I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a partner in a farming business.
I start by welcoming the consensus around the chamber for an economic recovery that does not jeopardise progress toward positive environmental outcomes. The position in which we find ourselves is unprecedented. Large parts of our economy have been shut down and considerable restrictions have been placed on the day-to-day lives of individuals. There is a clear imperative to recover and build back better.
Jobs that have been safeguarded in the short-term must be there in the long-term, too. Businesses that are being kept barely afloat must return to providing incomes and livelihoods. However, it is right to consider that this comes at a time when we already face significant changes in how our economy relates to our natural environment. The risk, if both processes are not well managed, is that the combination of economic shift and shock may well create equally unprecedented risks.
The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s report is an important piece of work that requires detailed consideration. It outlines many of the issues that have to be tackled if progress is to be made on reaching the ambitious climate change target that the chamber has agreed. Sadly, progress fell short in better times. The report notes
“consistent and significant concerns that existing policies” that are relevant in supporting a green recovery
“are not being appropriately implemented.”
We know all too well that progress against key environmental targets has been slow.
As my party’s rural spokesman, I am mindful of the role that the rural economy will have to play. Scotland’s agricultural sector is keenly aware that future progress will impact how it operates. One of the main points made by the committee was on the need for future clarity in a world beyond the common agricultural policy. That has been an area in which, across the Parliament, there has been dissatisfaction with a lack of direction and leadership from the Scottish Government.
There are commitments to align future rural support with climate commitments. That is a sound use of support funding, but how it will be achieved remains largely a mystery; that is the consequence of kicking the issue further down the road. Similar alignment should be achieved across other areas—including continued support for agri-environment schemes that promote decarbonisation. In many ways, rural Scotland risks being left behind by national change if adequate consideration is not given to its particular needs.
It is also worth considering in that light some of the sectoral issues that the report raises. The committee spoke about the needs around renewable heat, but the chamber should recognise the proportion of off-grid properties that remain in regions like the Highlands and Islands and that often operate on more polluting fuels at a greater cost to occupiers. The chamber should also recognise the levels of fuel poverty that exist in our rural communities, especially in some that I represent. By 2020, 11 per cent of non-electrical heat demand was supposed to be provided by renewables. That is not transformational, but it would have represented a positive first step had that goal been realised.
The committee properly underlined the need for active travel and public transport, but that makes little sense to communities where services are distant and local bus connections have been cut to the bone. There is little indication that the infrastructure required for the shift towards electric vehicles will match that being rolled out to more densely populated areas.
We should recognise missed opportunities in all of that. It is disappointing that renewable energy has often not benefited Scottish supply chains and that more has not been done to support green jobs in Scotland. The Scottish National Party’s talk of 28,000 green jobs by 2020 was not realised and a great deal of work went overseas. A green recovery must focus on making a positive contribution to our economy.
There is a real opportunity to rebuild more positively after the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been harm not just to our economy, in the expenditure devoted to keeping jobs and businesses available, but a cost in lives and opportunities. To ignore the vital role of the environment in our recovery will be a false economy. Unless we handle that seriously, it will set Scotland back even further.