"The Southwood prize has brought a broader, more international, visibility to my research."

Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi Southwood Prize Winner 2013

Innovation, Risk and the Science-Policy Interface

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, has this week released his first annual report – Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It. Designed for a wide audience of policymakers, professionals, researchers and others, the report is framed as a “response as Chief Scientific Adviser to the challenges faced by decision makers when determining policy”. To that end, the theme of the first report – comprising a summary and an accompanying volume of evidence and case studies contributed by leading experts – is innovation and risk.

So why are these themes so pertinent to the role of Chief Scientific Adviser? The report asserts that “the need to innovate is a fundamental requirement for social and economic progress”, yet as almost all innovations have the potential to cause harm as well as benefit, “discussion of innovation has become almost inseparable from discussion of risk”. In our contemporary context of population growth, increasing environmental pressures and rapid socio-economic transformations, there is a pressing need to find innovative solutions that facilitate better ways of producing the goods and services on which our society depends. As such, there is an onus on government to design systems of regulation and practice based on “rigorous evidence and well-informed public debate”, which nevertheless do not stifle productive innovation.

Rigorous scientific evidence, clearly communicated, has a vital role to play in how we govern risk. In this context, the report suggests that the role of science advisers – and this could be extended to scientists engaging with policymaking more broadly – is to “describe, analyse and explain the hazards, risks, threats and vulnerabilities”, to enable politicians and society to make well-informed decisions. While the report outlines a series of specific recommendations, within the particular context of the role of scientific evidence in informing decision-making on risk and innovation, a number of key themes emerge, which can be summarised as: specificity, quality of evidence, and values.

Firstly, the report suggests that in order to maximise the benefits of innovation whilst minimising harm, greater care must be taken to evaluate particular innovations and their concomitant risks in relation to specific applications rather than on generic terms. As is often the case at the science-policy interface, asking the right questions is crucial. Within this framing, rather than asking “is nanotechnology a good thing?” the question might be “are nanoparticles of a particular composition an appropriate way to monitor a specific environmental hazard”. Consequently the report suggests that decisions about the risks and benefits of particular innovations should be taken “in the round”, paying attention to the risks and possible consequences of inaction as well as action.

Secondly, the report places an emphasis on ensuring that scientific evidence is of the highest quality and rigour, and that this evidence is communicated to an equally high standard. Systematic evidence reviews incorporating rigorous and neutral meta-analysis, such as Cochrane Reviews and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are highlighted as strong examples; “science cannot be used in decision-making if it is unclear what is already known”. Effectively communicating this science in a manner that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge, and expresses levels of uncertainty in a clear and open manner is raised as a key challenge.

Thirdly, the report makes it clear that when it comes to decision making about innovation and risk, science is not the only game in town; debates on thorny issues are always about values as well as science. This is equally the case at a political level, where social, political and economic considerations also influence decision makers thinking, and at a public level, where our individual responses to innovation and risk are subject to a wealth of cultural and social influences. These factors play out differently across cultures and nations, further complicating international decision making where individual countries may have very different approaches to assessing risk. The report suggests that making the role of values explicit can enable more productive and clearer discussions at all levels.

Read together, these themes provide welcome food for thought for researchers and organisations working at the science-policy interface, and provide an insight into the challenges faced, and approach taken by the Chief Scientific Adviser. How might ecologists take these ideas on board?

Posted in Chief Scientific Advisor, Government, Research and Development, Science, Science Communication, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

EU chief scientist role abolished: what does this mean for evidence-based policy in Europe?

The European Commission (EC) has confirmed that the position of EU Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), held by Professor Anne Glover since 2012, is to be abolished. Former President of the EC, José Barroso, created the role in September 2012 to provide independent scientific advice directly to the President. But the new President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has chosen not seek a replacement for Professor Glover when she departs in January.

The CSA holds the most senior scientific role in Europe. They have responsibilities to provide regular updates and advice on scientific issues to the EC President. They are also responsible for building relationships between the EC and high-level scientific advisory groups and to increase public confidence in science and technology. With the EC yet to state what mechanism the CSA will be replaced with for the provision of independent scientific advice, experts across the European science community have expressed disappointment at the latest news from Brussels.

Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of The Royal Society, said:

“This appears to be a very backward step by the new Commission, having only made the enlightened decision to raise the profile of scientific advice three years ago. Scientific advice must be central to EU policy making, otherwise you run the risk of having important decisions being unduly influenced by those with mixed motives.”

Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser, added:

“The importance of this role for science cannot be overstated. I want to pay tribute to Anne Glover for her leadership. She has been a tireless advocate for the voice of science at the centre of government.”

Professor Glover had previously talked of her surprise of the appetite for scientific advice in Brussels. However, she cited frustration at dealing with in-house politics and challenges in disentangling scientific evidence from the “political imperative”.

The position of CSA had been under scrutiny for some months as some environmental organisations – most notably Greenpeace, which elaborated on its position here – wrote on open letter that called into question the need for a CSA because the role “concentrates too much influence in one person, and undermines in-depth scientific research and assessments carried out by or for the Commission directorates.”

The nine organisations appear to have taken a particular aversion to Professor Glover’s stance on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by stating that “the current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of GMOs in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety whereas this claim is contradicted by an international statement of scientists.”

This led to a ‘war of letters’, with a response letter signed by forty scientific organisations and 773 individuals being sent to Juncker in support of the CSA role. A further letter signed by the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK called for the role to be maintained and strengthened.

There is a risk that the controversy of this issue could damage science within Europe, led by deterioration in the relationships between science organisations and the EC. Attempts to undermine the integrity and independence of scientific advice provided to policy-makers will be perceived by many scientists as a downgrading of the value of science advice in Europe.

EU policy makers regularly battle over the strength of scientific evidence, for instance the impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators or the impact of biofuel crops on food prices, and lobbyists and non-governmental organisations regularly seek to influence political decisions. In the absence of a CSA role, campaigners for greater transparency fear that policy-makers will increasingly exclude scientists because they do not agree with their advice.

With President Juncker not yet decided on whether to replace the role of CSA, the power of evidence to trump lobbying and the future of evidence-based policy remains uncertain.

Posted in Defra, EU, Government, Organisations, Royal Society, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Audit of Practical Work: How Good is Undergraduate Training?

A new study undertaken by the Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society has concluded that whilst most university teachers across the UK are happy with the quantity and quality of practical scientific training in the biosciences at undergraduate level, challenges remain to maintaining provision, most notably the lack of preparation at school level and competing demands of research and teaching.

The report, “Audit of Practical Work Undertaken by Undergraduate Bioscience Students across the UK Higher Education Sector”, is based on questionnaires and telephone interviews conducted with staff representing twenty-two degree programmes across sixteen UK higher education institutions. Questions focused on the amount and nature of practical work within undergraduate biosciences programmes, with the exception of fieldwork, which has been the subject of other recent studies. The report aims to establish an important benchmark against which future trends in practical provision can be measured.

With “excellent training in practical work” deemed “key to the proper education of the next generation of life scientists”, the broad conclusions of the report are encouraging. The majority of the staff surveyed reported that they deem the quality and quantity of practical provision within their institution to be adequate or better than adequate, with students receiving an average of 500 hours relevant laboratory based training over the course of an undergraduate degree. Furthermore, respondents perceived that this provision has changed for the better over the last five to ten years. While practical provision varied across institutions, there were no clear distinctions between pre- and post-92 universities, nor by nation. Every degree programme surveyed enabled students to pursue a discovery based, exploratory practical project in their final year.

However, the study also raised a number of concerns. First, the respondents consistently reported that preparation for practical work at school level was inadequate, to the extent that this was now expected, with remedial mechanisms in place to bring students up to the necessary skill level. Yet in combination with increasing student numbers, this lack of preparation represents a significant threat to the maintenance of current levels of provision, with staff worried about their ability to cope with this extra demand.

Second, a number of barriers were identified that pose a threat to the maintenance of current levels of provision, and limit its improvement. Recurring concerns highlighted included resource costs and staff time, as well competing demands on laboratory space for research and teaching. Of significant concern is the perception from academic staff that investing time in teaching risks having a detrimental impact on their personal research and hence promotion opportunities.  The report thus underlines the importance of continued investment in practical training at undergraduate level.

