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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 19, 2023


Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by Lorna Slater on Scotland’s biodiversity strategy. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement and, therefore, there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

We—Scotland, the United Kingdom, Europe, the world—are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. The facts are indisputable: nature is declining—fast. It is estimated that 1 million species across the world are at threat of extinction—mass extinctions, driven by our exploitation of the natural world.

Here, in Scotland, the picture is no different. Nearly half of our species have decreased in abundance and 11 per cent are under threat of extinction, including some special species such as the northern damselfly and the large heath butterfly. There is a real risk of some iconic species being lost from Scotland: chough are now breeding only on Islay and Colonsay, and the great skua, with its globally significant population in Scotland, has been ravaged by avian flu.

Just today, we have had publication of the “Marine and Terrestrial Species Indicators” report, which shows little sign of species recovery. Species on land remain at broadly similar levels to those in the 1990s—well below the level of historical populations. The indicators also show that the numbers of Scotland’s internationally important seabirds continue to decline. Even more worryingly, since the surveys used to assess seabird numbers took place, there has been a significant outbreak of avian flu, and it is expected that that will further impact Scotland’s seabirds.

Why does that matter? First, it just does. Nature has an intrinsic value. The plants and animals that we share this world with enrich our lives with their diversity, beauty and character. However, that complex diversity and abundance of life is also central to our survival as a species. Our economy, jobs, health and wellbeing depend on it. It is essential to our food production and security and to our fishing industry, it protects our soils, it provides us with clean air and water, and it helps to mitigate flooding, which has been brought into sharp focus over recent weeks.

Crucially, our biodiversity is essential in tackling the climate crisis. Across the world, ocean and land ecosystems remove about 50 per cent of the carbon emissions that are produced by us each year. Nature-based solutions—restoring our peatlands and native forests, for example—are key to our success in tackling the climate crisis. We need a net zero, nature-positive future.

The year 2022 was a key moment for biodiversity. After many delays, the 15th meeting of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity—COP15—was held in Montreal in December. Flagged as biodiversity’s “Paris moment”, it was a once-in-a-decade opportunity to agree a new set of global goals and targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. I led a small Scottish delegation and participated in a packed programme of events and bilateral meetings, including a speech to the conference’s high-level segment on behalf of sub-national bodies around the world. Throughout our engagements, Scotland was recognised for its excellent leadership of the Edinburgh process.

Since 2019, when the process was kicked off at the request of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s secretariat, the Scottish Government has been leading a consultation with sub-national bodies—city, regional and country governments—on their role in addressing the biodiversity crisis. The process culminated in the Edinburgh declaration, which was signed by more than 300 sub-national bodies. It called for a high-ambition outcome from Montreal and recognition of the critical role that sub-national bodies play in addressing the biodiversity crisis, as well as the allocation of the necessary powers and resources to sub-national levels of governance.

Scotland forged new partnerships with declaration members. For example, it did so with California and Quebec on protecting 30 per cent of land for nature by 2030; with Paris, Madrid and Nagoya on urban biodiversity; with Parks Canada on the establishment of new national parks; with the European Parliament delegation and European regions—Catalonia and Lombardy—on 30 by 30 and peatland restoration; and with São Paulo on the establishment of a working group under the Edinburgh process on financing biodiversity recovery in cities.

The Convention on Biological Diversity’s co-chair personally thanked me for Scotland’s leadership of the Edinburgh process. They said:

“The Edinburgh Process has driven action for nature in cities, regions and other sub national governments around the world while raising awareness of the vital role these governments play in protecting biodiversity. This is a message that has been heard loud and clear by State Parties at COP15 in Montreal, supporting a high ambition outcome from the talks. I want to thank the Scottish Government for their leadership on international biodiversity issues, overseeing the Edinburgh process and delivering the Edinburgh declaration.”

We are now supporting and exploring the next steps, with a focus on working with and supporting sub-national Governments to deliver the global framework.

After some tense negotiations, I was delighted that the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework was agreed at COP15. The framework builds on a vision of the world living in harmony with nature in which,

“By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services”.

The framework includes 23 global targets for 2030, including some truly ground-breaking actions, such as protecting 30 per cent of our land and sea by 2030; eliminating, minimising, reducing or mitigating the impacts of invasive species, preventing their establishment and eradicating or controlling them; sustainable management of areas under agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and forestry through biodiversity-friendly practices; eliminating subsidies that are harmful for biodiversity in a proportionate, just, fair, effective and equitable way; and bringing the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance close to zero through spatial planning and management.

Our challenge now—everyone’s challenge the world over—is to deliver on that agreement.

