity. This will be an important source of finance if future targets for reversing the loss of nature and increasing biodiversity are to be achieved. However, ensuring that these programmes take into account the views and interests of local communities will be critical if they are to be properly sustainable. In the agricultural sector, the Scottish Government plans legislation which will continue to make direct payments to farmers for food production (as with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) but with a longer-term shift to greater requirements to protect the environment. In 2024, Scottish legislation will set statutory targets for biodiversity and nature loss to align with the Global Biodiversity Framework. These targets will be analogous to those noted above for climate change. ESS welcomes this positive development and will seek to play and active role in the development and implementation of this legislation.

Looking forward

Two years into its existence, ESS is still a newcomer into the area of environmental governance. It has a clear remit to ensure that environmental law in Scotland is complied with and is implemented effectively. The context in which it operates is complex both in terms of the evolving nature of the devolution settlement post-Brexit and as the pressure to respond to climate change, maintain environmental standards and reverse nature loss becomes more and more acute.

Image by Anna Saveleva on Unsplash