NatureScot’s Francesca Osowska believes the massive growth in ‘green’ jobs is a sign of a sea change in attitudes that will benefit both the environment and the economy

By Dominic Ryan
Who could have imagined a year that brought so much calamity to our planet in the form of a climate emergency and a pandemic would also offer the prospect of a green jobs powerhouse? And yet this is precisely what Francesca Osowska is predicting for Scotland’s future.

The CEO of NatureScot points out nature-based jobs have, in fact, been building a burgeoning industry for some time.

“As an organisation we’ve been undertaking an audit of these types of jobs, which include land management, peatland restoration, surveying, work on nature in our towns and cities and the entire green infrastructure,” she says.

“What this has shown is the nature-based sector in terms of employment grew at more than five times the rate of all jobs in Scotland between 2015 and 2019, representing a third of all jobs growth in Scotland. Amounting to at least 195,000 jobs, this has been a real growth area and will continue to be.”

Francesca notes that, while we have iconic images of people working in a wild and unpopulated landscape, with 83 per cent of Scotland’s population living in towns and cities there’s a strong urban element to green recruitment.

“We’ve done work that shows our towns and cities are incredibly green – in fact, 54 per cent would be considered green rather than grey. Having that green space is really important.”

Equally important is that, in order to meet Scotland’s net zero carbon targets set for 2045, nature-based employment delivers on a number of different fronts.

“To deal with the challenges we have in nature and to build back from Covid-19, we need to invest in areas that are going to provide multiple benefits,” says Francesca.

“This isn’t about doing just one thing or another anymore. It’s about doing absolutely everything we can.

“This means focusing on economic growth, tackling climate change and biodiversity loss and continually seeking nature-based solutions – such as with urban planting, the green infrastructure and peatland restoration – that deliver multiple rewards.”

Thanks to NatureScot’s work with partners and critical Scottish Government funding, progress has been moving at pace in many areas, with a five-fold increase in peatland restoration, near doubling of tree planting led by Forestry and Land Scotand and Scottish Forestry, and additional investment in the Woodland and Peatland Carbon Codes.

Of course, beyond this land restoration and management, Scotland has many other sectors highly dependent on our wealth of natural capital, such as the tourism and food and drink industries. This makes green recruitment vital across the board.

“If we think about the potential in our rural and island economies, in particular, where economies are more fragile, nature-based jobs can have a hugely transformative impact,” says Francesca.

“What we’ve found in the studies we’ve done is there is great potential for rural and island economies, where most nature-based jobs are located. NatureScot’s research has found almost a third (30.2 per cent) of new nature-based jobs could be found in island and remote areas and 62.2 per cent in mainly rural areas – offering potential solutions to the challenges of depopulation and out-migration of working age people.

“The remaining roles will be in urban areas,” says Francesca, “so the green jobs boom is actually going to be enjoyed right across Scotland.”

While this reflects the positive impact green employment could have on the wider Scottish economy, Francesca underlines that as a nation we must urgently focus on what an alliance of organisations and business need to do to fully deliver on that potential.

This is why NatureScot has been assessing skills shortages and gaps in the existing nature-based workforce. Its resulting jobs and skills report, which has just been published, kickstarts what’s believed to be a world first for a nationwide, integrated approach to securing the employment potential of the nature-based sector.

“It’s hugely important for our future,” says Francesca. “Scotland cannot hit our 2045 net zero carbon emissions targets without nature-based solutions. We need to tackle climate change and drastic biodiversity decline with major multi-billion pound investment over the coming decades.

“Working with our partners and business, I believe NatureScot is ideally placed to lead this net zero delivery.

“We’ve been investing in areas such as the Green Infrastructure Fund, which has allocated more than £15 million of European Regional Development Fund money to green infrastructure projects. With the match funding we’ve been able to secure, this has led to an investment of £40 million, which is creating community parks and transforming derelict land in some of the most deprived areas of Scotland.

“This is good for nature . . . but it’s also good for people.

“One thing we’ve seen through Covid-19, through the different types of lockdown, is people now really engage with nature through their local green spaces. It’s not necessarily about going out and climbing Munros – when the restrictions allow us to do that again. Actually having the ability to enjoy the green spaces in our towns and cities is vital.”

Francesca believes enhancing Scotland’s biodiversity will not only boost the nation’s economy and our own physical and mental wellbeing but it will also be crucial in protecting us against future pandemics.

She points out experts have concluded the same issues that cause biodiversity loss and climate change also increase the risk of pandemics.

“The increasing intensity of livestock farming, deforestation, crop monocultures, globalisation and large urban environments all make viral transference more likely and rapid once viruses enter human populations,” she notes.

Looking to the future and pointing to the longer term systemic challenges Scotland faces in relation to nature degradation and climate change, Francesca admits such challenges have been around for a long time but adds she is confident change is coming.

“We have a target in Scotland of reaching net zero by 2045. It can be done but to achieve this will require a consolidated effort by many organisations, including NatureScot. It’s a long-term prospect. Nature recovery is likely to be on a similar timescale.

“The systemic, chronic issues are going to be with us for a while and so we’re going to be in this for the long haul.

“But we’re up for that at NatureScot ... and we’re very happy to be leading on these issues to secure a nature-rich, net-zero future for Scotland.”