On 13 December, I published the draft Scottish biodiversity strategy, which builds on the significant progress that we have begun to make in recent years. We are scaling up our peatland restoration rates, with the aim of restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded peat by 2030. We have created more than 10,000 hectares of new woodland in the past year, with 42 per cent of that consisting of native species. Our new vision for agriculture aims to make Scotland a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, with nature and climate at its heart. We have committed to highly protect 10 per cent of our marine areas. Our ground-breaking nature restoration fund is providing multiyear funding to drive restoration at scale. Recently approved grants include funding to Cairngorms Connect to restore natural rivers and flood plains at Insh marshes, and to the Argyll and the Isles Coast and Countryside Trust to restore Argyll’s Atlantic rainforest.

However, the strategy is clear that we need to go further and faster. It sets out our high-level ambition to halt decline by 2030 and to reverse biodiversity loss by 2045. That high-level vision is underpinned by a detailed set of outcomes that span our land, seas, rivers, lochs, wetlands and coasts. Those outcomes spell out what success in tackling the biodiversity crisis will look like.

The strategy details 26 of the most urgent priority actions that we need to take to achieve a nature-positive future. Those outcomes and actions are framed around five key aims: to accelerate restoration and regeneration; to expand and connect our protected areas and improve their condition; to support nature-friendly farming, fishing and forestry, which are some of our key industries; to recover and protect vulnerable and important species; and to generate the investment that is needed to support nature recovery.

The strategy remains in draft form to allow us to incorporate the outcomes from COP15 and to ensure that we are properly aligned with our international obligations. The strategy is a starting point. It gives us our guiding vision and a pathway to a nature-positive future, and it will be underpinned by a dynamic delivery plan that sets out how we will achieve that vision.

The year 2023 will be a critical one. We are working with stakeholders to develop the delivery plan, and we will consult on and publish our plan later this year. We will lay the groundwork for the introduction of statutory targets and the natural environment bill.

We will set out how we will protect 30 per cent of our land and seas for nature by 2030—the cornerstone of the global biodiversity framework. We will be creating highly protected marine areas in at least 10 per cent of our seas. We are currently consulting on the policy framework for highly protected marine areas. Once the consultation is completed, the selection process to identify the most appropriate areas, so that 10 per cent of our seas are highly protected by 2026, will begin. We will consult on the draft fisheries management measures that are required for existing marine protected areas, if those are not already in place, as well as measures for key coastal biodiversity locations outside those sites.

We will be forging ahead with land reform and the reform of agricultural subsidies to ensure that they deliver positive effects for biodiversity. We will continue to deliver real change on the ground through our world-leading nature restoration fund, with a new round of funding to be announced in spring 2023. Critically, by the end of 2023, Scotland will publish a new climate change plan that will set out how we will get back on track to deliver net zero. As part of that, we are looking at what more we can do through investment in nature-based solutions. Net zero and nature positive will increasingly go hand in hand.

I will conclude by making two points. First, we need to continue to engage with and mobilise stakeholders and communities on their roles in delivering a net zero, nature-positive future. It is not just for the Government to deliver our biodiversity strategy; a whole-society approach is needed if we are going to be successful. We need to understand what a just transition looks like for biodiversity in the same way as we do for climate, and we need to lock in the new opportunities relating to private investment and the generation of new green jobs and community opportunities.

My second point is on our level of ambition. Scotland can play a leading role in delivering the ambitious new global biodiversity framework, but none of us should underestimate the scale of the task ahead. For those who are not swayed by arguments about the intrinsic importance of nature and about the undeniably positive effects that it has on our health and wellbeing, they might be persuaded when they consider that more than half of the world’s gross domestic product is thought to be dependent on nature in some way. If we do not make the transformational changes that are needed in relation to how we use our precious natural resources, the impact on our people and planet will be irreversible and devastating.

I look forward to working with members from across the Parliament, to hearing their views and contributions to this important debate and, in due course, to engaging with the committees on these important issues.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, minister. I note that the statement lasted considerably longer than the 10 minutes allocated, which will eat into the time that we have across business this afternoon. Nevertheless, I still intend to allow 20 minutes for the minister to take questions on the issues raised in the statement, after which we will need to move on to the next item of business.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for the early sight of her statement.

I welcome many of the actions and policies adopted into the strategy from the consultation. However, there are areas where the strategy falls short, and Scotland simply cannot fail here. As we all know by now, Scotland is ranked 212th in the world for biodiversity intactness, which is 48 places from the bottom.

