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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 16 November 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Fuel Poverty, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, State of Nature 2016


Contents


State of Nature 2016

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01496, in the name of Angus MacDonald, on the “State of Nature 2016” report. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the report, State of Nature 2016, which is a companion to the report, State of Nature 2013, and makes a continued assessment of the fortunes of wildlife across the UK; understands that the 2016 report looks at the significant and ongoing changes occurring to Scottish nature; believes that, while there have been some conservation successes since 2013, over the long term, 53% of species declined with 40% showing strong declines; notes that the report focuses on eight main habitats of Scotland and highlights some of the pressures on wildlife with numerous examples of how government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and the public are working together to bring back nature; believes well-planned, targeted and adequately resourced conservation action can turn around the fortunes of Scotland’s wildlife and nature, which is vital for society, culture and economy; notes that the State of Nature partnership encompasses over 50 UK research and conservation organisations that together hold an immense breadth and depth of knowledge of the UK’s wildlife, including the Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Froglife, Marine Conservation Society, National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Woodland Trust and WWF Scotland; believes that the report highlights the challenges that lie ahead in conserving Scotland's wonderful nature; considers that the Scottish Government is committed to driving forward the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, the 2020 Challenge for Scotland's Biodiversity and its accompanying Route Map to 2020, and looks forward to the publication of a progress report; believes that there is so much to be proud of in Scotland and so much to protect and enhance, and looks forward to ambitious action being taken to improve the state of nature in the Falkirk area and the rest of Scotland in the coming months, years and decades.

17:08  

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

First of all, I want to say how grateful I am to fellow members from across the chamber for supporting my motion and allowing the “State of Nature 2016” report to be debated this evening. I am also grateful to the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy for standing in for the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, who has been at the 22nd session of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—or COP 22—in Marrakech. I felt it important to secure a chamber debate on the issue, because the report features information that is critical to understanding the status of our natural environment and highlights the state of biodiversity across eight different types of habitat that are found in Scotland.

On the surface, the report is far from ideal. In the UK overall, 56 per cent of 4,000 species declined between 1970 and 2013, with a 53 per cent decline between 2002 and 2013. In Scotland, 520 species—9 per cent—are classified as being at risk of extinction.

The report identifies the main threats to biodiversity as climate change, diminished management of farming, urbanisation and non-native invasive species. Together, those factors contribute to Scotland’s placement in the bottom quarter of the world’s countries for biodiversity intactness. Taking that into account, it is vital that we recognise that measures must be taken to preserve and regrow what biodiversity we have. As we all know, good work is already going on, so there is no lack of trying.

The report also acknowledges measures that can be, and have been, taken to transform Scotland into a global leader in species conservation. It highlights the importance of

“well-planned, targeted and adequately resourced conservation action”

and of collaboration between—to name a few—the Scottish Government, non-governmental organisations and local land managers. There are examples all around Scotland of groups implementing actions to improve biodiversity substantially; I am pleased to say that there are a number of examples in my constituency of Falkirk East that involve volunteers from across the Falkirk district.

For example, the Communities Along the Carron Association—known locally as CATCA—is a group that is comprised mainly of volunteers who are committed to regeneration of the River Carron, of the communities that the river flows through and of the land adjacent to it. Set up in 2010, CATCA—along with several other partners and stakeholders, including Scottish National Heritage, Falkirk Council, central Scotland green network and the Scottish Government climate challenge fund—has embarked on a programme of environmental improvement projects involving schools, community groups, marginalised groups and unemployed adults with various health-related issues. The projects include clearing of litter and log jams to allow the river to flow freely and to increase the chances of wildlife repopulating, improvement of path networks along the River Carron corridor for access and recreation, and biodiversity projects.

All the projects are vital to the environment of that important area. The partnerships that have been built with the agencies are important in allowing people who are unemployed to gain skills and experience through the work, which enables them to get back on their feet and to increase their employability. It also demonstrates that our natural landscape not only supports wildlife, but supports jobs and economic development. Projects such as the one involving CATCA, the Scottish Government and other relevant parties are central to sustaining our extensive natural resources and our economy.

