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What is the state of our environment in 2015?


The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ entered into force in 2014. Within this programme the European Union outlined an engaging vision of the future to 2050:a low carbon society; a green, circular economy; and resilient ecosystems as the basis for citizens’ wellbeing.  However, new evidence suggests that our existing environmental policy may not be enough to achieve the EU’s long term environmental goals by 2050.

The European Environment — State and Outlook 2015 Report  was released on the 3rd March 2015 and was prepared by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The report provides a comprehensive assessment of the state, trends and prospects of the European environment, placing it in a global context. The work aims to inform European environmental policy implementation and analyses the opportunities to modify existing policies in order to achieve the EU’s 2050 vision of “living well within the limits of the planet.”

What are the take home messages?

Overall the report reveals that whilst policies have delivered substantial benefits for the functioning of Europe’s ecosystems, the challenges that the continent faces today are considerable. The most significant challenges relate to protecting, conserving and enhancing natural capital. The key messages from the report are the following:

1: Europe is not on track to halt biodiversity loss, as habitats for animals and plants continue to disappear.

Europe’s natural capital is not yet being protected, conserved and enhanced in line with the ambitions of the 7th Environment Action Programme. High proportions of protected species (60%) and habitat types (77%) are considered to be in unfavourable conservation status. Europe is not on track to meet its overall target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020. This loss is particularly associated with the marine and coastal environment and the functioning of soils.

2: European marine and coastal biodiversity is declining, jeopardising vital ecosystem services

Marine and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity are under pressure throughout Europe, and their status is of concern. Over the last 5-10 years, many species are in jeopardy, with a low number of species categorised as in favourable conservation status or good environmental status. The target of achieving good environmental status by 2020 is at risk due to overfishing, sea floor damage, pollution by nutrient enrichment and contaminants (including marine litter and underwater noise), introduction of invasive alien species, and the acidification of Europe’s seas. The assessment predicts that over the next 20 years, the pressures and effects of climate change on marine ecosystems are set to continue.

3. European land-use change and intensification increasingly threaten soil function and ecosystem services

Land use is a major factor influencing the distribution and functioning of ecosystems in Europe.  Degradation, fragmentation and unsustainable use of land is jeopardising the provision of natural capital, threatening biodiversity, and increasing Europe’s vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. The report reveals that soil erosion, contamination and sealing are persistent problems for the EU’s territory. Over the last 5-10 years, there have been significant losses of soil functions due to urban land take and land degradation, resulting from soil erosion and land intensification. Over 30% of Europe’s landscape is highly fragmented, affecting the connectivity and health of ecosystems. This reduces the ability of ecosystems to provide services, and to provide viable habitats for species. The assessment predicts that there will be very little change in land use, or the environmental and socio-economic drivers that shape it, over the next 20 years.

4. Europe will continue to feel the increasing impacts of climate change, with serious losses for biodiversity

Climate change is occurring in Europe and around the world. Climatic changes have established new records in recent years: mean temperature has increased, and precipitation patterns have changed. The report reveals that over the last 5-10 years, the life cycles and distribution of many species have changed due to temperature increase, warming oceans and shrinking of our frozen environments.  Looking ahead (over 20 years), stronger and more numerous climate change impacts are predicted, with increasingly serious losses of biodiversity.

5. The UK needs to overcome a variety of challenges to protect biodiversity

The report revealed that there have been marked improvements to the UK’s environment over the last decade. The UK has experienced reductions in pollution in rivers and lakes, decreased amounts of waste (including plastic bags) and a downward trend in emissions. However, what is clear is that the UK still has a number of issues to tackle, in order to protect, conserve and enhance our natural capital.  Specifically, the UK will need to address the following issues:

a. Reductions in all aspects of biodiversity (specifically farmland birds, priority species and habitats of European Importance)

b.  Loss of riverine and lake habitat

c. Declines in biodiversity in the marine and coastal environment (including seabirds and mammals)

What’s next for the UK?

