On 16 February, the Scottish Government issued a consultation on environmental principles and governance in Scotland. It is easy to miss the importance of this – after all what do principles and governance mean in practice?
Quite a bit as it turns out!
From fracking to GMOs and from the introduction of a deposit return system to ambitious action on climate change, our natural environment has relied on the application of EU environmental principles. At the same time, European institutions have also provided effective oversight of compliance with EU environmental law. Just think of the ongoing legal case on air quality laws where the UK was referred to the European Court of Justice for repeatedly failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.
So it is very important, as the Cabinet Secretary rightly points out in the consultation document, that “we have robust arrangements for a future where there is no longer oversight from Europe” and “prepare to fulfil any new obligations to demonstrate compliance with environmental standards”.
Indeed, this consultation is the Government’s first effort to prepare Scotland’s environment for a post-Brexit reality, if and when this happens. However, it also represents part of the Government’s wider efforts to ‘develop future environmental governance arrangements based on a careful and systematic exploration at the issues and evidence’.
But if this is such a critically important exercise that will determine the very foundation of our future environmental protections, what is the Scottish Government actually proposing?
Unfortunately, the consultation does not reveal much beyond already stated commitments. As welcome as those commitments to maintain and enhance our environment as well as retain the EU environmental principles were in 2016 and 2017, today we need to know what these commitments means in practice.
So, while the consultation itself is welcome, at this point it is a set of open-ended questions. Even on gaps regarding environmental governance where the Government’s own expert roundtable concluded that there are no equivalent domestic arrangements to replicate important EU functions, the Government is not putting forward any concrete proposals.
This makes the stakes so much higher. And it makes the work of the environmental sector and all those who want to see a clean and healthy environment more important.
We need to send a strong message to Scottish Government that to achieve their stated ambition for maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s environment, we need a Scottish Environment Act which:
- embeds EU and international environmental principles in Scots law so that they can underpin all environmental decision-making;
- creates an independent and well-resourced watchdog to enforce environmental protections in the same way that the European Commission and Court of Justice do today; and
- sets clear and ambitious targets for environmental protection alongside adequate financial resources.