The examples do not end there. In my constituency, we also have the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Jupiter urban wildlife centre, which sits cheek by jowl with the agrichemical and petrochemical industries in the heart of Grangemouth. It has been a tremendous success and it celebrates its 25th anniversary next May. In the past two months alone, it has attracted 15 secondary school visits and it often has events for children in the summer that are so popular that they are fully booked and have waiting lists. The minister will recall that the Scottish Government was so impressed with the work that is going on at Jupiter that, in his previous role as environment minister—when he was back in the job for 10 minutes—he launched the Scottish biodiversity strategy there in the summer of 2013, along with children from Grangemouth’s Sacred Heart primary school. If the minister would not mind passing on an invitation to the cabinet secretary while she is reacclimatising following her visit to Marrakech, I and the Scottish Wildlife Trust would be delighted if she could join us in Grangemouth in May to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Jupiter urban wildlife centre.

Another example is the inner Forth landscape initiative, which is an exciting programme of work that is conserving, enhancing and celebrating the unique landscape and heritage of the upper reaches of the Firth of Forth with 50 discrete but interrelated projects around the inner Forth area.

Further afield from my constituency, another example that is given in the “State of Nature 2016” report is the action that has been taken by RSPB Scotland to realign the coast of Nigg Bay, which lost over 35 per cent of its salt marsh and mudflats between 1946 and 1997. The RSPB pioneered a project in 2003 to rectify that, which reconnected Meddat marsh with the sea for the first time since the 1950s. Within a year, several species of salt-marsh plants and mud-dwelling invertebrates had recolonised the newly re-formed salt marsh and, by 2011, the marsh had been completely transformed into its original state of salt marsh and intertidal mudflats. That project is just one instance of focused action having a significant positive impact on biodiversity for a range of Scottish wildlife.

In order to build on actions such as those that have been taken at Nigg Bay, we must all work together with the Scottish Government, NGOs and local volunteers to see widespread change across our country, not just in isolated areas.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I have been absolutely fascinated by what is happening in Angus MacDonald’s constituency, and by what he has said about it. I am sure that he will be aware that this week’s New Scientist indicates that, globally, nature is reducing by 2 per cent a year and two thirds of all wildlife have died off over the past 40 years. We face global extinctions. What can Scotland do to lead the fightback for nature not just locally but globally in order to restore some of the environment that our species has destroyed in recent years?

Angus MacDonald

I have not seen the New Scientist report, but I will try to catch it later and get back to Kenneth Gibson once I have had a good read of it.

“State of Nature 2016” presents a number of warnings about Scotland’s biodiversity, but it is important to note that it is not a hopeless case; it is still possible for Scotland to become a world leader in biodiversity and environmental protection. That addresses the point that Kenneth Gibson raised. It is clear that the Scottish Government recognises the importance of taking those actions. It has the 2020 route map lined out to improve biodiversity and to connect Scots with their natural heritage. That is a commitment to ensuring that the environment works together with the economy to maximise the benefits to Scotland in a sustainable way.

If we are to see that plan come to fruition, we must act and safeguard vital funding to protect our wildlife. We must all work together to best utilise our collective talents and efforts. If action is not taken, we could see wildlife that improves the quality of our lives and our posterity becoming extinct.

I am well aware that I am running out of time, Presiding Officer.

In conclusion, Scotland’s biodiversity must be made a top priority. It is too valuable to act otherwise. Our natural environment not only helps to sustain 14 per cent of Scotland’s jobs; it clearly provides other benefits including cleaner air and water and local flood prevention. Protections for biodiversity go hand in hand to achieve that, and we must all do our part to work together to protect that valuable part of Scotland’s natural history.

17:17  

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate Angus MacDonald on securing this debate on “State of Nature 2016”.

The report should act as a wake-up call for Scotland. Time and again in it we see evidence of a decline in Scotland’s biodiversity and natural heritage. We need leadership and a redoubling of efforts on the ground if we are to safeguard and enhance Scotland’s wildlife.

There is a lot to digest in the report, but one thing stands out above all the others, and it makes for grim reading: almost 10 per cent of Scotland’s species are at risk of extinction. That is an alarming figure, and the details of it are no less grim: 27 per cent of bird species were assessed as being at the highest conservation risk, and almost half showed long-term decline, 13 per cent of plant species are at risk of extinction, and more than half of all Scottish species that have been studied have declined since 1970. On top of that, our native woodland fares little better, with native Caledonian forest covering barely more than 6 per cent of its original area.