There has been a 24 per cent decline in average abundance of 352 terrestrial and freshwater species since 1994, which in itself was not a high point. There has been a 14 per cent decline in range for 2,970 terrestrial and freshwater species since 1970. Peatlands are in such poor condition that they are emitting carbon instead of storing it and are responsible for 20 per cent of Scotland’s total emissions.

Only around 64 per cent of Scotland’s protected woodlands are in a favourable or recovering condition and 11 out of the 15 components in the UK marine strategy had not achieved good environmental status by 2020, with recognition that more action is required. “Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020” highlighted declines in biogenic habitats and in species such as Atlantic salmon, and there was a 38 per cent decline in the Scottish breeding seabird indicator between 1986 and 2016.

Only 30,000 hectares of Scotland’s unique Atlantic rainforest remain—

I will need a question, Mr Whittle.

Brian Whittle

—and it is highly fragmented.

Strengthening accountability for delivery is highlighted as a key lesson learned for the new strategy. That is all well and good, but, to ensure that the Scottish Government—

I need a question, Mr Whittle.

Brian Whittle

I am coming to the question, Presiding Officer.

What does the minister plan to do to ensure that we have collected vital baseline data that has been continually missed out and that has been identified as a knowledge gap by multiple environmental organisations—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Minister, I will have to ask you to respond.

Mr Whittle, there is an allocation of time for members, and I need to spread it evenly to allow everyone the opportunity to ask questions.

Lorna Slater

I share the member’s concerns. The data that he has highlighted is alarming, which is exactly why we need the biodiversity strategy and its delivery plans. As the member has rightly said, whenever we can, we need to gather the correct evidence on the current state of nature. Also, as we go forward with our rolling delivery plans, we need evidence that what we are doing is working—that is the point of having the five-year rolling delivery plans to underpin the biodiversity strategy. We need to ensure that what we are doing is evidenced, that we are succeeding and that we are working towards our 2045 goal.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for the advance sight of her statement.

To tackle nature loss, we need to be clear about what caused its decline in the first place. No one sets out to kill off entire species or to risk our food security but, for decades, that is exactly what has been happening. It is therefore essential that any Government strategy to address nature loss has at its heart a plan to change the flawed system that got us here. That means requiring employers to account for the environmental and social cost of doing business so that chief executive officers and shareholders are no longer able to profit from the underpayment of workers and the pollution of our water, air and earth.

Can the minister explain how her Government will expand the nature conservation workforce in our public sector across our marine, woodland, peatland and other environments?

Lorna Slater

The member highlights that, clearly, it is not only the public sector that needs to work on nature restoration; it is something that everybody has to do globally and within Governments and businesses, and that includes workers. Every member of the population needs to work together. That is a key part of the biodiversity strategy. In its opening statement, it sets out the aim of ensuring that everyone in Scotland lives in “thriving communities” and that people understand their role and will

“play their part in the stewardship of nature for future generations.”

As it is set out, the biodiversity strategy is a vision for where we want to get to in 2045. As we start on the journey from the current nature crisis towards a thriving and abundant nature in 2045, it is important that we see where we are going, and we then need to agree on the delivery plans. To get to where we want to be in 2045, all those things need to be taken into consideration.

The member is right that a just transition in tackling the biodiversity crisis is as important as a just transition in tackling the climate crisis.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Will the minister set out what the relationship will be between the biodiversity strategy and national planning framework 4, as approved by the Parliament last week, in particular for peatland restoration? What does the Scottish Government anticipate the impact of those strategies will be on land-based wind turbines that are in peatland areas, bearing in mind that peatlands cover 20 per cent of Scotland’s land?

Lorna Slater

The new biodiversity strategy and national planning framework 4 are closely aligned. Both recognise the significance of the twin crises that we face and the need to place climate and nature at the centre of our policy development and delivery. NPF4 signals a turning point for planning and tackling the climate emergency, as well as improving biodiversity—those cross-cutting themes run throughout the strategy.

The continued growth of onshore wind and the restoration of our peatlands are not mutually exclusive, and we recognise the contribution that both make to the fight against climate change. A variety of measures can be included in wind farm design to improve degraded peatland, and those measures have continually developed as the industry has matured. Peatland restoration and enhancement, developed in tandem with improving habitats for important and protected species, allows projects to deliver multiple positive benefits for biodiversity, the natural environment and our renewable energy ambitions.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Today, I received a response to a freedom of information request that confirms that no financial analysis has been conducted on how to deliver the detailed set of outcomes that have been referred to. The minister has stated that this is

“an emergency that requires an emergency response.”

Given that no financial analysis has been done, precisely how soon can we expect to see the financial data that underlies the delivery of the programmes in the biodiversity strategy?

