Opinion: Scotland’s biodiversity decline requires urgent and local action

Monday 23 October 2023

Nicolas Maulet
Scotland’s association with vibrant wildlife, marine, and scenic environments tends to suggest that the nation would be naturally well placed when looking at biodiversity and environmental protection.

However, science’s reality checks reveal that Scotland’s biodiversity is also declining at alarming rates.

The nation’s biodiversity decline commands pressing and increasingly urgent concern for more environmental action through Scotland’s devolved powers on environment and rural affairs. Additionally, international biodiversity commitments also require the nation’s governance to be strengthened in order to effectively preserve and regenerate Scotland’s Nature Capital which, since 1950, has been on a slow decline to over 15%.

Addressing the biodiversity decline calls for a whole-of-society approach which engages all streams of society and government in the fight against our overall natural decline.

Ignorance, and sentiments of fear, lead humans to look away from priorities, assuming that time and action of others will help mend what should become yesterday’s problems. Where citizens in Scotland, and government, will have no excuse for is not acting on biodiversity. The scientific evidence clearly shows us all, governmental rule-changers included, just how fast Scotland’s natural resources and species are depleting.

A recent RSPB report exposed Scotland as one of the world’s most nature-depleted nations. The report also shows worrying trends in suffering wildlife with a 49% decline in Scottish seabirds across 11 species; a decline in the distribution of flowering plants; and 11% of overall species threatened with national extinction.

Curbing this decline certainly requires central government’s leadership and actions. But they also call for local populations’ mobilisation and local authorities acting as driving forces to effectively deliver on policy objectives. Agents and local communities are best placed to understand where biodiversity preservation and regeneration is most needed. Effectively reporting on biodiversity progress also requires reliable reporting frameworks, in line with international law and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted in December 2022 at the UN’s Biodiversity Conference, COP15.

Accordingly, Scotland has announced plans to bolster its biodiversity governance and laying out reforms in its 'Scotland Biodiversity Strategy 2045' most recently updated in September. The approach includes relying on delivery plans that should, by law, lead to stakeholders’ actions against biodiversity decline, and progress monitoring entrusted to an independent review body. The new governance’s appointment, power, and capacity are yet to be known but these arrangements should be detailed in the upcoming Natural Environment Bill.

The announced biodiversity governance reflects interactive government approaches mainstreamed in Scandinavian countries’ Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services strategies. These new arrangements should provide the necessary improvements for greater biodiversity programmes and their monitoring by action-specific working groups through five-year delivery plans.

This structure will inevitably call for government reform and new funding, locally particularly despite stretched finances and resources, and will hinge on their capacity to contribute to the national effort for greater biodiversity outcomes and effective delivery plans. This ambition is not just about nature protection but nature restoration as early as 2030 by statutorily halting and reversing Scotland’s natural decline.

This milestone, aimed at turning Scotland into a Nature Positive nation, requires much more than shifting existing budgets from unconditional to conditional, or identifying funding gaps. It calls for an urgent Green Finance roll-out that should help farmers embrace the transition needed and understand how they can securely deliver more environmental benefits. This ambition includes harnessing financial services that understand how to promote investments that come with biodiversity benefits for land and nature.

Understanding the need for government adaptation and Scotland’s current approach to Natural Capital forms part of RGU’s conference on ‘Governing Natural Capital and Biodiversity for Scotland’ coming to our Garthdee campus on Friday 3 November. This event will feature leading figures in the sector who will join forces to discuss where the problems lie and what we can, and should be doing about it. With more noises coming from central government that progress will certainly require more local government delivery, speakers will consider the coming reforms and see how Scotland’s independent environmental agencies, government, and science and education sectors will need to join forces to work more closely together.

The emergency raised by Scotland’s biodiversity requires greater action and accountability across society, with government becoming better at managing inter-institutional networks for policy action. This priority calls for new strength in leadership capable of transversal strategy delivery through a whole-of-government, and whole-of-society approach to meet Scotland’s priority biodiversity actions set for 2030 and 2045.

By Nicolas Maulet, Lecturer in Energy Law and Policy Law at  The Law School, Robert Gordon University. ‘Governing Natural Capital and Biodiversity for Scotland Conference 2023’ is on Friday 3 November at RGU, from 08:45 – 17:45.

This thought leadership was originally placed in the Press & Journal.

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