Yesterday the new Programme for Government was launched by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and we’ve been looking at it closely.

With the Government already committed to halting the loss of biodiversity by 2020, less than three years away, we had high hopes that the environment and wildlife would be near the top of the refreshed priority list.  So what are our initial impressions?  Well, although there are a few disappointing omissions, and the programme is strikingly light on new direct measures to tackle the biodiversity crisis, there are a lot of wider environmental measures to be positive about.  Here are some of our initial thoughts:

On land management:

Continued commitment to provide new resources to tackle wildlife crime, establish an independent group to consider management of grouse moors and to research the impact of large shooting estates on Scotland’s economy and biodiversity are all very welcome, as is the commitment to establish an independent group to advise on effective deer management.

We also welcome Government's focus on developing a strategic approach to environmental policy in Scotland to protect and enhance our environment.  We look forward to seeing specific plans and proposals to how this will be achieved in sectors such as agriculture and forestry. For example, how faster progress will be made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture or halting declines in biodiversity.

Brexit will have significant implications for farming and on the natural environment given farming's interaction with soil, air, water and biodiversity. The commitment to “develop policy and principles for future rural support based on the best available advice, research and expertise” is therefore welcome.  However, we urge Government to ensure this includes a strong environmental component if its desire to take a leading role in addressing environmental challenges is to be achieved. With this in mind, the membership of the National Council of Rural Advisers needs to be significantly broadened.

Food is vital to us all. The way we produce, process, consume and, too often ultimately, waste food has major impacts on our environment. A Good Food Nation Bill is the Government's opportunity to set us on a clear path to a healthy, sustainable and socially just food system as called for by the Scottish Food Coalition. While there is reference to plans to consult on a Bill, the lack of any firm commitment or timetable to bring a Bill forward is hugely disappointing and a missed opportunity.

Continued commitment to forestry is welcome.  Forests and woodlands are an important part of our rural landscape and home to a range of priority species. Existing woodlands need effective management and woodland expansion must be located to prevent the loss of important open ground habitat and to optimise the range of benefits that can come from tree planting e.g. flood alleviation. The Forestry and Land Management Bill will be an opportunity to promote sustainable forestry and we look forward to contributing to Stage 1 of the Bill.

On the marine environment:

Commitment to create a research programme on blue carbon is very welcome, and should help ensure the potential for healthy marine and coastal habitats such as seagrass to lock carbon away Combined with plans to improve the protection of Priority Marine Features this could be a win-win for climate and biodiversity goals.

Plans to evaluate options to create a deep sea national marine reserve are positive, and we look forward to hearing more about them, but Government must prioritise introducing management of fishing activity in existing MPAs and formally adopting those protected areas already proposed, and supported by scientific advice, for seabirds, whales, dolphins, and basking sharks.

A commitment to develop a dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy is great news, as these species face widespread and multiple threats.  We will follow this closely as it is a model that could perhaps also be applied to help improve prospects for Scotland’s seabirds.

The commitment of £500,000 to begin to address litter sinks around the coast and develop policy to address marine plastics is very welcome, particularly when combined with the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers.  This should greatly help efforts to stem the tide of plastic litter entering our seas. According to the latest OSPAR assessment of the North-East Atlantic over 95% of North Sea fulmars have plastic in their stomachs and over 90% of beach litter is plastic.

Disappointingly, long overdue legislative reform on inshore fisheries appears to have been kicked into the long grass. The Scottish inshore fisheries strategy published in October 2015 made clear that “21st century fisheries management needs 21st century tools” in part to meet nature conservation obligations, and promised a fresh legislative framework.  The 2016-17 Programme for Government included plans to develop an Inshore Fisheries Bill to modernise management but this has not progressed and there is not a single mention here. This is an opportunity missed to keep the momentum going on a widely supported strategy.

On climate:

Many of the measures mentioned above will also help provide very welcome cuts to emissions, and in so doing reduce the threat that of climate change to wildlife. Highlights include the following measures, many of which we have been calling for as part of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition’s Act for Our Future campaign.    

  • A deposit return scheme for plastic bottles (we’ve been supporters of the Have You Got The Bottle? campaign)
  • A Just Transition Commission – to get us to a low carbon society in a fair way
  • Phasing out the need for new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032
  • More electric vehicle infrastructure including designating the A9 as an electric highway
  • Doubling spending on active travel
  • Four new Low Emission Zones in our biggest cities by 2020
  • A research programme for Blue Carbon

There is more info on our support for the campaign here in this blog.

Disappointingly though, maximising economic recovery from oil and gas, improving exploration and bringing in fresh investment in the sector are all prioritised.  This, and the absence of measures required to tackle Scotland’s increasingly significant land use related climate change issues, looks increasingly at odds with the Government’s wider generally progressive decarbonisation agenda.

And finally, proposals to strengthen the role and alignment of the National Planning Framework with wider government strategies and programmes are positive and should help ensure wider long term policy development is more joined up and more sustainable, particularly if closely combined with the commitment to further imbed the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the National Performance Framework.  We look forward to working with the Scottish Government to help this happen and to ensure that the Aichi targets on biodiversity are also met.  As always though, the extent to which these positive environmental commitments are effectively implemented will be the measure of how successful this Government is at establishing its reputation as a ‘green’ government.