Lorna Slater

As we have pointed out, successful delivery of the strategy is crucial. The finance gap for nature in Scotland in the next decade has been estimated at about £20 billion. That is why we are working hard to find ways to bridge the finance gap, through leveraging responsible private finance. Investing in nature is a growth area globally, and Scotland is well placed to take a leading role by offering investors the opportunity to play a part in enhancing ecosystems while generating sustainable returns. To aid that, we are preparing an investment plan that will set out our assessment of the investment that is required to deliver a nature-positive future and the actions that are needed to mobilise public, private and philanthropic finance.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

We face twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, and subnational Governments, cities and local authorities all have a responsibility to address that. Will the minister provide more detail on the Edinburgh declaration and the role that the Scottish Government played in leading on it?

Lorna Slater

While I was in Montreal, it was inspiring to meet and hear from so many signatories to the Edinburgh declaration and participants in the Edinburgh process and to get such positive feedback on the part that the Scottish Government has played in highlighting the role of subnational Governments, cities and local authorities in addressing biodiversity loss and supporting the high-ambition outcome from the talks.

In keeping with the principles of the Edinburgh process and the Edinburgh declaration, so far, more than £11 million from the nature restoration fund has been directly allocated to Scottish local authorities. Some of the projects that have been progressed, among many others, are for addressing coastal erosion in Montrose, climate resilient woodland planting in Dundee, wetland creation in South Ayrshire and Scottish Borders and river restoration in Renfrewshire.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The Woodland Trust has called on the Scottish Government to raise the target for the proportion of native trees in future planting to at least 50 per cent from the previous target of 40 per cent, and Labour supports that. The Greens’ manifesto made a commitment to 60 per cent. Will the minister clarify the Government’s current position? Is the target 40, 50 or 60 per cent? Will it be included in the biodiversity strategy delivery plan?

I absolutely expect targets to be included in the biodiversity strategy delivery plan, and I am happy to write to Colin Smyth with more detail on the exact figures that he looks for.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

The Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee has heard evidence from several environmental groups about Westminster’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. That has highlighted that

“the issue of invasive non-native species is one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss globally.”—[Official Report, Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, 1 December 2022; c 26.]

It is therefore critical to prevent the spread of such species. However, I understand that the regulations involve a mix of reserved and devolved powers. Will the minister please explain how the Scottish Government aims to ensure that those mixed-up powers do not impact on the important work that communities, individuals and organisations are doing to eradicate invasive non-native species and improve Scotland’s biodiversity?

Lorna Slater

The Scottish Government is deeply concerned by and fundamentally opposed to the UK Government’s plans to potentially dismantle laws that protect nature, as outlined in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Scottish Government officials continue to work with their UK Government counterparts as part of the programme to identify devolved retained European Union law across devolved and reserved competencies and therefore what powers Scottish ministers might need to use to prevent deregulation, protect devolution and uphold our high environmental standards. The powers that relate to invasive non-native species are largely devolved to Scotland, but key reserved powers relate to controlling the trade in such species and their import into Scotland.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, we will continue to work closely with the other devolved Governments and the UK Government to tackle the threat that invasive species pose. The Great Britain invasive non-native species strategy will be published shortly.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Farmers have an important job to do on biodiversity, but we still do not have a bill for the agriculture support scheme. Will the minister encourage her rural affairs colleagues to speed up delivery of that bill, so that farmers can get on with the job of helping with biodiversity?

Lorna Slater

In a parliamentary statement on 8 November last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands announced the proposed timeline for the transition to the new agriculture support scheme, with the introduction of new conditionality informed by the national test programme, by 2025. That will be followed by a phased launch of the future framework starting with the enhanced payment to reward farmers and crofters for taking meaningful action for climate and nature in 2026. Delivering biodiversity protection and restoration is a key aim of that process.

However, we are not waiting until 2025. In the interim period, the agri-environment climate scheme will continue to support farmers. Today, my colleague Mairi Gougeon announced that more than £14 million has been awarded through the agri-environment climate scheme to 680 rural businesses with projects that protect the environment and mitigate the impact of climate change. She also announced that a new round of AECS funding is open for applicants.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Does the Scottish Government support the reintroduction of species that are native to Scotland but that were eradicated by humans? Beavers and sea eagles have already been successfully reintroduced. The Eurasian lynx, a medium-sized wildcat that has been extinct in Britain for around 500 years, was the subject of a study by Trees for Life, Lifescape and Scotland: The Big Picture, reported in “Lynx to Scotland: Assessing the social feasibility of returning Eurasian lynx to Scotland”, which found that Scotland could support a viable population. Does the minister agree that lynx would help to maintain ecosystem balance and diversity by regulating deer numbers while posing no danger to people and very little to livestock, as is shown in the many European countries with lynx populations?

