Skip to content

Just transition: We must act now to save our landscapes and wildlife

Deborah Long
Published on
17 May 2023

Commissioner Deborah Long writes in The National

SCOTLAND is a land of contrast. Contrasts in our landscapes, in our geography and weather patterns, our language, culture and our traditions.

Scotland has world-leading access legislation ensuring that everyone, no matter who they are, can access and enjoy Scotland’s outdoors, as long as they adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

By contrast, Scotland also has one of the most inequitable land ownership systems in the world, where just 0.008% of the population owns 50% of the land.

We are, in Scotland and across the planet, in a climate and nature emergency. The changing climate, and the ongoing and significant decline in Scotland’s nature, is testing the resilience of our landscapes and our seas.

Climate change brings more frequent storms, unpredictable rainfall, high winds and widely varying temperatures. Species and habitats are finding it harder than ever to survive, with changes in their environment happening much more quickly than they can cope with.

This is reflected in the ongoing declines in Scotland’s wildlife. In 2019, the State of Nature report showed that 11% of species were under threat of extinction, with 49% of species in decline and 62% showing strong changes. The 2023 report is not going to show an improving picture.

Without biodiversity, the landscape we’re accustomed to and love, and the ecosystems and services we rely on are changing and becoming much less reliable and resilient. Habitat loss and fragmentation on land and at sea is one of the biggest drivers of change.

It makes species and habitats much less flexible and it renders ecosystem services such as flood protection, water provision and pollination much more uncertain.

There is no doubt we need to turn this around. If we are to continue living the way we’re used to, and with the benefits of wildlife and nature we enjoy and promote to the world, we need to change the way we manage our land. We have no choice.

Management of our uplands, our woodlands, our farmland is all about stewardship. Land managers, farmers and crofters are stewards of the land on our behalf and for future generations.

Theirs is therefore a long term view – how can or should I treat this piece of land so I can hand it on in better condition to future generations?

This long-term view is also an ecological view.

Ecosystems are amazing – they can absorb huge amounts of change until suddenly they can’t. Ecosystems are also extremely complex. We don’t know when they will no longer be able to cope with change.

But once they change, change is dramatic and reversing or correcting that change takes an exceedingly long time, with exceedingly high costs. We only need look at the impact of cod stock collapse or desertification in other countries of the world.

If land managers and farmers are to adapt to the changing circumstances that we are all witnessing in the news and outside our front doors, they need to know not just what those changes will look like but also what they are expected to do about it and whether they be will be supported in adapting.

THIS is where a Just Transition is so vital. Unless they know, and unless they are brought into the conversation about future land use and future agriculture, they can’t plan and can’t adapt. The Just Transition Commission’s visit to Grantown-on -Spey last week was part of this process.

Planning environmental sustainability into any business is not an obstacle – it is a necessity and a responsibility. The responsibility of the business owner or manager is to ensure that the business can keep running into the long term.

If we look forward into the long term, a decade or more from now, we know that rainfall, wind speed and temperatures will be even more unpredictable. Wildlife will find it increasingly difficult to move to more suitable habitats or to stay where they are and survive.

Unless we make sure they can survive, or move, species will continue to disappear. And once they disappear, we lose pollinators, flood protection habitats such as peatlands and natural flood plains, grasslands and woodlands, healthy and productive soils.

The Just Transition is a social contract for the ecological transition we know is coming. Everyone must be involved, everyone must have their say and everyone must be clear on what is happening and what they need to do.

The climate targets, the upcoming nature targets and the Scottish Government’s clear vision for sustainable and regenerative agriculture are all very welcome. But we will only reach them if we work together and enable everyone to contribute and play their part.

Science is telling us we must act now. If we don’t, it is future generations who will lose out and who won’t experience the joy of Scotland’s landscapes and the wildlife that lives there.

Deborah Long is chief officer of LINK, the forum for Scotland’s voluntary environment community, and commissioner of the Just Transition Commission