The State and Outlook 2015 Report has highlighted a number of opportunities to  modify existing policies in order to achieve the EU’s 2050 vision of “living well within the limits of the planet.”  This evidence should be heeded if the UK is to secure a better natural environment and to put in place foundations for a change in culture and behaviours.  This cannot be done by government alone, individuals, businesses, community groups and Non-Governmental Organisations will need to work collaboratively to achieve this ambition.

Posted in Biodiversity, Ecology, EU, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions?

On 9th March, environment spokespeople from the UK’s major political parties will take to the stage in central London for the ‘People, Politics and Planet’ debate chaired by accomplished broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, organised by the Sibthorp Trust, with the British Ecological Society and Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management. This is the first time, in the run up to this year’s General Election on 7th May, that the parties’ environmental policies will have been subjected to scrutiny and debate in a public forum. It is a unique opportunity for members of the public, along with members of the BES and CIEEM to question politicians on their parties’ environmental credentials.

Tickets are still available for the debate – with over 300 delegates now confirmed – and there is a 50% discount on the ticket price for members of the BES, CIEEM and students.

In advance of the debate, here are further details about our panellists:

Natalie Bennett, Leader, Green Party


Natalie has been the elected leader of the Green Party since September 2012. She was previously the Co-ordinator of Camden Greens and founding chair of the Green Party Women’s Group. She is standing in Holborn and St. Pancras in the 2015 General Election.

Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Minister for the Natural Environment, Labour Party


Barry was elected as MP for Brent North in 1997. In 2013 he was appointed as Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Natural Environment, and was previously Ed Miliband’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and the Environment.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP, Scottish National Party

Pol_EW_headshot 2

Eilidh was elected as MP for Banff and Buchan in 2010. She is the Shadow SNP Spokesperson for Agriculture and Fisheries, Women, International Development, and Work and Pensions. She has been a policy adviser and campaigns manager for Oxfam and helped establish the Scottish Fair Trade Forum.

Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Natural Environment and Science, Conservative Party


Lord de Mauley is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He was previously a Government Whip and has also served as a Shadow Minister for Children, Schools and Families and for Energy and Climate Change. He has been a Defra Minister since September 2012.

Baroness Parminter, Environment Spokesperson, Liberal Democrats


Kate Parminter, Baroness Parminter of Godalming, was created a Liberal Democrat life peer in July 2010. She has worked as Head of Public Affairs for the RSPCA, chaired the campaign to ban hunting with dogs, and was Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England for six years.

William Cash, Heritage and Tourism Spokesperson, UK Independence Party


William is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Spear’s Magazine, a wealth management and luxury lifestyle media brand. He has twice won Editor of the Year at the Independent Publishers Awards. William is standing for election as an UKIP MP in the seat of North Warwickshire.

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The environment: how do we engage and what do we gain?

Over recent years, research has increasingly emphasised the importance of the natural environment in enhancing human health and wellbeing- one of the BES’s policy priorities. Previous work suggests that reconnecting with the natural world makes us both healthier and happier. Policy-makers are increasingly identifying this vital contribution, including Defra’s recent Natural Environment White Paper which aims to strengthen connections between people and nature. The evidence base for informing policy is continually growing, however there is still a lack of understanding of how the public use the natural environment and they benefits they gain from this.

How do we engage and what do we gain?

A new report produced by Natural England has attempted to assess how people use the natural environment in England and also investigate the relationship between nature and human health and wellbeing. The report reveals the results from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey, which was commissioned in 2009 by Natural England, Defra and the Forestry Commission. In its fifth year, the work reports on the results from 2009-2014, in which interviews were carried out with over 235,000 members of the English public. The work has two main findings.

Firstly, nature is increasingly important to the English public. Over the last five years, people have been spending more time outside engaging with the environment, using it to relax, unwind, watch wildlife, enjoy the scenery and as a way to keep healthy. During 2009/10, half of the population claimed to visit the environment at least once a week – rising to around six in ten in 2013/14. The study estimates that the 42.3 million adults resident in England took a total of 2.93 billion visits to the natural environment. The majority were taken to destinations within towns, cities or countryside locations.