Overall, the audit of practical work draws similar conclusions to the recently published study of bioscience fieldwork within UK higher education by Mauchline et al:  that provision is relatively stable and remains an important part of undergraduate degree programmes, yet care must be taken to ensure that the threats to this provision continue to be closely monitored and appropriately addressed. The BES is currently planning a HE teaching conference next year that will focus on practical ecology and fieldwork.  Please get in touch if you would like to get involved.

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Bees’ Needs: Government launches National Pollinator Strategy

Last week, the Natural Capital Initiative – a partnership between the British Ecological Society, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute – hosted Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014, a summit bringing together scientists, policymakers and businesses to debate how we can better preserve those elements of nature that provide the vital services on which our human society and economy depends. There are few clearer examples of our reliance on these ecosystem services than the role of insect pollinators in our agricultural system, and it was therefore apt that last week also saw the launch of the UK Government’s National Pollinator Strategy – a new ten year plan “to help pollinating insects survive and thrive”.

Following the publication of a draft version earlier this year and a subsequent consultation, the final strategy was launched on Tuesday by Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss as part of her first ministerial speech on the natural environment. The strategy outlines the Government’s commitment to “taking action to improve the state of our bees and other pollinating insects and to build up our understanding of current populations and of the causes of decline”. Expressed in simple terms as expanding the provision of “food and a home” for bees and other pollinators, the strategy aims to deliver more and better flower-rich habitats across the country that support  a healthy  and resilient population of insects, with no further extinctions of threatened species and improved awareness across different audiences of the essential needs of pollinators.

The strategy aims to achieve these outcomes through five main areas of work:

  • Supporting pollinators on farmland through the Common Agricultural Policy and voluntary initiatives to improve habitats, and by minimising the risks associated with pesticide use through best practice including Integrated Pest Management.
  • Supporting pollinators across urban and rural areas by working with large landowners to promote simple changes to land management, and encouraging the public to take action in their own gardens and communities.
  • Enhancing the response to pest and disease risks, improving beekeepers’ husbandry and management practices, and keeping under active review any evidence of pest and disease risks associated with commercially produced pollinators used for high-value crop production.
  • Raising awareness of what pollinators need to survive and thrive through disseminating advice to land owners, managers and gardeners, and improving knowledge exchange between scientists and conservation practitioners.
  • Improving evidence on the status of pollinators and the service they provide by developing a long-term monitoring programme.

While the announcement of the strategy was broadly welcomed by the many NGOs who have been actively campaigning for its introduction, the lack of specific targets and the limited action on pesticide use have been highlighted as weaknesses. Similarly, Joan Walley MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, welcomed the acknowledgement of many of the committee’s recommendations in the final strategy, yet expressed her disappointment that “the Government seems stubbornly determined to keep open the possibility of challenging the EU ban on the neonicotinoid pesticides”.

The investment in research and monitoring to better understand the status of our pollinators – a group we know surprisingly little about – is a welcome step. The paucity of our current knowledge was highlighted as a key concern at a recent seminar hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. However, the strategy does not include any provisions to further investigate the combined impacts of pesticides – both neonicotinoids and others – on bees and other insects, an area also identified in the seminar as being of crucial research importance.

The National Pollinator Strategy demonstrates a growing recognition of the importance of ecosystem services for our society and economy, and sets out some clear steps for maintaining and enhancing one vital aspect of our natural capital. The challenge now is implementing the strategy effectively, and crucially, monitoring its level of success.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, Government, Insects, Pollinators, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unequivocal” and “unprecedented”: IPCC synthesis report sets out the evidence on climate change

“Human influence on the climate system is clear and growing, with impacts observed on all continents. If left unchecked, climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

So concludes the newly published synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released this weekend in Copenhagen. The report represents the final stage of the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, drawing together the findings of the three Working Groups – The Physical Science Basis; Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability; and Mitigation – to produce a concise summary of the latest and most comprehensive assessment of climate change. In the words of IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri, it is anticipated that the report “will provide the roadmap by which policymakers will hopefully find their way to a global agreement to finally reverse course on climate change”.

The summary for policymakers, perhaps the most important version of the report, makes for sobering reading. It states that warming of the climate system is “unequivocal”, with many of the observed changes “unprecedented”. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are now “higher than ever”, and their effects are “extremely likely” to be the dominant cause of observed warming. For all emissions scenarios other than strong mitigation, the increase in surface temperature above pre-industrial levels is “more likely than not” to exceed 2°C by the end of the century, with increased likelihood of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems”.

