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UK Biodiversity Indicators 2014: The good, the bad, and the uncertain

4th December saw the release of the 2014 UK Biodiversity Indicators, designed to summarise and communicate broad trends about the health of the nation’s species, habitats and ecosystems. The indicators are used to report the UK’s progress towards the Aichi targets, agreed as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Twenty-four indicators have been developed, comprised of a total of 47 measures assessed where possible on both the long-term (since measurements began), and on the short-term (over the last five years). The indicators are grouped according to the five strategic Aichi targets, namely:

  • A: Address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society.
  • B: Reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use.
  • C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
  • D: Enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystems.
  • E: Enhance implementation through planning, knowledge management and capacity building.

So how are we doing? Overall, the indicators paint a very mixed picture. The positive news is that several measures show sustained improvement over the long-term: more land is being managed under agri-environment schemes, pressure from air pollution is reducing, the total area of protected areas on land and at sea has grown, plant genetic resource collections have improved and more fisheries are in sustainable management. However, other measures are much less encouraging: the prevalence of marine, freshwater and land-based species is increasing; the status of UK priority species has deteriorated in the long-term; and populations of woodland, farmland and wetland birds are all exhibiting long-term declines.

What conclusions can we draw from such variable trends? Firstly, at appears that on the whole we are seeing greater improvement in indicators that measure a reduction in the pressures on biodiversity (Aichi Target B), than in those that improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity (Aichi Target C). For instance, while two of the strongest positive trends are in the amount of land covered by agri-environment schemes, and the total area of protected areas, to what extent do these changes in land management translate into quantifiable positive impacts on biodiversity? A number of reviews have suggested that the evidence for the positive impact of agri-environment schemes on biodiversity is mixed. Similarly, whilst the increase in the total area of protected areas is clearly a positive step, interventions such as the Lawton Report have argued that a landscape approach extending beyond protected areas to create a coherent ecological network is required to achieve a step-change in biodiversity conservation.

A second issue that stands out from the report is the lack of sufficiently robust data for many of the indicators. While the report encouragingly shows a significant increase in the number of biological records being submitted to the National Biodiversity Network database, many indicators remain in development. For example, the measure of the status of pollinating insects remains as an “experimental, interim statistic”, there is no suitable measure for assessing short-term trends in insect populations, and the data for plant species richness in the wider countryside are deemed “too out-of-date to be fit for purpose”. Improved monitoring of our natural environment is essential, and initiatives such as the recently launched National Pollinator Strategy, which has monitoring at its core, are a welcome step in the right direction. Yet as the recent Scottish Biodiversity Conference highlighted, effectively integrating monitoring schemes to track change across the environment is a difficult, potentially resource-intensive challenge.

Finally, if we are to achieve significant and sustained improvement in the state of UK biodiversity, then it is perhaps another set of indicators still under development which are of most importance. Aichi Target A seeks to “address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society”, and to this end, indicators are under development to assess public awareness, understanding and action; the integration of the value of biodiversity into decision making, and the integration of biodiversity considerations into business activity. Here, the development of natural capital accounting and reporting, and its integration across government and business, could have a real impact.

This year the release of the Biodiversity Indicators came just a day after the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget Statement. How different would the figures look if the state of nature and the state of the economy were reported as one and the same?



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The Autumn Statement: how did nature fare?

Yesterday the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement revealed government plans for further cuts in public spending. Another period of austerity awaits the British public. While today’s newspaper headlines will focus on the keynote measures – changes in stamp duty and NHS spending for instance – here at the BES we are most interested in how the ecological sciences will, or will not as the case may be, benefit from this latest review of government spending.

In delivering his budget, Chancellor George Osborne reaffirmed that reducing the deficit is central to the government’s long-term economic plans. In addition to £10 billion of ‘efficiency’ savings being planned over the course of the next parliament, public spending will fall from £5,650 per head in 2009-10 to £3,880 in 2019-20.

Government departments have already had their budgets dramatically reduced since the coalition government came into power. Defra has borne much of the brunt of previous cuts, with the department agreeing to a reported saving of £661 million between 2010 and 2014-15. This came on top of an additional £162 million of efficiency savings. The RSPB estimates that Defra will have seen cuts of approximately 50% in real terms since 2009-10. Consequently, they are concerned that a further reduction in their budget might compromise their ability to deliver on statutory responsibilities, such as the delivery of the National Pollinator Strategy and the implementation of the Natural Environment White Paper.