Scotland’s rating on the biodiversity intactness index sums it all up. Of the 218 countries that were assessed, Scotland ranks 36th from the bottom, which places it in the bottom fifth of all countries. That simply is not good enough.

More attention needs to be given to protected areas, which not only help in preserving our biodiversity, but deliver economic and social benefits. Despite that, a fifth of designated natural features remain in an unfavourable condition. The message is clear: Scotland is facing a biodiversity crisis.

Actions must follow, which means ensuring that the necessary capacity and resources are in place to manage our natural environment properly. That is something that has not always been evident, as we can see from the biodiversity 2020 progress report.

So—what do we do about it? Information is the key to tackling the problems. I noted with interest that the report mentioned that the RSPB’s ability to measure relevant data is better at UK level. Agencies and Governments should therefore work together to ensure that there is close co-operation and that resources are shared, where possible.

In Scotland specifically, a good step would be for SNH to look to develop a monitoring system to measure the impact that conservation is having on designated features. We could then benchmark sites as we work towards moving them to a more favourable condition. We must also look to the future beyond the biodiversity 2020 strategy because we cannot afford to be complacent. I agree with the RSPB’s call on the Scottish Government to set its sights on ambitious targets for Scotland up to 2030. We must all ensure that when it comes to our natural heritage, Scotland’s reach will always exceed its grasp.

17:21  

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

I offer Angus MacDonald my thanks for bringing such an interesting and important topic for debate, and I apologise for having to leave after I have spoken.

I welcome the publication of the report “State of Nature 2016”, which continues the assessment of our wildlife. Such collaborative efforts demonstrate the value of knowledge sharing. It is thanks to the partnership of 50 UK-wide organisations that we have the evidence and the opportunity to assess accurately the gaps where nature is being let down. The report is a comprehensive piece of work that reveals some deeply concerning figures that I expect might surprise many people. The unhappy headlines are that Scotland is ranked in the lowest fifth of all the countries that were analysed in the biodiversity intactness index, and that almost one in 10 Scottish species is at risk of extinction.

As MSPs, we speak proudly of the natural beauty of our regions. Over the summer, I was delighted to visit Glenlude in the Borders and the Nethan Gorge in the Clyde valley, which are home to green woodpeckers, otters and badgers. Scotland’s nature is a right that everyone should enjoy, but it is evident that collective efforts must be strengthened to protect it. Evidence suggests that the Scottish Government’s route map to 2020 is insufficient to deliver the Aichi biodiversity targets. Although it is a shame that the Scottish Government will not be able to attend the meeting of the Conference of the Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity next month, I am interested to know what steps it has taken to report to the COP progress in Scotland towards the Aichi targets and how it intends to ensure that it is in a position to implement any agreements that are reached there.

I have spoken before about the need to apply a marine perspective to discussions and debates on biodiversity such as this one. Like Angus MacDonald, I acknowledge the RSPB’s work on biodiversity at Nigg Bay and elsewhere. Climate change and human activity are damaging and altering the distribution and composition of marine species, both those under the water and those flying above it. The report states that, over the short term, 50 per cent of marine species have declined in numbers. However, it also states that 50 per cent have seen increases—we can be more optimistic about that. The picture is complex. Scottish seabirds are important globally, but climate change and mismanagement have led to a serious decline in numbers for some species—for example, Arctic tern numbers have plummeted by around 70 per cent. The impacts of migrating food supplies, non-native species and disturbed nesting and mating areas have taken a toll on seabird colonies.

The creation of a network of marine protected areas has been a progressive step towards achieving sustainable Scottish seas and should be celebrated. However, gaps remain, both in the charting of areas for protection and within the 2020 route map. In my view, the thinking on biodiversity should not focus on MPA sites alone but should be applied to the other 84 per cent of Scotland’s seas. Furthermore, regional marine planning is crucial to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in our seas, and must be adequately resourced. Effective and co-operative management on land and at sea will be central to moving towards the Aichi targets and an ambitious action plan for 2030.