Secondly, the environment is important for human health and exercise. Trends suggest that people increasingly use the natural environment as a ‘green gym’. Approximately two fifths of visits were for health and exercise, estimated at 1.3 billion visits in 2013-2014. The findings also suggested that the English public receive other health and wellbeing benefits including increased happiness and lower levels of anxiety. The public also stated that being outdoors made them feel ‘calm and relaxed’ and that a visit was ‘refreshing and revitalising’. These effects are not a one-off, previous studies have revealed similar human health and wellbeing benefits in the UK. One study by the University of Essex showed that a walk in the countryside can reduce depression,  whilst research from the University of Exeter and the European Centre for Environment and Human Health suggests that the closer we live to green spaces, the lower our “mental distress” levels.

Policy implications

Research that investigates the interaction between humans and nature in England will help to fundamentally underpin our evidence base on the importance of natural capital.  According to Natural England, recent research has already been used to inform policy, support national and local decision making and for research and scientific studies. One of the largest applications has been its use as a robust evidence source to inform the delivery of a number of initiatives of the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), including the biodiversity indicators for the Biodiversity 2020 Strategy and the creation of Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs).   

However, a clear strategy is now required in order “to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited”. The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) Third Report has set out a number of recommendations for achieving this vision. Fundamentally, to meet the government’s commitment to protect and improve the environment within a generation, the NCC advises that government work more closely with the private sector and NGOs to develop a strategy and twenty five year plan.  This report has highlighted the requirements for the protection and improvement of our natural assets. There is now an opportunity for our upcoming government to ensure that future generations continue to receive human health and wellbeing benefits from our natural environment.

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Green infrastructure: from encouraging examples to a joined-up approach?

Alongside its close cousins “natural capital” and “ecosystem services”, “green infrastructure” is an concept that has gained much currency with policy-makers in recent years. While defined in the Natural Environment White Paper as “the living network of green spaces, water and other environmental features in both urban and rural areas”, it is in the urban context that the idea of green infrastructure has really come to the fore. In this setting, green (and blue) infrastructure is commonly understood as the natural systems that operate within cities, providing vital functions and numerous environmental, social and economic benefits. In other words, green infrastructure can be seen as the urban application of the ecosystem services approach. But how can the principles behind green infrastructure be put into practice? That was the key question at last week’s meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity, held at Portcullis House on 4th February.

Tom Armour, Associate Director at global engineering firm Arup, kicked off the meeting by outlining the vast array of services and benefits that green infrastructure can provide within cities, from environmental benefits including reducing air pollution and climate proofing, through social benefits such as improved health and wellbeing, to economic benefits such as the positive impact on green space on property values. Often, these benefits are combined: for example an urban park may offer flood water storage, whilst also offering people more opportunities to exercise, which in turn reduces health expenditure. Importantly, green infrastructure isn’t just about high profile projects such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park or New York’s High Line, but also small-scale interventions such as green roofs and walls.

Subsequent speakers outlined a number of impressive case studies illustrating how green infrastructure ideas were being put into practice. In London, The Crown Estate are implementing improvements along the length of Regent Street, including green roofs, walls, pocket habitats and street trees, with the aim of creating a functioning green corridor between Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park in the heart of London. Peter Massini of the Greater London Authority outlined how similar projects were proliferating across the capital, with the GLA viewing green infrastructure as an integral part of the London Infrastructure Plan. Arup’s Tom Gray gave an overview of the Pinewood Studios Development Framework, a plan for expanding the studios within their Buckinghamshire green belt site that aimed to retain the function of the site as an ecological corridor whilst ensuring no net loss of biodiversity through a series of measure from green roofs to a wildlife underpass. Finally Ron Gilchrist highlighted the role of green infrastructure and planning in creating coherent, healthy communities through the powerful example of community gardens in North Ayrshire.

A joined-up approach to Green Infrastructure?