Notable by its absence in the Autumn Statement was any mention of natural capital and a ‘green economy’. Wildlife and environmental groups are increasingly calling for political parties to recognise the valuable contribution that nature makes to our country’s finances, whether that is via ecosystem services, savings in health care costs, or the creation of green jobs in the renewables and clean energy sectors. The value of nature was the central-theme of discussion at the Natural Capital Initiative’s recent ‘Valuing our Life Support Systems’ event, which brought together economists, accountants and academics to facilitate cross-disciplinary dialogue on how best to ensure natural capital is embedded in policy. However, the Chancellor’s silence on this issue suggests that government does not yet consider investment in nature as a valuable contribution to economic progress or a vote winner in next year’s general election. With newly released Biodiversity Indicators showing a mixed picture of the state of the UK’s fauna and flora and potential cuts in the budgets for both Defra and Natural England, the campaign to ensure that nature and the environment is considered across all areas of policy is at a critical moment.

The Autumn Statement also mentioned the government’s new long-term programme of investment in flood defences, as part of the National Infrastructure Plan. £2.3 billion of existing funds will be distributed across 1,400 flood defence schemes over the next 6 years to protect some 300,000 homes. Business contributions to flood defence schemes are also to become tax deductible so as to encourage private sector investment in the programme. This announcement follows stark warnings of the adverse impact that the increase in weather extremes from climate change will have on the UK economy. However, the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) stated that “the Autumn Statement from the government does nothing to address the real and sustained levels of funding that will be required if we are to meet the challenges of climate change and the major flooding we see on an almost annual basis.” In particular, CIWEM are concerned that the temporary increase in funding for flood risk management after the winter floods of 2013/14 has not been sustained.

The issues raised by CIWEM were supported by a report published by the National Audit Office which concluded that the limited resources of the Environmental Agency and Defra and current spending levels are insufficient to meet the maintenance of existing flood defences. Critics might therefore argue that the government are channelling spending into major headline projects rather than committing to a long-term flood management plan. In the latest Ecological Issues publication – ‘The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems’ – the BES argued that increasing the country’s resilience to weather extremes can be achieved by making use of the natural ability of ecosystems to endure extreme events. Ensuring that policy-makers think long-term when tackling climate change impacts represents a challenge with which ecologists will have to increasingly engage over the coming parliaments.

However, one announcement in the Autumn Statement that could have a direct positive impact on the ecological sciences was the creation of a student loan system for postgraduate master’s degrees; loans worth up to £10,000 will be available from 2016-17. The proposals are expected to bring an extra 10,000 students into postgraduate study and have been broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction to ensure that students are not priced out of further study. Hopefully this measure will improve young ecologists’ access to postgraduate training and facilitate the increased uptake of ecology master’s degrees by students irrespective of their financial background.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, recently described how rigorous scientific evidence has a vital role to play in government policy. With the Autumn Statement having a focus on economic growth and presenting a mixed bag for those with environmental interest, perhaps the most pertinent challenge for ecologists now is to clearly communicate how nature plays a vital role in any viable long-term economic plan.


Posted in Chief Scientific Advisor, Climate Change, Defra, Economics, Flooding, Government, Natural Capital Initiative, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Royal Society report warns of extreme weather risk

Are extreme weather events increasing as a result of climate change and what impacts will they have on our environment? Can human intervention via engineering solutions effectively mitigate the impacts of extreme weather, or should we rely on the natural ability of ecosystems to endure extreme events?

As we enter an era of climatic uncertainty, such questions will be of increasing relevance to scientists and policy-makers alike. In the latest Ecological Issues publication – ‘The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems’ – the BES assessed the threat posed by extreme weather events and examined the evidence for different approaches by which we might better predict their impact and develop policy to increase society’s resilience.

The topic of extreme weather events was revisited in a report published today by the Royal Society – ‘Resilience to Extreme Weather’. Focusing on flooding, drought and heatwaves, the report combines the impact of climate and demographic changes to provide global maps that illustrates how society’s exposure to extreme events will change between the present day and 2090.

Estimated changes in flood frequency for the period 2080–2099 relative to the period 1986–2005.

Estimated changes in flood frequency for the period 2080–2099 relative to the period 1986–2005.

