Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Environment, talks to META about climate change, Brexit and why it’s our duty to future generations to protect the environment.

Back in 2009, when the Scottish government announced it would cut carbon emissions by 90% by 2050, the target was lauded globally as world leading.

Eight years on and the Scottish government is just months away from publishing a new set of targets. In early 2018, all eyes will be on Edinburgh when it publishes its new Climate Change Bill that will include new goals for the 2030s and 2050s.

Despite a new report from the UK government’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) showing that Scotland needs to do more in some sectors to stay on track to meet its climate goals into the 2030s, the Scottish Government insists its climate report card is an overall ‘so far so good’.

When META sat down with Cabinet Secretary for Environment Rosanna Cunningham ahead of her keynote speech at the EEB Annual Conference in Edinburgh on 6 November, she was confident that Scotland is on track.

“We have met our statutory emission reduction target for the second successive year and are well on track to meet our world-leading 2020 target. The most recent emission statistics show that amongst the EU-15 countries, only Sweden and Finland have done better than Scotland.”

But the Cabinet Secretary didn’t shy away from the task ahead.

“There are areas where even more needs to be done in order to continue meeting our ambitious targets and to prepare for greater future ambition under our proposed Climate Change Bill.”

The Cabinet Secretary says that the new Scottish long-term climate targets will essentially be Scotland’s official response to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which she points out is something the UK government has yet to come up with.

But how ambitious will the new targets be? Some NGOs in Scotland have called on the Scottish Government to go for a zero emissions target by 2050. Calls echoed by Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the former Peruvian environment minister that chaired the 2014 UN Climate Conference in Lima.

“The Plan, together with our Energy Strategy and new Climate Change Bill, will deliver a low-carbon transition for Scotland, which promotes social inclusion and sustainable growth. The Climate Change Plan sets out real, on the ground changes to achieve Scotland’s ambitious climate targets. It is being developed to meet these targets in a realistic and workable way.”

As the woman in charge of environmental protection in Scotland, beyond the Climate Change Bill, Brexit is of course an omnipresent item in Rosanna Cunningham’s in-tray.

The Scottish government has led a high profile charm offensive since the vote to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016 to show to other EU governments that Scotland is committed to the European project and the protections its affords, including when it comes to the environment.

“The polices of the EU have driven up environmental standards, supported by sound and important ideals such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle that are fundamental to a fair and equitable approach to protecting our environment and mitigating against climate change. Around 80% of our environmental legislation derives from the EU, which has been vital in supporting our ambitious environmental and climate change policies. The Scottish Government believes we should remain in EU. If that is not possible, we must remain within the single market and customs union, which is clearly in the best interests of our economy, environment and society.”

A main priority for the Scottish Government is unsurprisingly staving off a post-Brexit Westminster-power grab and it is adamant that powers over the environment are returned to the Scottish Parliament.

“Devolution has allowed for ambitious and distinctive policy responses, including in relation to environment policy, over the last two decades. Environmental policy is largely devolved, so EU competence in this area must return to the Scottish Parliament, in line with the current devolution settlement.  Any moves to impose new constraints on devolved competences are entirely unacceptable.  There may be a need for a common UK approach in some areas, in the absence of EU rules, but these are matters for discussion and agreement, not imposition. In the event of Brexit we will seek, at the very least, to maintain compliance with EU standards. We recognise that there will be issues of compliance, monitoring and enforcement to be addressed and are interested in having an open dialogue about the best resolution, including where this may involve continued participation in EU programmes. Importantly, powers over the environment must be returned to the Scottish Parliament.”

But for Rosanna Cunningham the protecting the environment is not just political – it’s personal too.

“Why does environmental protection matter? There are so many reasons to protect our environment. But for me, this is fundamentally about stewardship. We have a duty to protect our environment for its inherent value and also because future generations deserve nothing less.”