The suite of examples of green infrastructure in practice were highly impressive, but also raised a number of questions about the broader policy context within which these case studies are situated, and how a framework can be developed in order to allow these examples of best practice to become the norm. In the Pinewood Studios example, the consultant was keen to stress the importance of working in close collaboration with the local authority in drawing up an ecologically-sound plan for the site, and in particular the vital role of the local authority ecologist in informing this plan. However, as was raised by a member of the audience, research by the Association of Local Government Ecologists has shown that approximately two-thirds of local authorities do not employ an ecologist, and one third of those lacking in-house expertise do not even have access to shared services located within a neighbouring authority. Are local authorities across the country in a position to ensure that the green infrastructure features of new developments really do deliver their purported ecological benefits?

This lack of a national, joined-up approach to delivering green infrastructure was further underlined by Mike Grace of Natural England, who acknowledged that the advisory body lacks the resources necessary to develop a national overview of green infrastructure projects. Following on from the White Paper, Defra established the Green Infrastructure Partnership as a mechanism for sharing best practice, but this is now managed by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) without any Government funding. Similarly, a recent letter to the Secretary of State from the TCPA, Landscape Institute, the Land Trust and Groundwork expressed concern that the link to Natural England’s guidance on green infrastructure had been removed from the National Planning Practice Guidance. In the view of the signatories, this represented a “downgrading” of green infrastructure in the planning system, and undermines efforts to deliver the Government’s ambitions for green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure has become an established concept with developers, planners and ecologists alike, and the wealth of innovative examples of its application is growing all the time. Yet it appears that the lack of a joined-up, co-ordinated approach, and capacity to ensure that developments really deliver the ecological, social and economic benefits they claim, remains a barrier to its wholesale adoption. The recent third report of the Natural Capital Committee offers a succinct assessment of the current situation: “there are some really encouraging examples […] of good work to improve GI around the country, but unless these are taken up much more widely, many opportunities to improve wellbeing will be missed.”

Posted in Ecosystem Services, England, National Planning Policy Framework, Natural Capital Initiative, Planning, Planning Policy, Uncategorized, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Policy Lunchbox: The Royal Society Vision report – the next steps

Last summer the Royal Society published its Vision for science and mathematics education, setting out the Society’s view as to how to secure a world-class education system, especially with regard to science and maths, over the course of the next twenty years. The product of three years of research, consultation, stakeholder engagement and careful drafting, the report outlines a number of concise, attributable recommendations to achieve a step change in science and maths education in the UK. But now the dust has settled, how will the Royal Society ensure that these recommendations are adopted? How do you start to put a comprehensive twenty-year vision into practice?

These were the questions on the table at the first Policy Lunchbox of 2015, which welcomed Dr Rosalind Mist, the Royal Society’s Head of Education Policy, to Charles Darwin House. As Dr Mist explained, the Vision report represents something of a departure for the Society, whose policy work is usually based on synthesising and assessing the available evidence. In this case however, the emphasis was on thinking forward – planning for the future based on “imagination or wisdom” – a challenging task that the project committee, chaired by Royal Society Fellow Sir Martin Taylor and including scientists, teachers and politicians, wrestled with over the course of the production of the report. Of particular value was the programme of stakeholder engagement that was initiated: ensuring that the final report met the needs of its core audiences.

The Vision offers six key recommendations: that all young people should study maths and science up to the age of eighteen; that curriculum change has to be gradual – a matter of evolution not revolution; that there is a strong supply of science and maths teachers; that young people see where science and maths can take them; that performance measures value good teaching; and that education policy and practice are evidence-informed. Dr Mist acknowledged that the Royal Society’s proposal is not necessarily radical, and many of the ideas contained within in it are not new, but that the Vision represents the first time that these recommendations have been brought together under a coherent narrative for the future of science and maths education.

Where now? Prioritisation and building consensus

So where does one start with implementing a twenty-year vision? That is the Royal Society’s current task – creating a roadmap for achieving the vision, reviewing current activities, and identifying priorities based on the Society’s strengths. According to Dr Mist, the first priority is to build consensus amongst politicians, teachers, parents and industry on the need for stability in the curriculum, with changes based on gradual evolution, not revolution. The Vision report is deliberately based on a twenty-year timeframe, recognising the negative impacts that constant churn and direct political influence on curriculum has on schools and teaching. After a five-year period that has seen dramatic change (and with the potential for more in the pipeline) – yet little evaluation of the impact of these changes – gaining cross-party support for a stable curriculum is a key focus for the Society ahead of the general election.

