If Scotland votes Yes, what could it mean for fishing, farming and wildlife?

The main priority is going nuclear-free and getting rid of Trident

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The Independent Online

Might an independent Scotland be a greener Scotland? Issues such as the pound and EU membership have tended to be the focus of the debate on the referendum; but as the vote looms, the questions are widening, and here’s an interesting one: what would a Yes vote mean for the Scottish environment?

A month ago, the SNP Government published a little-noticed, short paper – it’s only 2,000 words long – on what its green priorities would be if independence were achieved. It is clear that the main one has nothing to do with preserving golden eagles or safeguarding heather-clad landscapes, but is about Scotland going nuclear-free – that is, getting rid of the Trident nuclear deterrent, whose Vanguard submarines are based at Faslane on the Clyde, and ruling out the building of any future nuclear power stations.

The paper, Scotland’s Future and The Environment, issued on 9 August with a foreword by Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, lists five “green gains” which the SNP believes separation from the Union could bring, and the first of these is the possibility of placing the environment “at the heart of” a written constitution. Administratively, of course, such a move has to be listed first; but it is the second putative gain, the promise of a nuclear-free Scotland, where the passion clearly lies.

The government of an independent Scotland “will secure the speediest safe withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Scotland”, the paper states, and will shun future nuclear energy for renewables, such as hydro, wind, wave and tidal power: it says Scotland is on target to produce the equivalent of 100 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2020.

The third potential green gain is seen as the ability for Scotland to carry out its own negotiations over EU funding for agriculture and rural development, and for fisheries, directly with Brussels; there is an evident feeling that the Scots have been let down by Westminster negotiators over the size of the rural development budget they receive, which is only one-sixth of Ireland’s. (These are the funds which can be used for agri-environment measures, but even if their EU budget was increased, there is no guarantee that a future independent SNP government would choose to fund more measures to help declining farmland birds, say).

Gains four and five are about greater influence for Scotland, within the EU and on the world stage, and to be honest, only tangentially reflect potential gains for the environment. The brevity of the paper  and its relatively low profile – it was published on a Saturday – suggest that with the obvious exception of the nuclear issue, the environment is not at the top of SNP priorities.

So what might independence mean for wildlife protection, say, north of the border? The answer to that turns out to be in two parts: the direct effects would probably be small, but the indirect effects could be large.

Most on-the-ground conservation policy is already a devolved matter for Holyrood: for example, it funds Scotland’s two main green agencies, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, tells the Forestry Commission in Scotland what to do, and decides such matters as the siting of wind farms. Last month’s government paper also notes that the draft Scottish Independence Bill, which the SNP has prepared, “contains requirements that the Scottish Government and public authorities must promote the conservation of biodiversity and measures to tackle climate change”.

The worry, notably expressed in an article in the current issue of the journal British Birds by the leading Scottish historian Professor Christopher Smout, is twofold.

The first is that should independence lead to an economic downturn, as some commentators have suggested, there might be severe government cutbacks, and wildlife conservation would be likely to suffer.

The second is that if, one way or another, Scotland ended up outside the EU as a result of independence, the whole panoply of EU environmental law would cease to take effect – and that includes regulations such as the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which offer the strongest wildlife protection in the UK.

Professor Smout writes: “If we find ourselves outside [the EU], bang goes the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive, the Water Directive and more besides.

“We might not like all European policies, but all of our good environmental laws since the 1970s have also originated in Brussels.”

Which is a point which any English Eurosceptic voter, who also happens to be a lover of wildlife, might like to bear  in mind.

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