If we focus specifically on the ecological content, the report states with high confidence that “many terrestrial, freshwater and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances and species interactions in response to climate change”. It is clear that climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks in natural systems, with a “large fraction of species” facing “increased extinction risk” during and beyond the 21st century. The report draws specific attention to the vulnerability of coral reefs and polar ecosystems, and also highlights the inability of plant species in particular to shift their geographic range quickly enough to keep pace with both current and projected rates of climate change.

Taken alongside the impacts on other physical systems, including ice sheet melting, an increase in extreme weather events, sea-level rise and ocean acidification, and the consequent effects on food security and ecosystem services, the outlook appears bleak. And indeed, the message is set out in stark terms, emphasising that without stronger mitigation efforts now, including rapid cuts to carbon emissions, there is a “very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts”. Yet the report also offers hope; according to Rajendra Pachauri “we have the means to limit climate change. The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change”.

The next twelve months will provide a crucial test of that will. In late 2015 the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Paris, with the aim of securing a universal, legally binding agreement on climate change and emissions reduction from all nations in the world for the first time. The IPCC synthesis report represents a clear platform from which evidence-based negotiations can proceed; ensuring that those negotiations succeed in reaching the necessary agreement remains a complex and uncertain task.

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Call for political parties to ‘Act for Nature’

The RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts have challenged political parties to ‘Act for Nature’ by committing to a Nature and Wellbeing Act. The Nature and Wellbeing Act Green Paper, which was published yesterday, outlines an ambitious package of measures for tackling the decline in the natural environment and increasing people’s access to natural space for the benefit of their health and wellbeing. The organisations state that nature “underpins every aspect of our existence” and “offers immense benefits to our mental and physical health, and this needs recognition”.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “We know that nature is good for us but we also know that nature is in trouble and that our children rarely play in natural places. In this Green Paper, we demonstrate that our national wealth and our national health depend on action to protect nature, and so do many of our most wonderful species and habitats. That’s why the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are challenging all political parties to introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act in the next Parliament—only by valuing, protecting and connecting people with our natural world will government achieve its social and economic plans.”

The Green Paper calls for all political parties to back the recovery of nature through manifesto commitments in the run-up to the next general election in May 2015. Action would be taken to better value nature and put it at the heart of policy-making, protect and restore nature by establishing a ‘national ecological network’, and connect everyone to nature by increasing the extent, accessibility and quality of natural green space near homes.

Targets for the in-coming government include a 10% increase in populations of key species and for 80% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to be in good condition by 2040. The Act would also establish an independent body with statutory powers for holding Government to account on how the country’s natural assets are being utilised.

The conservation organisations state that there is compelling evidence which shows just how much people need nature:

The Green Paper also cites escalating inactivity and obesity, the impact of climate change on urban areas and countryside productivity, a growing risk of flooding, and the unsustainable exploitation of natural assets putting a brake on economic progress and development as further evidence for the need for a Nature and Wellbeing Act.

Dr Tony Juniper, author and campaigner, said:  “Nature is neither an optional extra nor a barrier to development. Healthy nature is a vital prerequisite for our long term health, wealth and security. That is why we need a new Act of Parliament, to help reverse historical trends and to restore nature in a generation.”

Prime Minister David Cameron famously announced that he was committed to achieving the “greenest government ever”. However, the Coalition Government’s action on the environment was recently delivered a ‘red card’ by the Environmental Audit Committee for failing to make satisfactory progress in any of the ten policy areas identified, including biodiversity, air pollution, and mitigating flooding. However, political support for the Green Paper received a boost when the Liberal Democrats announced a set of manifesto proposals which included the introduction of a Nature Bill.

The campaign to achieve cross-party consensus for nature and wellbeing legislation in the next parliament will continue up to the general election. Environmental organisations are hoping that the adoption of a Nature and Wellbeing Act will herald a new era of government in which nature and the environment is consistently considered across all areas of policy.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, England, Environment, Government, Liberal Democrat, Organisations, Political Parties, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where’s the evidence? A systematic approach

In June, Defra published for the first time a comprehensive evidence strategy covering the whole of the department and its network of agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies. In his introduction, Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor, stated that the strategy will “require changes in the way we commission, collect and use evidence with greater participation from, and collaboration with, external partners and providers of evidence”. Included within the strategy is a recurrent emphasis on innovation, including finding ways to make better, more efficient use of the data and evidence that already exists.