Further priorities over the next few years will include extending the Society’s thinking as to how curricula could be developed independently of direct political control, and how the movement towards a baccalaureate system whereby all students study science and maths until the age of eighteen would work in practice. The Royal Society will also work with the research community to better connect research with policy and practice, with a focus on the research infrastructure required to enable this to happen effectively. Further development of inspirational science and maths teaching (a deliberate change in emphasis from teachers) will aim to ensure that teachers are embraced by the science community, with the Society also supporting calls for the establishment of a professional College of Teaching.

As Policy Lunchbox attendees made clear, concerns about the downgrading of science practicals, the sheer volume of curriculum changes and their concomitant consultations, and workload pressures on teachers all present immediate challenges to science and maths education. But Rosalind Mist was clear that the Royal Society is committed to the twenty-year time-frame laid out in the report; many of the recommendations of the Vision represent a profound cultural shift in how the UK should approach science and mathematics education. These changes will not be achieved overnight, but with gradual evolution based on sound evidence, the Royal Society hopes to secure a future system of science and maths education that can “enable people to make informed choices, empower them to shape scientific and technological developments, and equip them to work in an advanced economy.”

Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society, the British Ecological Society, the Society of Biology, Society of Experimental Biology, and the Society for General Microbiology. Throughout the year, a series of lunchtime events are held which bring together guest speakers with those who work in science policy.

Find out more about Policy Lunchbox and upcoming events

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Nature, biodiversity and human health: how strong is the evidence?

In recent years there has been a growing recognition of the vital links between the natural environment and human health and wellbeing – one of the BES’s policy priorities. The UK Government’s Natural Environment White Paper explicitly acknowledges that “human wellbeing is intimately connected with our natural environment”, whilst the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are leading calls for a “Nature and Wellbeing Act”, based on the view that there is “considerable evidence to show that contact with nature can help to prevent and reverse poor health and wellbeing”. This link is also finding greater resonance with public health professionals, as demonstrated by the Faculty of Public Health’s call to make better use of our “natural health service”.

New study assesses the state of our knowledge

But how well do we really understand the connections between nature and human health and wellbeing? How strong is the evidence on which we can base policy decisions in this emerging area? A new study by Paul Sandifer, Ariana Sutton-Grier and Bethney Ward, published in the journal Ecosystem Services, has attempted to assess the state of knowledge on the relationship between nature and biodiversity, and human health and wellbeing: what they term the “ultimate” ecosystem service. The paper is based on a literature review across disciplines including ecology, public health, biomedical sciences, urban planning and psychology.

In some cases, the evidence is reasonably strong. The authors find that there is a large and growing body of research suggesting that human exposure to nature – understood in a broad sense as the “physical and biological world not manufactured or developed by people”, has a number of positive effects on health and wellbeing. This research is largely based on comparative studies contrasting health outcomes in urban spaces with those in “green” or natural settings, and suggests that there are a number of both mental and physical health benefits of contact with nature, including positive effects on mood, healing, heart rate, blood pressure, stress and concentration. However, the authors caution that many studies lack rigour, for instance in terms of adequate controls, sample size or duration, and on the whole remain correlative, rather than offering causal explanations.

While the link between contact with nature and human health is relatively clear, does the quality of the natural environment in question matter? Does a species-poor city park deliver the same benefits as a highly biodiverse ancient woodland? The review finds that the evidence for a direct relationship between biodiversity and health outcomes is currently limited, but with some intriguing emerging findings. A few studies have suggested that exposure to diverse natural habitats and many different species has an impact on health outcomes: for example research by Fuller et al across urban green spaces in Sheffield found that increased species diversity, or perceived diversity, had a positive impact on health and wellbeing outcomes. And while there is mixed evidence for the role that increased biodiversity has on mitigating the emergence and transmission to humans of infectious diseases, it has been convincingly demonstrated that human exposure to diverse natural habitats – and thus microbial diversity – is critical for the development of immune response to allergens.