The changing climate is one of the greatest threats to our marine ecosystems; conversely, our oceans are one of the greatest natural tools that we have in tackling global warming. The term “blue carbon” refers to stocks of carbon that are sequestered by marine habitats, in some cases keeping it out of our atmosphere for thousands of years. I know that the minister was involved with that issue in a previous role, and I hope that it will be addressed in the new low carbon plan. Improving our understanding of the phenomenon by developing an evidence base and a monitoring system could be a significant step in delivering our national and global climate change targets.

17:25  

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

As is customary, I begin by congratulating my friend and Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee colleague Angus MacDonald on bringing the debate to the chamber. Just last week, I led a members’ business debate on the relaunch of Scottish Environment LINK’s species champions programme. It is heartening that, only a matter of days later, Scotland’s biodiversity is once again the subject of Parliament’s attention, because the health and balance of our natural environment are hugely important. That is why, earlier this month, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee brought stakeholders together to consider what progress has been made towards meeting our protection and restoration targets and where further action is required. We reflected on the Scottish content of the “State of Nature 2016” report, setting that alongside the findings of SNH’s progress report on the route map to 2020 and exploring possible contradictions between the two.

The sense that I got from the meeting—I suspect that my committee colleagues would agree—was that although progress has been made, there is so much more to be done, both to get a more complete set of indicators and to address some specific threats. A letter from the committee will be winging its way to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, offering its thoughts on those matters. However, as convener, I would not want to pre-empt its content.

Stakeholders identified a number of concerns and issues but, amidst those, it was heartening to hear that progress is being made in at least one area of real contention. Muirburn and its possible merits and demerits is a fascinating subject—I promise—and one that maybe highlights a further complication, namely the absence of objective and comprehensive science to inform how we can best take forward efforts to improve biodiversity and, in the case of muirburn, sequestrate carbon.

Such is my interest in the subject that I recently spent a Saturday afternoon poring over a series of scientific papers on the issue—perhaps illustrating, as my children said, the rock-and-roll lifestyle of an MSP. I wanted to get a definitive sense of the benefits or otherwise of muirburn in terms of carbon storage and biodiversity, but in comparison with when I embarked on the process, I was left little the wiser. I was therefore pleased to hear stakeholders speak positively about the opportunities that they have had through the moorland forum to feed into the restructuring of the muirburn code, which I hope will bring us to a way forward that takes appropriately balanced account of peatland, soil, vegetation and avian biodiversity.

We will make the progress that we need to make on biodiversity only through genuine partnership working in all its forms. If we need evidence of that, we need only look at the hugely welcome news last week of a study showing that golden eagle numbers across Scotland are at almost historic levels, with a 15 per cent increase since 2003 taking us to an estimated 508 pairs. Many people across Government agencies, charities and—yes—the land management sector have played their part in that achievement, and we should pay tribute to them for their efforts.

That study, however, also threw up some concerning findings. The absence of golden eagles in the eastern Cairngorms is an issue that simply cannot be ignored, especially given the previously identified disappearance of eight tagged birds in the general area.

I will finish on an optimistic note. It is hugely concerning that 504 of the 6,000 species studied in the “State of Nature 2016” report are deemed to be at risk of extinction but, as the RSPB briefing for this debate notes, there are

“many inspiring examples of conservation action that is helping to turn the tide”.

With wildlife organisations as active and effective as those that we have in Scotland set alongside an environment committee that, within months of its establishment, has already been shining a light on biodiversity and will continue to do so, and a cabinet secretary who, everyone acknowledges, has a knowledge of and passion for our natural environment, we can and will make the progress that, without doubt, we need to make. Running in parallel with that, we look to the 59 MSPs who have signed up as species champions to play their part.

17:29  

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

I declare an interest as a farmer, food producer and, given Graeme Dey’s speech, a muirburner in the past. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I congratulate Angus MacDonald on securing the debate.

Our precious environment has been most shaped in recent times, first by the last ice age and more recently by man. What we regard as our unique and identifiably Scottish landscape is massively the product of geology, latitude, proximity to the Atlantic, the prevailing winds and climate change.