Last week saw a room full of policymakers, academics and knowledge exchange experts gather for a NERC workshop highlighting one way in which Defra’s evidence strategy is being put into practice. The workshop introduced the use of evidence reviews as a method for facilitating evidence-based policy, concentrating on the work of the Join Water Evidence Group (JWEG), which brings together teams from across the Defra network to make better use of the available evidence in land and water management.

What is an Evidence Review?

“Evidence review” is an umbrella term for a range of methods for collating and synthesising evidence. In its most basic form, this may comprise a simple literature review, traditionally the most common approach to providing an overview of a topic. However, an increasing recognition of the potential for bias and subjectivity, and a lack of transparency, in conventional literature reviews has led to a growing interest in more systematic approaches that can better inform decision making and meet the evidence needs of policymakers.

Drawing on an approach developed to asses medical interventions by the Cochrane Collaboration, a full systematic review aims to conduct a thorough search of both published and grey literature according to a pre-defined, transparent and replicable search protocol and screening process. This map of research is then subject to a critical synthesis and analysis. In applied ecology, the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence has led the way in adapting this methodology for environmental research, and publishing systematic reviews on a host of topics.

While a full systematic review meets the “gold standard” for rigour, objectivity and transparency, it is also time consuming and resource intensive. To that end, the UK Civil Service has developed two related methods that follow systematic principles, but can be carried out more quickly and less expensively: the quick scoping review, and the rapid evidence assessment.

Quick scoping reviews are best employed to investigate emerging or low risk topics, retaining the use of a pre-defined search protocol but with a limited scope and focusing on describing rather than critically analysing the existing evidence. A rapid evidence assessment plots a middle path, retaining the rigour and transparency of a systematic review, including the use of grey literature and an appraisal of the relevance and robustness of the evidence found, but limiting the breadth of the search and depth of critical analysis.

Evidence Reviews for Policy Making

As Defra, and other Government departments, seek to maximise the efficient use of the evidence from existing research in order to inform policy and decision-making, it appears that systematic reviews will play an increasingly important role. At the workshop, Dr Alexandra Collins, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, outlined a number of reviews already commissioned by the Joint Water Evidence Group, on topics as diverse as the impact of the “Yellowfish” project in engaging local communities to improve the water environment, and a comprehensive systematic review of the effectiveness of on-farm measures to improve water quality. While JWEG is leading the way on the use of evidence reviews, this approach is increasingly popular across the Defra network.

With Defra commissioning evidence reviews through a competitive tendering process, there are burgeoning opportunities for institutions and individuals equipped to carry out systematic reviews to increase the impact of their research and play a crucial role at the science-policy interface.

Download the Joint Water Evidence Group guide to producing quick scoping reviews and rapid evidence assessments (beta)

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The Future of England’s Forests: What next for the Public Forest Estate?

The future of England’s forests has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. When the idea of selling off a significant portion of the public forest estate was floated by the Government in 2011, it was met with strong resistance from the public and civil society, and resulted in a hasty U-turn. In response, the Government convened an Independent Panel of Forestry to review the direction of forestry and woodland policy, and at the start of 2013 set out its response to the Panel’s recommendations in the Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement.

Almost two years have passed since the government set out its three key objectives for forestry and woodlands policy – protection, improvement and expansion – and its intention “to establish a new, separate Public Forest Estate management body to hold the Estate in trust for the nation”. What progress has been made since then? How close are we to seeing the formation of this new management body? And how will the Government ensure that this body is able to maximise the benefits of the nation’s forests for people, nature and the economy in equal measure?

These were just some of the points of discussion at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity on 21 October. Chaired by Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries), the meeting asked the question: “How should the Public Forest Estate be managed to achieve optimal benefits for people and biodiversity?”

Dan Rogerson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management) opened the meeting by reiterating the Government’s forestry priorities: protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change; improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature; and expanding them to increase further their economic, social and environmental value. Resilience was a key theme cutting across all of these priorities.