Future research directions and policy implications

While the evidence base is growing, there are a multitude of questions about the relationship between nature and human-health that remain unanswered, and Sandifer et al offer a number of recommendations for further interdisciplinary research priorities. We currently have numerous case studies illustrating the impact of nature, and in some cases biodiversity, on human health and wellbeing, but little understanding of the mechanisms that explain how and why these effects occur. Similarly, systematic, large-cohort studies using health data are required to tease out the long-term, population level effects of contact with the natural environment on health, using appropriately designed metrics for both biodiversity and health and wellbeing.

As our understanding of the links between nature, biodiversity, and human health and wellbeing grows, several policy implications emerge. For public health, there is the possibility of making greater use of nature as a tool for delivering health outcomes. For conservation, the importance of green spaces and biodiversity for health and wellbeing offer a persuasive argument for protecting ecosystems. These opportunities are particularly pronounced in urban areas where access to nature is often constrained – a point underlined in the recently launched final report of England’s Natural Capital Committee, which highlights enhancing urban green spaces as a natural capital investment priority that could deliver savings of over £2 billion a year in averted health costs. Sandifer et al go further, suggesting that we require a wholesale re-envisioning of urban and spatial planning tgat “places human health and wellbeing at the centre, facilitates human interaction with nature (…) to the fullest extent possible, and ensures people are surrounded by and have access to biologically diverse natural habitats”.

Such a reorientation of the planning system is a highly ambitious goal. But as the relationship between nature and human health becomes clearer, it is certain that ecological knowledge and solutions will have an increasingly important role to play in informing policies that deliver for both people and the environment.

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Greenhouse gas: why nitrous oxide is no laughing matter for the environment

By Beth Brockett, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Carbon dioxide is the “face” of the greenhouse gases, but nitrous oxide (N2O) merits its own spotlight. The same “laughing gas” once used by dentists as an anaesthetic and used today by people looking for a quick, giggly high, turns out to be pretty bad for the environment.

Nitrous oxide (a molecule made of two nitrogen atoms and an oxygen atom) is over 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and accounts for 6.3% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. If nations are to meet their climate change targets, they need to pay attention to N2O.

While the gas is best known for its recreational uses, most of it is actually generated through farming, where microbes in the soil combine oxygen (from the air) and nitrogen (added to farmland) to create new compounds. This results in the leaking of N2O gas from the soil. As more nitrogen is added to the soil more N2O is emitted, so the best way to manage emissions is to control the nitrogen added via synthetic fertilisers, manures and slurries.

Won’t somebody think of the atmosphere?
Wellcome Library, CC BY-SA

This century, the world faces a challenge to supply enough nitrogen to maximise crop yields while reducing the release of excess nitrogen into the surrounding environment as pollution. It’s an issue I looked at in a recent report for the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology.

Nitrogen is an essential element for life, but it is mostly present as an unreactive gas, dinitrogen (N2), which only a few organisms can use directly. Agriculture was revolutionised in the early 20th century when the large-scale industrial synthesis of nitrogen fertiliser became possible. Food production increased and population growth followed; but huge amounts of nitrogen have subsequently been added to soils and the increase of N2O emissions is the inevitable result.

Nitrogen used in fertilisers has increased ten-fold since 1961.
FAOSTAT, Author provided

There are some scientific developments which could help to reduce nitrogen emissions while maintaining crop yields and so global food production levels. A few are listed here.

Instead of applying fertilisers equally across a field, precision farming allows farmers to fine-tune the location and amount of fertiliser spread by machines. This is based on soil and plant condition measurements and associated software-generated maps – optimising the yield and reducing fertiliser waste (pollution) and cost. In 2012, 20% of English farms used soil mapping to optimise fertiliser applications.

Infra-red satellites help farmers learn more about their land.

