The Scottish Government says it is refusing to "turn back the clock" on environmental laws and will abide by European Union (EU) rules protecting wildlife and preventing pollution despite last month's Brexit vote, the Environment Minister has promised.
Roseanna Cunningham, the government's Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, is pledging not to weaken a raft of Brussels legal measures regarded as crucial for conserving plants and animals and keeping air, water and land clean and healthy.
Her promise comes on the eve of a summit with environmental groups near Perth this week. It is Holyrood’s first clear commitment on green legislation since the UK voted last month to exit from the European Union, and has calmed campaigners’ worst fears.
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Conservationists had voiced concerns that Brexit could lead to the weakening of vital laws governing nature areas and the management of fisheries. In the past the Scottish Government has come under fire for breaching European directives on wildlife, air pollution and dirty beaches.
But now Cunningham is seeking to reassure environmentalists. “It’s not always easy for the Scottish Government to comply with EU environmental regulation,” her spokesman told the Sunday Herald. “But we work hard to ensure we do and Scotland is a cleaner, greener, and healthier place as a result. Anyone who thinks we’re going to turn back the clock because Scotland is facing the threat of being ripped out of the EU against voters’ wishes is very much mistaken.”
In a letter to environmental groups, Cunningham has promised that Scotland will keep playing its full part in contributing to EU-wide environmental policies. “The EU referendum result has created considerable uncertainty – but what remains certain is the position of the Scottish Government,” she said.
“We will be doing our absolute utmost to protect our position as climate change leaders, to continue to play the role that we have been playing in contributing to EU-wide environmental policies, and to make sure that we maintain, protect and advance our own environment.”
The minister pointed to a current consultation on the scientific case for 10 new protection areas for birds at sea required by an EU directive. “I am very clear that Scotland, as a responsible EU citizen, has a continuing moral and legal obligation to protect our country’s magnificent natural environment.”
Cunningham’s promise was welcomed by environmental groups. “It is critical that the environment and biodiversity of Scotland is treated as a priority at this time of uncertainty,” said Lloyd Austin, head of conservation policy with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.
He called on ministers to prepare contingency plans regarding Scotland ending up outside the EU. “This could jeopardise much of what has been achieved for Scotland’s environment,” said Austin.
“In our view, these achievements need to be protected whatever the outcome of the coming negotiations. Thus, it is vital that the Scottish Government has a Plan B.”
According to Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, there were “decades’ worth of environmental progress to protect against the forces of darkness in the UK Government.” He praised Cunningham’s clear commitment to keep making a strong contribution in Europe on climate change.
He added: “We will be looking for a strong reassurance that even if we left the EU we would continue to honour the standards of environmental protection that the EU provides, despite the regressive pressure which has already started to come from the farming and fishing lobbies.”
Susan Davies, director of conservation, at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, pointed out that nature didn’t stop at national borders. “Scotland needs strong environmental policies that are backed by adequate resources to tackle international challenges including biodiversity loss and climate change,” she said.
“It’s up to the Scottish Government whether the standards of environmental protection and management operating across Europe are retained, or if decades of investment in our environment are put at risk. Regardless of our future position in Europe, we should continue to implement the nature directives that help to protect Scotland’s wildlife and wild places.”