Lorna Slater

Reintroductions of native species have an important role to play in nature restoration here in Scottish and across the world. I am incredibly pleased with the progress that we have made with the reintroduction of beavers over the past year, and we will continue to work with NatureScot to support that important piece of work.

The Scottish Government has no current plans to reintroduce lynx into Scotland. It is, of course, for NatureScot, as the relevant licensing authority, to evaluate any applications that it receives, case by case.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Grazing pressure from deer continues to halt Scotland’s ambitions to restore native woodland and regenerate our environment. Does NatureScot’s use of powers under section 10 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 this week represent a shift in gear on the Scottish Government’s approach to deer management? What further action is planned ahead of the natural environment bill?

Lorna Slater

The Scottish Government is absolutely clear that effective deer management is vital if we are to bring populations into balance with nature and effectively tackle the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. We are committed to implementing the recommendations made by the deer management working group, including new legislation, which is to be brought in during this session of Parliament. In the meantime, we are making full use of the existing intervention powers wherever they are required. Last week, NatureScot used powers available to it under section 10 of the 1996 act to carry out a deer cull on an estate in Sutherland where deer are having a significant impact including on the four sites of special scientific interest. I would like to express my thanks to the staff involved in that challenging but essential work.

NatureScot is also represented on the deer management project board and is working alongside the board on priority actions for deer in Scotland outwith legislative change.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests in that I own and manage land.

Minister, you suggested that the Government had planted 10,000 hectares with trees in the past year. That happens to be 5,000 hectares—or 30 per cent—below the target. In the past six years, you were 15,000 hectares below the target, and this year the budget has been cut by 14 per cent per hectare planted. How will you get more trees planted when you do not have a good record of doing that in the past?

Speak through the chair, please.

Lorna Slater

Of course, ramping up and scaling up both our tree planting and peatland restoration are key goals for the Government and big parts of our biodiversity strategy. Last year, we met Bute house commitments by establishing more than 4,000 hectares of new native woodland across Scotland. Last year, the figure was 4,360 hectares of new native woodland created. That means that around 42 per cent of all new woodland created was native species, which are so important for biodiversity. In 2022-23, £63.5 million was allocated to supporting 15,000 hectares of tree planting.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

During COP15, in December last year, the Scottish Government announced biodiversity funding, which I welcomed—not least because I am a champion for the corncrake. Will the minister outline the projects that have been supported by the Scottish Government’s nature restoration fund and the impact that the fund is having with regard to protecting Scotland’s nature and biodiversity?

Lorna Slater

The nature restoration fund is Scotland’s largest-ever fund for nature. Since we launched it at COP26 in Glasgow, we have invested more than £20 million, which is having a real impact across Scotland through restoring rivers and flood plains, regenerating our forests and recovering our wildlife populations.

Thirty-one applications have been offered funding in the latest round of the Scottish Government’s nature restoration fund. Projects to restore rivers in the Cairngorms and protect the rainforest in Argyll are among the initiatives that will share £7.6 million. This funding round has been focused on supporting large-scale projects, including multiyear ones that run up to 2026. One hundred projects had previously successfully bid for funding from the NRF, and a full list of projects that have been granted NRF competitive funding can be found on the NatureScot website.

Local authorities across Scotland have been allocated £11.5 million from the fund since its inception. That is just part of our commitment to invest at least an additional £500 million in the nature economy over this session.

A couple of members want to ask further supplementaries. I ask that those questions and their responses be very brief.

Liam Kerr asked earlier when the financial data that underpins the strategy will be published. We never had an answer, so I ask the minister again: when?

We are currently finalising the publication of the vision and strategy. We will then consider doing the delivery plans, which will come out in the next few months.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Does the minister know that the capercaillie has been under threat for about as long as I have been an MSP? That really is quite a long time. For almost all that period, it has faced predation by a variety of predators, all of which regard caper eggs as breakfast, lunch and tea rolled into one. Is she aware that NatureScot has recently recognised that predators, including foxes, must be controlled? Will she instruct NatureScot to carry out capercaillie protection immediately, and with enthusiasm and dispatch?

Lorna Slater

I applaud the member’s general enthusiasm and, of course, his enthusiasm for supporting capercaillie. Scottish Government officials, NatureScot and Cairngorms National Park are examining the matter closely and working together on a plan to protect that precious, iconic species.

That concludes this item of business. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item.