Plants could be bred to enable a reduction in nitrogen fertiliser. Most commercial plant breeding focuses on maximising crop yields under optimal plant growth conditions, which include a requirement for high levels of nitrogen (usually delivered via fertilisers). Some researchers have argued for programmes which focus on breeding plants that perform better under lower nitrogen conditions.

The final option is further away from realisation: the crops’ genetics can be altered to reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Some plants such as legumes (e.g. clover and beans) work with bacteria to convert unreactive N2 from the air into a form that is available to the plant. Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have recently begun research that aims to transfer this capability into cereal crops.

These research efforts are part of an international focus to sustainably intensify agricultural production: increasing yields without adversely affecting the environment or cultivating more land. Nitrous oxide is critical to the debate on climate change, which means that farming is too.


Beth Brockett was the latest recipient of the BES POST Fellowship. Find out more about the Fellowship and apply now.

The Conversation

Posted in Agriculture, Climate Change, Emissions, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, POST Fellowship, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Securing the future of our natural capital: a 25-year strategy

A comprehensive 25-year strategy to protect and enhance England’s natural capital is required if the Government is to meet its commitment for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. Business as usual is not an option, with long-term trends indicating that our natural capital is in decline, presenting a profound risk to our future wellbeing and prosperity. New legislation, backed by close collaboration between the public sector, business and civil society, will be required to ensure that this strategy is delivered.

Those were the headline recommendations of the third and final report of the Natural Capital Committee, released yesterday and formally launched at the Royal Society last night. The report represents the culmination of three years’ work by the Committee – whose members include BES past-President Professor Georgina Mace and Council member Professor Rosemary Hails – which was established to provide expert advice to the Government on the state of natural capital in England, and how action to protect and improve it should be prioritised. As Oliver Letwin MP, Cabinet Office Minister for Government Policy, highlighted at the report launch, the Committee’s work is indicative of the extent to which the natural capital approach to integrating the environment and the economy has entered mainstream thinking.

Building on the recommendations of the Committee’s previous work, the report – Protecting and Improving Natural Capital for Prosperity and Wellbeing – outlines three key elements of a 25-year strategy: building blocks, investment and financing. Building blocks includes the information required to underpin the strategy, including methodologies for monitoring, valuing and accounting for natural capital, and a prioritisation framework to identify required investments, assessing targets, risks, and costs and benefits. Investment outlines a suite of cases that could form the starting point for a targeted “natural capital investment programme”, based on the strongest evidence of economic benefit. These cases are: woodland planting, peatland restoration, wetland creation, restoration of commercial fish stocks, intertidal habitat creation, urban greenspaces, urban air quality and improving the environmental performance of farming. Finally, financing identifies a number of sustainable funding options for this investment programme, extending beyond simple government expenditure to include a wealth fund derived from rents from non-renewable resources, and compensation payments from developers.

While the recommendations of the report are clear, how will these proposals be taken forward? Chairman Dieter Helm was keen to stress that the terms of reference of the committee were to provide advice and recommendations, but not to be policy prescriptive – how (and whether or not) the Committee’s proposals should be implemented would be a matter for the next government to decide following the general election. Speaking at the launch, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss MP, welcomed the report and confirmed that a formal government response would be forthcoming in the second half of the year. However she did not commit to endorsing any of the recommendations, beyond reinforcing the view that environmental protection and sustainable economic growth did not have to be in conflict. There was however a broad consensus among the committee, also acknowledged by Oliver Letwin, that some form of new legislation would be required to implement a successful 25-year strategy, a suggestion also reflected in the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ current campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill.

The report provides a clear set of actions for government, but what does it mean for ecologists? The BES is a partner in the Natural Capital Initiative, which aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science, through fostering dialogue between sectors and communicating the evidence base (most recently at Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014). The Natural Capital Initiative has welcomed the report, stressing that bold action from government is required.