Man’s influence has always been secondary and will remain so, but that does not mean that it is unimportant. In recent times, after the second world war, when we were nearly starved out of the war by German U-boats, the drive in the United Kingdom and Scotland was massively to increase food production. Never again should we allow ourselves to become so vulnerable and so dependent on importing food, so the dash to increase food production defined our post-war efforts in relation to our land during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, until 1983, when, with butter mountains and milk lakes emerging across Europe, the dash for food production came to a grinding halt.

Since 1983, support mechanisms have concentrated more on environmental objectives and less on food production, and rightly so. Hedges are no longer ripped out and peat bogs are no longer drained, as considerations of restoring, repairing and enhancing at least some of the habitats that were damaged in the dash for food production take precedence.

Of course, arguments will continue about food security. Scotland and the UK are both still far short of self-sufficiency in food production, because for the past 40 years our food production and environmental objectives have been driven by a collective European view—a position that is about to change dramatically. Land use goals in the UK and Scotland could change again in the medium to long term, but that is a debate for another day.

In the meantime, we must focus on continuing to enhance and rebuild habitats. We must note that in Scotland our biodiversity intactness index, as highlighted in the report “State of Nature 2016”, is 81 per cent, which puts us 36th from the bottom of the list of the 218 countries that were evaluated. In other words, we are in the bottom fifth of the global index for biodiversity. As Maurice Golden said, that is not a good place to be.

We have lost 44 per cent of Scotland’s blanket peat bog; broad-leaved and mixed woodland have fallen by 23 per cent and 37 per cent respectively; and natural and semi-natural grasslands cover less than 1 per cent of our land area. Those and other factors have led to 9 per cent of our species being at risk, as members have said. Some 18 per cent of our butterflies, 15 per cent of our dragonflies and 12 per cent of our mosses, hornworts and liverworts are at risk of extinction in Scotland. Recently red-listed species include the curlew, dotterel, kittiwake and puffin.

On the plus side, overwintering wild goose populations have more than trebled since 1990—of course, that brings problems for the affected farmers. However, wader populations have declined by 50 per cent. Seabirds, too, have generally declined by 38 per cent since monitoring began in 1986.

What is to be done? I think that we are pursuing the right course of action, as the report suggests; we just need to do more of it. Species numbers have always risen and fallen in our land and marine environment, with species becoming extinct long before man’s influence. Of course, if we could maintain and support all our existing species worldwide, that would be welcome, but it would deny the existence of the evolutionary process.

We must limit, where we can, man’s destructive influence on our different habitats. We must restore and replenish when we can, and we must encourage the custodians of our seas and our landscapes, of whom I am one, to do the right thing where possible.

I am delighted to have taken part in this debate and I support Angus MacDonald’s motion.

17:34  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Angus MacDonald on securing today’s debate.

The “State of Nature 2016” report is significant for Scotland. It is a comprehensive piece of research from 50 leading wildlife organisations. The UK 2013 report was groundbreaking, and it has been followed up in 2016 with a more in-depth look, including a breakdown across the home nations that means that we can begin to understand even more about the current state of our nature. However, as substantial as the document is, what it has to say is a great wake-up call. More than half of Scottish species have declined since the 1970s, 520 species are at risk of extinction in Scotland and another 6,000 remain on the red list of at-risk species.

Climate change has already had a severely damaging effect on our native species and biodiversity. Changing climates have disrupted mating patterns, hibernation and adaptation, leading to decline in populations. Changing and intensifying land management and land use have also led to much decline in and damage to our biodiversity. As the species champion for the great yellow bumblebee, I spoke last week about how the intensification of farming and grazing and the decline in traditional crofting practices have meant that a species that used to be found across the whole UK is now found on a few of the Scottish islands, with a tiny population on the north Highland mainland.

However, it is not just about declining species. As we have heard, Scotland is broadly ranked in the lowest fifth of countries for our biodiversity intactness index. Our ecosystems have fallen below the point at which they can reliably meet society’s needs, and the maintenance and the restoration of our ecosystems are vital to halting the decline—to supporting our flora, fauna and human population and to balancing our carbon budget and enabling us to reach our greenhouse gas reduction targets. To do that, we need to support the recovery of species populations, improve habitat quality and develop green corridors between fragmented areas of natural land.