The minister’s opening remarks were followed by a number of perspectives on the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman (University of East Anglia) outlined how increasingly comprehensive data on land use and the value of ecosystem services can enable better decision-making. Focusing on the question of expanding the forest estate, Professor Bateman illustrated how accounting for the non-market values generated by forests, from recreation to catchment management, could direct expansion towards areas where it could have most benefit for people, nature and the economy – predominantly on the fringes of major conurbations.

Justin Cooke (The Ramblers) emphasised the need for public access to be placed at the heart of the new Public Forest Estate, and that resources needed to be appropriately directed to enable this, whilst Austin Brady (Woodland Trust) highlighted the need to think beyond “forests” to encompass trees in the wider landscape, and also the opportunity for the Public Forest Estate to be a potential showcase and test-bed for payments for ecosystem services.

Finally Simon Hodgson (Chief Executive, Forest Enterprise England) outlined current progress towards the establishment of the new body, which is currently focused on reviewing current legislation and working with legal advisors to establish the basis for an organisation with a triple purpose – delivering benefits for people, nature and the economy.

While the ensuing discussion was wide ranging, a few recurring points stood out. First, raised by both the Woodland Trust and Caroline Lucas MP (Green) was the question of why the Public Forest Estate was not explicitly excluded from provisions under the proposed Infrastructure Bill that permit the transfer of public land to the Homes and Communities Agency. While Dan Rogerson reiterated that the Government had no intention of transferring any of the Public Forest Estate in this manner, and that an amendment to the bill was not necessary, it was clear that this did not fully address the audience’s concerns.

Second, the degree to which the language of natural capital and ecosystem services permeated the debate, and indeed the Government’s stated plans for the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman’s presentation was a perfect example of how taking into account non-market values of the services nature provides can lead to better environmental decision making.  However, it was noticeable that considerable uncertainty remains around the application of this approach in day-to-day practice; whilst the reorganisation of the Public Forest Estate is seen as a great opportunity to test tools such as payments for ecosystem services, there were few concrete examples of how this would work.

The Government’s commitment to following the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry and establishing a new management body for the Public Forest Estate with a genuine triple bottom line represents a real opportunity to ensure a sustainable future for England’s forests. However, with the legislation required to create this body looking increasingly unlikely before the 2015 General Election, ongoing scrutiny is required to ensure that the new body lives up to its potential.

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EU Climate targets: What’s the deal?

Last week Brussels was host to a heated EU summit aiming for an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions across Europe. Campaigners were hoping for a deal that would see Europe take a leading role globally on climate policy. In the early hours of Friday a deal was agreed whereby greenhouse gas emissions will be cut across the EU as a whole by 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

The deal, which was described by Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey as “a historic moment”, was revealed in a tweet by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

EU nations have also agreed to increase the use of renewable energy to 27% of total energy production and increase energy efficiency to at least 27% compared to a 1990 baseline. The renewable energy target is binding at EU-wide level, but the later target will only rely on the voluntary action of nations.

French President, François Hollande, said the deal would send out a clear message to the world’s big polluters, such as China and the United States, to agree global legally-binding greenhouse gas emissions at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next year.

Ed Davey said “Europe has sent a clear and firm message to the world that ambitious climate action is needed now… it lays down the gauntlet to the world to come forward with ambitious climate targets.”

The summit was characterised by arguments between nations such as Poland, which is heavily reliant on coal-powered plants for energy and was concerned about the financial burdens arising from nationally-binding targets, and those such as Germany, that were willing to push for a higher target of 50% emission reduction by 2030, as well as binding targets to force countries to cut their energy consumption.

The UK Government were opposed to nationally-binding targets for renewables, with a Downing Street spokeswoman reported as stating that “it’s important that you’ve got flexibility over your energy mix.” Under the new deal, from 2020 the UK will no longer be legally required to generate a certain proportion of its energy from renewables. Current legally-binding targets require the UK to generate 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Trade union and business leaders had called for EU leaders to agree strong climate and energy targets, threatening that nearly one million potential jobs would be at risk from weak targets. Bernadette Ségol, the leader of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) which represents around 60 million workers, said “the lower the target, the fewer the jobs that are created. Governments opposing ambitious and binding targets are wasting an opportunity to reduce Europe’s shameful levels of unemployment. Politicians risk throwing away up to 823,000 new jobs that could be created by more ambitious targets.” ETUC had previously called for emissions to be reduced by at least 40% and a European objective of 30% renewable energy.