If a natural capital strategy is taken forward by the next government, ecologists will have a vital role to play in providing the independent scientific expertise required to underpin this plan and ensure that it is based on the best available evidence. At the report launch, Rosie Hails and Georgina Mace highlighted the need to develop better methods for pragmatically and effectively monitoring natural capital in a manner that is both co-ordinated and tailored to the needs of decision making. More research is also required to understand our natural systems, to identify non-linearity and potential critical thresholds, a theme identified in the Natural Capital Committee’s previously published advice on research priorities.

In the final six months of its term, the Committee will be hosting workshops and producing papers to explore the themes of the report in greater depth, and preparing advice for the incoming government. Will the political parties be prepared to back the recommendations of the report in their election manifestos? Without doubt, this question will be on the table on 9th March at People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions? our political debate chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby at The Light, London. Book your ticket now to find out.

Posted in Defra, Economics, Ecosystem Services, England, Environmental Monitoring, Government, Natural Capital Initiative, Valuation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Environmental Audit Committee calls for Fracking Moratorium

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called for a moratorium on fracking for shale gas on the grounds that it would be incompatible with the UK’s carbon reduction targets, and that considerable uncertainties remain about the risks posed to the wider environment. The EAC has also recommended that an outright ban is imposed on fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and ancient woodland. These recommendations form the primary conclusions of the Committee’s Inquiry into the Environmental Risks of Fracking, with the report of the inquiry released today to coincide with the debate in the House of Commons on the remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill, which includes provisions to “streamline” access to onshore oil and gas reserves.

The report considers the risks of fracking both in terms of climate change and in the context of wider environmental pressures. On climate change, the Committee concludes that shale gas cannot be thought of as a low-carbon energy source, and therefore pressing ahead with large-scale investment in fracking would not be compatible with achieving the reductions the UK’s carbon emissions set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, especially given that large-scale production of shale gas would not be likely for another 10-15 years. The report goes on to outline a number of further environmental risks from fracking, namely: groundwater quality, waste, water supplies, air emissions and health, geological integrity, noise and disruption, and most pertinently for ecologists, habitats and biodiversity.

The report finds that fracking poses a number of risks to habitats and biodiversity: direct loss or fragmentation of habitat, noise and vibration, air and water contamination, light, and traffic associated with fracking operations. It is worth noting that this conclusion is based on just two submissions to the Committee’s enquiry, from the RSPB and the Woodland Trust, suggesting that more research is required to evaluate the possible impacts of fracking operations on the local natural environment. The Government’s current stance is that shale gas extraction would only be permitted in National Parks, AONBs or World Heritage Sites in “exceptional circumstances” where public benefit can be demonstrated, and that these sites and others are amply protected by the existing planning system. However in order to ensure that the most valuable sites for biodiversity are protected, the EAC recommends strengthening and extending this protection so that fracking is completely prohibited in protected areas including all National Parks, AONBs, SSSIs and ancient woodland, as well as any land functionally linked to these areas.

The report has been released on the day that MPs will debate fracking as part of the report stage and third reading of the Infrastructure Bill, a major package of legislation that contains a number of elements of importance for biodiversity and environmental protection. As such, a group of MPs on the EAC have put forward an amendment to the Bill that would place a moratorium on fracking, as well as removing the provision within the Bill for the government to “maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum”. A further group of MPs have tabled an amendment to take forward the recommendation to explicitly ban fracking from the protected areas outline above. The Labour Party has also suggested that there are thirteen “necessary conditions” that must be met before fracking should go ahead.

Shale gas extraction is an emotive topic, with today seeing anti-fracking demonstrations outside Parliament, and the leaking of a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Cabinet colleagues demanding “rapid progress” on the issue. As such, the role of independent scientific evidence in informing debate and decision-making is essential, and the EAC has been criticised by some scientists for putting the “views of anti-fracking groups ahead of evidence-based scientific studies”. A recent review of the evidence by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that the environmental risks of fracking can be managed effectively with appropriate regulation, yet this report did not consider impacts on climate change nor biodiversity. While a recent study has pointed out the potentially serious impacts on biodiversity of high density shale gas extraction in the Eastern USA, it is clear that further research is required to examine the potential effects in the UK context.

Posted in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Energy, Land Use, Parliament, Select Committee, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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