- 27 Oct 2016
It is now four months since the European referendum. The passage of time has not lessened our sense of dismay at the outcome, nor, so far, has it provided much clarity about the future.
So today I want to make very clear where my priorities lie.
I want to maintain this government's commitment to our environment and our natural assets, to continue to seek the support of this Parliament for our ambitions and aims, to ensure that our environment is healthy and supports our prosperity and, above all else, to protect Scotland's position as climate change leaders.
We are recognised as leaders in climate change but we know there is more to do, which is why setting even more ambitious targets through a new climate change bill and working – hard – to achieve them is at the heart of this government's over-arching priorities.
Where do we seek common cause to achieve those priorities?
By aligning ourselves with our European neighbours, across the water.
Our membership of the EU has ensured progress on a range of important issues. It has enabled us to apply high standards in vital environmental protections to the benefit of our most precious natural assets.
We simply cannot afford to take our chances by jumping onto the UK Brexit bandwagon and turning our back on the EU and all that a continuing relationship offers in terms of our environmental priorities.
Fundamentally, a healthy natural environment is critical to our success as a nation. It underpins our economy, our health, our landscape, and our way of life.
Scotland trades internationally on our reputation as a clean, green country with wholesome food and drink.
We often take that natural environment for granted, but we must all remember that it is one of Scotland's most precious assets.
The threat of Brexit brings these benefits into clearer focus.
Although environmental arguments were not at the heart of the referendum debate, there is widespread acceptance that the EU has been a catalyst for driving up environmental standards since the UK joined in 1973.
We strongly believe that membership of the European Union delivers considerable social, economic, environmental and cultural benefits for individuals, businesses and communities across Scotland.
We have much to be proud of in Scotland's environmental record.
We have an excellent record of water quality. We are acknowledged to be one of the leaders in delivering comprehensive policies across the landscape to further enhance the water environment.
We have built up a reputation in Europe as leaders on climate change and on the circular economy - and we fully intend to maintain that position.
EU nature policy and legislation is effective, ambitious, far-reaching, robust, consistent and well enforced.
Scotland provides the major part of the UK's contribution to Natura 2000, with over 15% of our land area designated for a wealth of habitats and species. We remain a stronghold for a number of species which are now threatened or extinct elsewhere in the EU.
Scotland's first National Marine Plan was adopted in March 2015, to provide a comprehensive and joined up policy for protecting and enhancing our marine environment and resources.
We have shown leadership in areas such as natural capital, with Scotland being the first country in the world to establish a natural capital asset indicator.
The largest greenspace project in Europe is right here in Scotland, with the Central Scotland Green Network receiving some 25 million visits per year.
In 2015 we published Scotland's first separate air quality strategy, demonstrating our determination to improve air quality in Scotland.
We are working hard to halt biodiversity loss in Scotland.
And while we can't be complacent, overall we can be proud of our successes in seeking to protect our environment. The EU referendum result does not affect our commitment to build on these successes.
It is important to recognise that we are much more aligned to the EU's position on a number of issues, such as climate change, than the UK Government.
What the EU referendum result does do is create unnecessary uncertainty and frankly, Brexit would make it more difficult to achieve our ambitions for the environment. So we don't lose the ambition, it is just made a lot harder to achieve.
It isn't by chance that we enjoy high environmental standards within the EU.
We have been able to develop and maintain our high standards because the EU has created arrangements for trade between partner nations that respect and promote progress in social and environmental protection.
Scotland has been, and continues to be, an active partner in Europe on the climate and low carbon agenda. Scotland participates widely in EU research and development programmes, knowledge exchange and leads on delivering emissions reduction measures and pioneering low carbon technologies.
Membership of the EU enables us to help shape the rules, regulations and standards which directly affect our ability to maintain and enhance our environment.
It allows us to participate in the meetings and discussions that take place in Brussels.
Many of the environmental challenges we face do not respect national boundaries. Being part of the EU makes it easier to take collective action needed to tackle these environmental challenges.
Bilateral trade deals do not necessarily respect environment, climate change and sustainable development goals. Whatever the good intentions of governments, we know that maintaining high standards is difficult without trading arrangements that allow this to happen.
I believe that the best way to maintain progress on environmental quality and achieving climate change targets is within the EU. And let's not forget that is also what the Scottish people wanted – to remain in the EU.
Being in the EU allows us to promote resource efficiency and make genuine moves towards sustainability.
With our partners, we believe there is potential to reform producer responsibility to promote aspects of design that support a more circular economy, such as increased durability or recycled content. We also intend exploring how we could direct more products into higher value use beyond recycling, and into reuse and remanufacture.
So, what are some of the specific threats posed by Brexit?
Whatever form of Brexit the UK Government pursues, and views seems to change on a daily basis, we would no longer be part of the EU negotiating block on climate change.
This risks our international reputation as climate change leaders and our opportunity to contribute to global climate diplomacy. We would lose access to financial support programmes and ability to influence decisions that will continue to have an impact on Scotland.
Climate change targets are challenging, and the best way of achieving them is to continue with collective effort, which is vital for delivering on Paris Agreement commitments.
The UK's forthcoming exit from the EU is already creating uncertainty over the key building blocks to achieving targets, including emissions trading and effort sharing.
With a UK exit looming, the global community is also concerned about risks to the EU's position within global climate negotiations.
My portfolio directly supports a number of world-leading research institutes in Scotland. They provide cutting edge advances in agriculture, food and environmental research which have helped boost the performance of our rural economy and enhance our environment.
Their research also helps inform policy decisions, both here in Scotland and in the EU. Indeed the EU is also a major funder of these institutes, accounting for around £6 million in funding every year. The funding uncertainty is now considerable.
But the uncertainty is about more than just funding. EU nationals make up around one in six employees of the research institutes and their skills and experience are integral to their success.
It is an absolute disgrace that the UK Government has not guaranteed the position of other EU citizens in our country and by not doing so they directly damage the future of research in this country.
I plan to meet EU nationals from the research institutes next month and will reiterate that the 181,000 non-British EU nationals who have chosen to make their home here continue to be welcome.
The Scottish Government is actively engaged in discussions to protect our natural environment and progress action to tackle climate change.
In July, I convened a stakeholder event where we explored all the potential implications of leaving the EU on Scotland's environment. This was an opportunity to promote collaborative working, and to share experiences and concerns on these difficult challenges.
And I welcome the establishment of the Environment and Climate Change Round Table, chaired by Professor Dame Anne Glover.
This panel draws on different areas of expertise in academic and environmental organisations to advise the Scottish Government's Standing Council on Europe.
These actions, along with the establishment of the Standing Council on Europe, demonstrates how serious we are about exploring all options to protect Scotland's interests.
Given how much we will be affected by leaving the EU, it is essential that Scotland has meaningful discussions with the UK Government in developing the UK position for the negotiations ahead.
The environment has been a key competence of the EU for good reason. Progress in environmental and social goals have developed hand in hand with a single trading market.
A level playing field allows higher standards for all. We have also been able to work together to tackle global problems, including climate change.
However, if we do end up in a hard Brexit, our ambitions for Scotland's environment will remain high. We continue to be committed to maintaining, protecting and enhancing our environment. It is crucial that the environment and climate change are part of the consideration of future trade arrangements.
The Scottish Government will maintain efforts to secure Scotland's place in the EU, not least to protect our environment.
But we will continue to seek to protect the environment regardless of what the outcome may be.