The creation of a national ecology network would go a long way towards improving the condition of our natural environment. Small-scale changes could be urban green roofs, more tree-lined streets and more grass left for wildflowers; big changes would include the incredibly vital restoration of peatlands—which we have heard about—and an increase in protected areas. We need to put the same amount of effort into our green planning as we put into our grey planning. Green corridors would mean that increasingly isolated semi-natural landscapes and the species that live in them would be connected, cultivating a highway along which wildlife could travel and increasing resilience to climate change.

The truth is that we already know how to restore and support our biodiversity and ecosystems. We also know what the main threats are. We now need to ensure that the policy and regulation are in place and that firm, decisive action is taken to prioritise the health of our natural environment. This is urgent. The “State of Nature 2016” report focuses mainly on the recent and on-going issues, but the sad truth is that the damage has been going on for years—indeed, decades—and our nation is much poorer in nature. As many have said, we do not own the environment; we keep it in trust for our children.

The report starts at a baseline that shows how much damage has already been done, and the Scottish Government has an international commitment to halt the decline of our environment under the convention on biological diversity. The report “Scotland’s Biodiversity—a route map to 2020” runs out in three years’ time and we need to look at the bigger picture. The problem will not be resolved overnight. In the words of Barack Obama,

“Our generation may not even live to see the full realization of what we do here. But the knowledge that the next generation will be better off for what we do here—can we imagine a more worthy reward than that?”

It is odd that, despite knowing how important care for our environment is, as a society we seem to be reluctant to implement and take that forward. We have the knowledge and the tools; we need the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to deliver.

17:38  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I join other members in thanking Angus MacDonald for bringing this important debate to the chamber. I also congratulate the more than 50 organisations that collaborated to produce this timely report. It took more than 7.5 million hours of volunteer time to produce the data, which is staggering. That is a big twitch—a big birdwatch.

The intrinsic value of our nature is truly beyond measure, and we should never deny future generations the opportunity to witness the miracles of this garden planet. However, it is also clear that the future of our human society is inextricably linked to the health of the natural world. The environment in Scotland provides us with free services that are worth around £20 billion a year to our economy. Without pollinators, there is no agriculture; without peat bogs, forests and wetlands, there is no carbon storage; healthy habitats keep our air clean; and our water is stored in the landscape.

Our natural backbone faces major threats in Scotland from climate change, habitat fragmentation, unsustainable grazing, diffuse pollution, poorly located developments, invasive non-native species and unsustainably managed marine resources and land management practices.

When we think about the twin global threats that we face of climate change and biodiversity loss, it is clear that we have a monumental opportunity to rethink our exploitative relationship with nature. We can think in new ways that connect us back to the limits of the planet in which we live, while recognising that a diverse, healthy environment holds carbon and cushions us all from the environmental shocks far better than a degraded one would do.

To start the transformation, we need a better understanding of the health of nature. A comprehensive set of ecosystem health indicators would give us the dashboard to understand the state of the protected species and the wider environment. For example, soil erosion is an indicator on the dashboard that is clearly entering the red zone. Soil erosion undermines our ability to store carbon and to support soil biodiversity; it also undermines our very ability as a society to maintain our food production in a way that resists the extremes of climate and weather.

Farms can—and should—provide some of the connecting habitats for a national ecological network, which Dave Stewart has mentioned, allowing species to move freely across landscapes, along nature’s highways, adapting to changing climates and sustaining the genetic health of their populations.

The central Scotland green network is identified in the national planning framework as a key infrastructure priority. It is time to expand that approach, because ecological networks can do more than create space for nature—they can help to connect our urban spaces with the surrounding countryside. When green spaces are part of our urban environment, they bring all the benefits for our mental and physical health, creating spaces for reflection, walking the dog or teaching a child to ride a bike, while they also define our local landscapes and our sense of place in so many of our communities.

Perhaps that is why the loss of green belt is such a defining environmental issue in so many communities in Scotland today. Around Stirling, where I live, green-belt campaigns dominate concerns. Whether it is the campaign to prevent quarrying on the much loved Gillies Hill, the campaign against the persistent attempts by Graham’s Dairies to build on the iconic Airthrey Kerse or the campaign against the Judy Murray-fronted executive housing development at Park of Keir, communities have been fighting green-belt battles—in some cases for generations—to protect the integrity of their places.

