New investment in Scottish land can benefit nature and nation

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EVER-INCREASING interest in the carbon-capturing potential of Scotland’s land is opening up the prospects of a ‘win-win’ that will benefit both the nation and nature – but there needs to be a collective response across the public and private sectors to ensure that the rewards are fairly shared.

At the Scottish Land Commission’s Land Connection conference, SLC chief executive Hamish Trench said that the way Scotland’s ‘natural capital’ is harnessed will be critical in making sure communities and local economies can prosper as the new sector grows.

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Natural capital refers to the elements of the natural environment which provide valuable goods and services to people. But the emerging and rapidly-growing influence of carbon value in the land market is being driven by what is known as socially responsible investment – best characterised by companies and organisations acquiring either land or carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions. Recent high profile examples include the acquisition of land in the Cairngorms by Standard Life and Brewdog.

Mr Trench told the conference this investment in Scotland’s land had the potential to bring significant change to Scotland’s environment and drive a ‘just transition’ to a net zero economy, but that there were risks to address so that the market works in the public interest.

Mr Trench said: “There is an opportunity for a win-win, a transformation that benefits nature and people. There is no question that this new investment will be much needed in delivering the land use outcomes Scotland is looking for. But there are questions to consider, firstly, about unintended consequences, and secondly, about how emerging value is used fairly and productively.”

The Scottish Land Commission is now undertaking work to understand how Scotland can make the most of this national asset in its land. Màiri McAllan, Scotland’s Minister for Environment and Land Reform, welcomed the Commission’s focus on the issue, adding that ‘it will help us find a pathway to balancing the need for private sector investment with community rights and ambitions’.

The Commission’s first step is to develop a better shared analysis and understanding of the scale and nature of relevant land transactions happening on and off-market at the moment. Then it will be addressing the question of who benefits and how carbon and natural capital values are shared productively so this value is retained in the Scottish economy.

Mr Trench added: “Investment in natural capital brings the impetus to develop new governance models for our land. This is not unheard of in Scotland – in fact some of the early community land acquisitions like Eigg and Knoydart were established with collaborative, partnership governance arrangements across sectors.

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“It seems time to revisit these ideas now in establishing land ownership structures that are accountable, resilient and deliver on net zero. There is much we can do collectively to ensure Scotland really benefits widely from emerging values associated with carbon and natural capital.

“The influence of natural capital value and finance in the land market is not an entirely new or unprecedented phenomenon,” he added. “Unlike many previous resource booms, such as oil and gas, this one is not extractive in terms of the physical resource. It is though, a very current driver that again reveals the need to modernise our underlying system of land ownership to meet challenges of today and the coming decades.

“As I see it, we have a shared challenge to manage this issue well – to build public confidence that while land use change will come at pace, it will also be fair, that the benefits will be widely felt and that we are thinking ahead to make the most of what is a shared natural resource.”