Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

To avoid another lost decade for Scotland’s nature, we need legally binding targets for nature’s recovery – Anne McCall

Mass extinction
We are living through a mass extinction. Since 1970, we’ve seen a drop of almost 70 per cent in average populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, and over a quarter of assessed species are now threatened by extinction.

It’s undeniable that developing countries in sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia have suffered first and worst, but for countries like Scotland, wealth isn’t a shield. Nature is crucial to Scotland’s life, wellbeing and identity. But it’s in crisis here, too.  

Wealth is no shield
The State of Nature Report revealed half of all our species are in decline, with 1 in 9 at risk of national extinction[1].  At the same time, a new global analysis, ranking 250 countries and territories worldwide by the scale at which human activity has damaged their ecosystems, places Scotland near last[2].

This summer, RSPB Scotland presented the First Minister’s office with a basket of goods from our pop-up InConvenience Store in central Edinburgh, to communicate the imminent risk to Scotland’s people if our nature continues to decline.  Products on display included sandbags, clean air and unpolluted drinking water – everyday essentials in a world where nature has collapsed, our skies have fallen silent, and nature is no longer helping us combat problems like pollution and flooding.  The InConvenience Store offered a glimpse into a dystopian future, but, if we act fast, we can avoid this devastation.  Recognising the narrowing window of opportunity to revive our world, growing numbers of people and institutions, across Scotland, the UK, and the world, are adding their voice to the calls for urgent and focused action.   

Time for action
In June, Scotland’s Climate Assembly published its report on how Scotland should tackle the climate emergency effectively and fairly.  The panel of over 100 ordinary citizens from across Scotland recognised that the climate and nature emergencies are inextricably linked and noted that, to tackle the twin emergencies, we must ‘connect people with nature, rebuild depleted natural resources and increase biodiversity[3]

In July, IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission – made up of trade unionists, economists, and academics – acknowledged that the nature crisis is often treated as a ‘poorer cousin’ compared to the climate emergency, ‘receiving significantly less attention and therefore fewer policy commitments, targets and less investment’.  The disparity, the Commission noted, is particularly concerning given that the four home nations that make up the UK are among ‘the most nature depleted countries in the world’.  In response to these concerns, the Commission calls for an urgent step change in policymakers’ worldview from ‘climate alone’ to ‘climate and nature together’[4]

Both the Assembly and the Commission understand that Scotland must address the nature and climate emergencies in tandem if Scotland’s climate, nature and people are to thrive in the years ahead.

Scotland cannot be left behind
In July, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) published the first draft of its post-2020 global biodiversity framework.  The targets within the draft framework, which governments will scrutinise at a crucial summit in the Chinese city of Kunming in early 2022, have been designed to galvanise urgent and transformative action worldwide. The UN believes that the framework offers a roadmap towards humanity ‘living in harmony with nature by 2050’ but cautions member states that, first, they must halt and reverse the ecological destruction of Earth by the end of this decade by adopting target-driven strategies for nature’s recovery[5].   

This year, at the beginning of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, the UK Government[6], the Welsh Government[7] and the EU Commission are already on course to set legally binding Nature Recovery Targets for England, Wales and the European Union, respectively.  Scotland cannot be left behind.  We need our own statutory nature recovery targets, committing our government to revive Scotland’s species and habitats, with communities, businesses, local authorities, and government agencies all playing their part.

A natural starting point
The Scottish Government already measures progress against agreed targets on issues as diverse as child poverty, social housing, and climate change.  This makes sense – when we want to achieve something, whether in our personal lives, business or government, setting a target is a natural starting point.  Targets help governments clarify objectives, be transparent about progress, and remain accountable to the public.

As with the Net Zero targets, statutory nature recovery targets would allow us to monitor our rate of improvement across sectors and against clear objectives.  As we work towards a nature positive Scotland, with improvements to the quality, extent and connectivity of habitats, species distribution, and species abundance, targets would make it easier for us to adjust our approach accordingly to stay on goal.

Emerging consensus
The SNP manifesto makes a welcome commitment to introduce a new Biodiversity Strategy for Scotland within a year of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. However, the ultimate success of that strategy will depend heavily on whether the government adopts legally binding targets for nature recovery.  While the SNP manifesto makes no public commitment to statutory targets, the Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green manifestos back legally binding targets. With cross-party support already evident, this is the ideal opportunity for the new government to demonstrate real commitment to delivering for Scotland’s nature by agreeing to statutory targets.

An idea whose time has come
If we want to restore nature in Scotland, adopting legally binding nature recovery targets is a logical first step.  Statutory targets would ensure that Scotland keeps pace with the rest of the UK.  It would minimise Scotland’s policy divergence from the EU.  It would provide Scotland with a roadmap for reviving nature at home, while making an essential contribution to global restoration.  Statutory nature recovery targets is an idea whose time has come.

Anne McCall is the Director of RSPB Scotland.

[1] State of Nature Partnership. (2019). ‘State of Nature: A summary for Scotland’.
[2] RSPB Scotland. (May 2021). ‘Press release: Stark reminder to new MSPs of the actions needed to tackle the nature and climate emergency’.
[3] Scotland’s Climate Assembly. (June 2021). ‘Scotland’s Climate Assembly: Recommendations for Action’. Pg. 36.
[4] IPPR Environmental Justice Commission. (July 2021). ‘Fairness and Opportunity: a people-powered plan for the green transition’. Pg.9. IPPR.    
[5] United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. (July 2021). ‘First Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework’. Pg. 6-8. UN Environment Programme
[6] DEFRA. (May 2021). ‘Press Release: Environment Bill continues through parliament’. HM Government.
[7] Welsh Assembly. (30.06.2021). ‘Plenary’. Record.Assembly.Wales