Some environmental organisations have condemned the deal as being too weak. Oxfam EU said “it is shocking that business leaders called for more ambitious targets than those agreed by EU leaders”. Greenpeace EU described the targets as “too low” and said they were “slowing down efforts to boost renewable energy and keeping Europe hooked on polluting and expensive fuels.”

Experts have said that the 40% emission reduction will not be enough to avoid the risk of dangerous climate change. Prof Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commented that the 40% target will mean future EU leaders will need to make a three-fold cut in emissions in just 20 years which is unlikely to be credible.

The new European Commission is expected to translate the 2030 climate targets into EU legislation next year. With the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 expected to finalise agreement on climate protection to replace Kyoto Protocol, it remains to be seen if world leaders will be capable of setting ambitious targets that aim to avoid a course of dangerous climate change or if they will settle for politically-achievable compromise.

Posted in Climate Change, Emissions, EU, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Infrastructure Bill: working for or against biodiversity?

The Coalition Government’s Infrastructure Bill is continuing its controversial passage through parliament. The main elements of the multi-faceted Infrastructure Bill concern proposed changes to planning legislation in England and Wales, as well as additional provisions for nationally significant infrastructure projects, town and country planning, and the control of invasive species.

However, aspects of the Bill have drawn sharp criticism because of the potential for adverse impacts on the environment. Particular concern has focused on Clause 21, which would permit the Secretary of State to transfer the “designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body” to the Homes and Communities Agency – a non-departmental public body that funds new housing in England. In a widely circulated 38 Degrees petition, critics of the Bill allege that Clause 21 has been introduced to make it easier for public land, perhaps including the Public Forest Estate (PFE), to be sold to developers with limited community involvement whilst bypassing the planning system. With over 250,000ha of land across England, the PFE is vitally important for the preservation of woodland biodiversity. This is especially pertinent given that the most recent indicator for woodland birds shows a 28% decline since the 1970 baseline.

The Government has since published a rebuttal of this “uninformed and misleading speculation”, stating that Clause 21 will not be connected to the new public body which is to be established to manage the PFE. The Government commented further, stating that “the underlying policy intention [of Clause 21] is to make it easier for surplus and redundant brownfield land to be sold and help build more homes.” Dan Rogerson MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management, also defended Clause 21 at a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Biodiversity event on the future management of the PFE after Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, challenged the impact the clause will have on woodland biodiversity.

Regarding invasive species, the Bill would empower local authorities to require landowners to control or eradicate invasive, non-native species from their land. Similar legislation is currently in place for dealing with pest species such as rats. However, in an open letter to the Government published in Nature magazine, 24 leading scientists have called for this aspect of the Bill to be re-written as “in its present form, it could lead to an irreversible loss of native biodiversity.”

The concern of the signatories of the letter pertains to the Government’s definition of invasive, non-native species. The Bill states that “a species is ‘non-native’ if it is listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 9 [of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981], or in the case of a species of animal, it is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state.”

This definition could therefore be used to classify species once found in the UK but now extinct, such as the European Beaver (Castor fiber), as being non-native and thereby prevent or challenge their reintroduction. It is also unclear what the future status might be of species that naturally migrate into the UK from Europe as a consequence of climate change.  Schedule 9 also includes a number of species that were once extinct in the UK and have since been reintroduced, such as the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), as well as some BAP priority species like the corn crake (Crex crex).

The Government state that the premise for the inclusion of these powers is to tackle the threat that invasive species pose to native biodiversity. However, it is clear that the Bill in its current form is failing to convince that these new powers will actually work for biodiversity rather than against it.

The Infrastructure Bill started its examination in the House of Lords, where it is currently at the Reporting stage. The opportunities for amendments to the Bill in the Lords are drawing to an end, with a final round of detailed examination expected to take place on 3 November. Following a third reading in the Lords, the Bill will pass through to the House of Commons where further debate and examination will take place with the potential for amendments to be considered.

Posted in Biodiversity, Birds, Conservation, Environment, Forestry Commission, Forests, Government, House of Lords, Invasive Species, Land Use, Parliament, Planning, Planning Policy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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