Scotland's natural environment has long been acknowledged as our greatest asset, however the delicate ecosystems that sustain it are under threat. Andrew Collier reports on the efforts being made to preserve it... for all our sakes


LATER this month, the world will start to live on credit. Despite the economic ravages of Covid19, it will not be a financial debt that we will start racking up. It will be far worse than that.

August 22 has officially been declared Earth Overshoot Day. It is the moment in the annual calendar when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services starts to exceed what nature can regenerate.

At that moment, environmentally, we begin to borrow beyond our means. In fact, it’s actually worse than that. It means that for the final 130 days of 2020, we are effectively stealing from the ecosystem.

As we all share one planet, this is obviously a major problem for the whole of humanity. Scotland, however, is making a greater contribution than many other countries in working to offset this ecological deficit.

We have long recognised that our natural environment is our greatest national asset. It not only sustains our health and wellbeing, but also boosts our economy in general and rural areas in particular.

Food, whisky, renewable energy and tourism are all sectors which all bring in revenue as well as leveraging off our reputation as one of the greenest countries on the planet.

Despite our reputation as a global leader in tackling climate change – we have the most ambitious set of statutory targets in the world - Scotland faces many of the same challenges as other countries. Growing carbon emissions threaten ecosystems everywhere, driving loss of biodiversity and threatening all our futures.

The need for urgent action has never been clearer, but there is at least a strong determination in this country to address the issues. One important biodiversity initiative is a new £1 billion routemap for nature conservation published by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).

Its proposals include a Marine Fund – also backed by RSPB Scotland among others – to restore habitats, develop innovative management approaches and help with the recovery of species such as puffins.

Other investment opportunities highlighted include introducing nature-based carbon payments; taking a Net Positive for Nature approach; a Nature-Climate Bond; and nature-based carbon payments.

Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of SEPA, comments: “The challenge provides an opportunity to bring together real world projects that spark regeneration of communities, build green businesses and create new jobs.”

Scotland’s farmers have a crucial role in protecting our futures. If agricultural land is not used optimally, the results can be extremely damaging and have a number of linked outcomes.

As an example of this, the Aberdeenshire-based James Hutton Institute points out that the decline in sheep numbers seen in recent decades can cause undergrazing.

This in turn may mean changes in vegetation and loss of particular habitats, with a consequent negative effect on species.

The institute argues for the adoption of High Nature Value (HNV) farming, which supports low intensity agricultural systems. It says there is a case to be made for additional financial support to promote this.

In order to protect the environment, we need to nurture not just the land, but the seas around us. Again, this is an area in which Scottish scientists are taking a lead.

Edinburgh University is co-ordinating the ambitious, EU-funded iAtlantic project – the biggest initiative of its type ever mounted in the planet’s second largest ocean.

It will assess its state of health, mapping uncharted parts for the first time and assessing the effects of climate change on plants and animals.

Sonar and 3D modelling will be used and the end result will be a full digital map of the ocean’s ecosystem. Part of the project involves identifying safe haven areas where marine life can be nurtured and prosper. The findings will be passed to governments around the world in the hope that they will take action.

Scotland’s own new environment strategy, published earlier this year just before the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, recognises the effort and achievements to date but acknowledges that there is still work to do.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, says she is proud of the progress made to date.


“We have the toughest, most ambitious framework on climate change in the world and have almost halved our greenhouse gases since 1990”, she adds. “We are recognised as leaders in developing a circular economy and have some of the most ambitious targets on waste in Europe.”

The report acknowledges the issues raised by Earth Overshoot Day, pointing out that while climate change is a key driver of loss of biodiversity, natural habitats play a critical role in removing carbon from the atmosphere.

These are the consequences, it says, of stretching the Earth’s systems beyond their sustainable limits.

The report continues: “The need for action is clear. Tackling the crises will require urgent, transformative changes in economies and societies around the world.

“This must promote a fairer distribution of resources between the rich developed world and poorer countries, who will be the first to suffer the effects of climate change and ecosystem collapse. Scotland is already making progress towards this transformation.”

What action can be taken to address what is the most important and defining problem of our age? Several ambitious initiatives are already underway.

These include the State of Nature Scotland report, published in 2019, which provides the country’s clearest picture yet on biodiversity. Woodland creation schemes are being implemented and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is providing the science needed to support the conservation of plants and fungi. One particular investigation is examining how rare Scottish mountain plants are being jeopardised by a loss of genetic diversity.

Urban areas can also have an effect, both positive and negative, on the ecosystem. Decarbonisation of transport and a move towards walking and cycling will obviously make an impact, and it may well be that one result of the Covid-19 pandemic is a green-focused reimagining of our towns and cities.

The Scottish Land Commission has helped to establish the Vacant and Derelict Land Taskforce. Bringing abandoned and unloved urban places back into productive use could help tackle climate change, improve health and wellbeing, create more resilient communities and assist in rebuilding the economy.

Recommendations will be submitted to the Scottish Government later in the year. The commission is also preparing advice on the creation of a Regional Land Use Partnership, in order to ensure that all of Scotland can contribute to our climate targets.

Sadly, we will probably be marking Earth Overshoot Day for years to come. But in Scotland, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we are taking plenty of action to help ensure that over time, we stop drawing down the capital of our greatest asset: the planet itself.