Councils have reflected those concerns in democratically agreed local development plans. When ecological networks, such as the CSGN, are reflected in those plans, there should be a hard backstop against inappropriate development.

Until our green belt and ecological networks are given the status that a national infrastructure priority should afford them in the planning system, we will always see the value of capital receipts triumph over place making, particularly when developments come to appeal. Let us ask the question: what can we do for nature? Let us also ask: what can nature do for us? In answering those questions, we may find a way forward to halt biodiversity loss, to make our places resilient to climate change and to reconnect to nature.

17:43  

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy (Paul Wheelhouse)

I congratulate Angus MacDonald on securing the debate and I thank all members for their excellent and thoughtful speeches. This has been a welcome opportunity for us to debate Scotland’s biodiversity and to consider the overall health of our natural environment.

I remember well launching the biodiversity strategy with Angus MacDonald at the Jupiter urban wildlife centre. That is a wonderful oasis of wildlife in an otherwise industrial landscape, so I will certainly recommend that Roseanna Cunningham visits the centre in her capacity as the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.

I am pleased to contribute to the debate on behalf of the cabinet secretary who, as members have noted, is unable to attend. Climate change is a real and present threat to biodiversity, as a number of members have mentioned, and the Scottish Government recognises it as a real and pressing challenge. That is why we are making every effort to tackle climate change, and the decarbonisation of energy is just one example of the difference that we can make. It is important that, in addition to the cabinet secretary, other ministers play their role in supporting biodiversity and, through the energy portfolio, I hope to do that.

Claudia Beamish mentioned the positive work of the MPAs and marine planning. However, without action on climate change, we will not achieve our goals on biodiversity. I will cite one example, which is from a Guardian article of December 2015 on the decline in seabirds on St Kilda—particularly kittiwakes and puffins. RSPB Scotland’s Dr Paul Walton, who many members may know, pointed out:

“This data from St Kilda is really extremely worrying. We are losing whole colonies of these birds now and it’s a very serious issue. Frankly, it breaks my heart, it really does. There’s a very strong climate change link here that needs to go straight to Paris: what they decide there is going to determine the future of our seabirds. We are clear on what the science is saying, that really big ecology effects of climate change are unfolding in the marine environment around Scotland right now. It’s not coming, it’s here now.”

He was right to highlight the fact that we are seeing the impacts of climate change. That is why it is so important that we maintain our commitment to the Paris agreement. I hope that we are doing our bit in Scotland.

Dave Stewart and Mark Ruskell mentioned green corridors. I certainly recognise that allowing species to move to new areas can help them to adapt to climate change or to escape its effects. That is important, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary will note the remarks about the importance of an ecological network.

Like Angus MacDonald and Mark Ruskell, I am grateful to the consortium of conservation and research organisations that came together to share their knowledge and expertise in preparing “State of Nature 2016”. The report highlights the successes that we have had and some of the challenges that are ahead. Scotland’s natural heritage is celebrated around the world. In this part of the globe, we are fortunate to have some stunning species and habitats. Who can fail to be moved by the agility of an Arctic skua or a hen harrier or to wonder at the beauty of the machair in full bloom?

Such debates are often characterised by a focus on the more charismatic, larger species of fauna, and it has been helpful to hear a number of members talk about the wider ecosystem impacts on biodiversity. We must be careful not to think only in terms of Scotland’s iconic species, because the health of the wider ecosystem is crucial and, without the complex colonies of plants, marine ecosystems, bryophytes and fungi, we would not have many of those iconic species. All biodiversity is important.

Mark Ruskell referred to ecosystem services. We know that green prescriptions can in many cases be far more effective than conventional therapies. As Angus MacDonald put it, action on biodiversity is essential to prevent species and habitat loss, which is an aim that we should all share. Nature-based tourism is estimated to account for as much as 40 per cent of tourism spending in Scotland, so biodiversity is also good for the economy.