One of the key objectives of the report was to highlight that the most extreme changes in weather will occur where people live. Based on the assumption of a population of nine billion by 2090 and a temperature increase of 2.6-4.8°C – the current trajectory of emissions – the report estimates that by the middle of the century large coastal cities alone could face combined annual losses of $1tn as a result of flooding. The Royal Society also warns of the vulnerability of an ageing population to heatwaves.

The authors stated that their analysis suggests that a portfolio of defensive options would best address the range of weather extremes. In particular, they encourage those who invest in infrastructure to look beyond traditional engineering options and incorporate ecosystem-based approaches, as there is evidence to suggest they are more affordable and deliver wider societal benefits while simultaneously reducing the immediate impact of the hazard.

Estimated changes in drought intensity for the period 2080–2099 relative to the period 1986–2005.

Estimated changes in drought intensity.

The authors also want reform of the financial system such that action to reduce exposure to extreme weather is incentivised. They have called for organisations to report their maximum probable losses due to extreme events, based on a 1% chance of the event on any given year. The importance of goods and services provided by the natural environment to the business and finance sector was a key focus of discussion at the Natural Capital Initiative’s Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014 event.

Further recommendations raised by the report’s authors included a call for government to incorporate resilience-building into policy, an increase in the availability of international funds for measures that build resilience to extreme weather, and greater coordination between governments at the international level to build resilience and share expertise when tackling common risks.

With the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report making an “unequivocal” case that “climate change will increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems”, this report by the Royal Society adds to the increasingly large evidence-base urging governments to take immediate action to address climate change impacts.

On the risk facing people by weather extremes, the report’s lead author, former BES President Professor Georgina Mace said “this problem is not just about to come… it’s here already.”



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The Birds and Habitats Directives: a secure future for environmental protection in Europe?

Back in September, the announcement by incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that there would no longer be a European Commissioner for whom the environment is their sole responsibility suggested the possibility of significant changes to environmental policy at the European level, much to the consternation of many NGOs. Two months on, with Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the newly created portfolio of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in place and a few weeks into his mandate, do we have a clearer impression of the environmental trajectory of the Juncker Commission?

In his opening statement to the European Parliament, Commissioner Vella outlined three core priorities for the environment component of his mandate: a focus on green growth that recognises the inseparability of environment and economy, the need to protect the natural capital on which this growth depends, and the need to safeguard Europe’s citizens from environmental risks to their health. Alongside this, his maritime and fisheries priorities will be the reform of the common fisheries policy, better international governance, and blue growth.

One of the first big issues to land in Commissioner Vella’s inbox will be the “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives, the EU’s flagship nature conservation legislation. The fitness check is part of REFIT initiative, a cross-Commission review of European legislation with the stated aim of “making EU law simpler and to reduce regulatory costs, thus contributing to a clear, stable and predictable regulatory framework supporting growth and jobs”. In his “mission letter” to Vella, President Juncker framed the new Commissioner’s task as being to “carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation”.

In his opening statement, Commissioner Vella encouragingly framed his task in reviewing the directives as “an assignment to maintain and, where necessary, improve the protection for our ecosystems and vulnerable species”. However, situated as it is within the context of a regulatory assessment whose primary focus is economic growth, many environmental NGOs, commentators and indeed business groups have expressed fears that the REFIT process represents, in the words of the Green 10 coalition “a front for deregulation” that threatens to weaken the strong protection for species and habitats that the directives afford. The directives are widely viewed as a successful example of international cooperation creating a level playing field for environmental protection across member states, with research suggesting that they have had a significant positive impact.

In this context, it is vital that the fitness check is informed by the best evidence, and that decisions about the future of biodiversity conservation across the EU are informed by sound ecological science. Therefore the BES Policy Team will be hosting an interactive workshop at the forthcoming British Ecological Society / Société Française d’Ecologie Joint Annual Meeting in Lille, bringing together ecologists attending the meeting from across the continent to discuss the key ecological questions underpinning the Birds and Habitats directives, and to add their perspectives to this important debate.

You can find out full details about the workshop on the BES website, or if you can’t attend in Lille, get in touch with the BES Policy Team to find out how you can get involved with this issue. The BES will be responding to the public consultation on the fitness check which will be carried out in 2015, using views gathered at the workshop, and will be working with partners including Wildlife and Countryside Link to ensure that ecological evidence informs the review process.


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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

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