Coordinating policy instruments that influence soil, water, and biodiversity in Scotland: rationales, needs and challenges

Monday, 4th September 2017

By Kirsty Blackstock, James Hutton Institute

Doing well but could do better is one way to summarise one of the main message coming out of an ESCom workshop looking at the coordinated delivery of policy instruments for soil, water and biodiversity. The workshop was held on 23rd May 2017 to discuss the rationale, needs and challenges facing attempts to implement biodiversity policy instruments in coordination with other environmental goals and policies. The workshop provided an opportunity to discuss where and how policy coordination might be needed, to inform future research about the most appropriate ways to achieve such coordination.

Whilst most participants were positive about the direction of travel, our ‘living graph’ activities suggests that there is still progress to be made in terms of implementing biodiversity policy instruments; and in integrating instruments protecting soil, water and biodiversity in Scotland.  Participants were slightly more positive about the progress on biodiversity than integration, which makes sense given that integration is a much newer goal for Scotland.

There were many reasons given for being positive about biodiversity policy implementation such as having strong high-level vision for biodiversity and a suite of instruments available for implementation, both of which are improvements on the past.  However, there are still problems with implementing biodiversity policies, particularly around development planning, and a sense that biodiversity is not viewed as important by other sectors or the public. Finally, some of the policy instruments, e.g. cost-benefit analysis, or seeking a return to past reference conditions, can prevent taking a more systemic or adaptive approach to conserving biodiversity.

Likewise, there are recent international and national policies that promote integration but a gap remains between rhetoric and reality. It is difficult to tackle multiple issues at once, and often it is easier to focus on a single priority, e.g. carbon sequestration, even though this may inadvertently reduce the focus on tackling other issues and delivering other benefits.  Integration requires working on multiple scales: a consistent and coherent framework at the national level is necessary, but learning and sharing ideas about how to do it on the ground, working with local people in democratic processes, is also essential.

Overall there seemed to be common issues around how to win people’s ‘hearts and minds’, for example: the concept of natural capital could be one useful way to change individual thinking about the importance of nature, but has yet to change the way individuals, society and businesses behave.  There were also discussions about how to set objectives and measure success, and who should be involved in these processes. However, unlike biodiversity, the discussions around integration were clear about the importance of understanding whether integration is needed and reaching societal consensus on what trade-offs to make. Finally, understanding land management rights and responsibilities seems to be fundamental to managing biodiversity and integrating delivery of multiple benefits from soil, water and biodiversity.

Two interlinked research projects from the ongoing Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme (2016-21) were presented. Whilst they slightly differed in scope, focus and method, the projects both identified the growth of ‘hybrid approaches’ combining regulations, incentives and/or advice and the lack of clear and substantive guidance on how to achieve multiple benefits using these instruments.  Participants provided useful feedback on the next phase of the research as well as information about associated activities taking place. The final discussion reiterated the importance of understanding what we want integration to achieve, and the inherently political nature of the choices that are required; as well as further discussion about whether to focus on management activity or ecological outcomes. 

Overall, the workshop confirmed that there is interest in improving the implementation of biodiversity instruments, overcoming challenges to integration and optimism about what can be achieved in the future. Further research is planned in 2018-19 to look at how these challenges could be overcome, in order to feed into future policy design in the next few years, particularly any opportunities arising from post-BREXIT reviews of environmental and agri-environmental instruments.


The report can be found in our resources section here