Last week, Graeme Dey had a members’ business debate on species champions. Like him, I am concerned about the decline in the numbers of some of Scotland’s iconic species. The Scottish Government is determined to tackle the issue of biodiversity loss, which is why we are committed to delivering the goals of the UN convention on biological diversity, as expressed in the Aichi targets to 2020. That international obligation underpins the Scottish biodiversity strategy and “Scotland’s Biodiversity—a Route Map to 2020”. Claudia Beamish is not here to hear this, but I will outline some of the steps that we are taking to achieve the Aichi targets.

The route map sets out the actions that are necessary for us to meet the international obligations. In September, SNH published two progress reports, the first of which detailed the work that is under way on the actions in the route map. Nearly 80 per cent of those actions are on track to achieve or exceed their targets by 2020. The second report assessed whether Scotland is on track to meet the 2020 Aichi targets, and I am pleased to say that good progress is being made towards meeting our international obligations, although further data that is necessary to properly assess progress on some targets is awaited. I am also pleased that Scotland is again at the forefront of shouldering responsibility by being the only devolved Administration to have yet begun to directly assess our country’s progress towards meeting the Aichi targets.

We acknowledge that there are areas that require more work. One reason why we commissioned the work from SNH was to give us a clear picture of the issues that require further attention or increased effort. Maurice Golden touched on a number of concerns that he has in that respect. We understand that we have more work to do in some areas, and we are focusing on that challenge.

Members such as Graeme Dey commented that there appears to be a disparity between “State of Nature 2016” and the SNH progress reports. I must make it clear—I know that Graeme Dey is aware of this—that the reports show two different things. I understand that “State of Nature 2016” provides us with a snapshot of the current situation set against the historical background. In some cases, as members said, it compares the situation now with that in the 1970s. There is considerable value in such an approach, because it shows us the extent to which we are—or are not—making progress in a historical context. Graeme Dey mentioned that the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee would be sending a report to the cabinet secretary on that issue.

The SNH progress reports look forward and estimate our progress towards the 2020 targets and goals that I mentioned. They provide an estimate of Scotland’s position in 2020, which is a different thing, and we must be careful not to compare apples with pears.

Early next year, we will lay before Parliament the fourth report to detail the progress that has been made on implementing the Scottish biodiversity strategy. The reporting will cover the period from 2014 to 2016 and is a requirement of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

The previous report to Parliament identified areas for further action and led to the Scottish Government and key delivery partners—including many of the organisations that helped to develop the “State of Nature 2016” report—working together to develop the route map. I hope that a similar collaborative effort will accompany the next stage of delivery on biodiversity. We heard from members about a range of biodiversity matters, and I am pleased to hear such enthusiasm and commitment from colleagues on all sides of the chamber. We all have a part to play in delivering more for biodiversity.

Like John Scott, I highlight the contribution that many of our land managers make to protecting and enhancing biodiversity, in a world where we also require an ever-increasing intensity of agricultural production. Approximately 40 per cent of our farmland is managed under the high nature value farming system, which includes crofting, to which David Stewart referred. Many farmers in other areas of Scotland are benefiting biodiversity by participating in the agri-environment climate scheme.

It is easy to focus on the negatives and ignore the enormous progress that we have made on biodiversity in Scotland. I am a glass-half-full kind of person, and I think that we need to celebrate success and use that to motivate us all to achieve more. Graeme Dey gave some good examples, such as the work on the conservation of golden eagles and the changes in muirburn practices. Good work is going on—we just need to do more of it and engage our energies collectively to achieve more for Scotland’s biodiversity. We have a long and successful history of partnership working—indeed, we rely on many of our NGO partners, and on land managers, to help us to deliver the route map actions.

Scotland has a wonderful natural heritage that is a source of great national pride and of natural capital for our economy. As John Scott mentioned, biodiversity supports much of our food and drink industry, generates significant income from tourism and underpins—some would say that it defines—our image abroad in many ways.

Scotland is breathtaking in its beauty and extraordinary in its complexity, and biodiversity is of singular importance to the people of Scotland. I urge members to support the work that is under way to deliver on the 2020 targets and I call on those who can make a difference for biodiversity to do just that. It is clear from the sentiments that have been expressed on all sides of the chamber that we have a strong group of committed members who support nature conservation, and I very much welcome that.

Meeting closed at 17:52.