A paradigm shift? 12 months in ecology

An incredibly diverse and busy programme of sessions at the BES Annual Meeting this year means that I am only now able to find the time to report on Prof. Bill Sutherland’s Monday afternoon plenary; ‘Twelve months in Ecology’. Since Bill’s talk, we have also seen a fantastic plenary from Professor Jules Pretty, University of Essex – discussing the importance of social capital in ensuring ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture – which you can now read about on the BES Annual Meeting blog. We have also had a fantastic, and packed, session on ‘What next for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and IPBES?’, which I hope to find the time to report on tomorrow.

But for now, back to Prof. Sutherland’s review of the past year and some of the major changes which have taken place in policy impinging upon – or informed by – ecological science. One recurring theme which has come across in the sessions I have attended this year (apart from soil, which seems to have been a hot topic at this meeting) is that the past few months have seen a ‘paradigm’ shift in how the UK Government considers biodiversity and ecosystem services. First the Lawton Review of England’s protected area network, then the National Ecosystem Assessment, and latterly the Natural Environment White Paper: late 2010 and 2011 to date have seen the publication of some potentially highly significant reports and policy papers likely to have a major effect on the direction of environment policy for some time to come. But, Prof. Sutherland highlighted, the most important test – implementation – is still to come and there are some signs that the good intentions propounded in the White Paper will not be carried through easily into other areas of Government policy.

Bill’s talk was inspired by a visit to a conservation biology conference, where despite the blanket coverage of the ‘deepwater horizon’ oil spill in newsagents outside the conference centre, very little mention was made of the significance of this news within the meeting sessions. The BES, and other learned societies, Bill argued, must consider issues of importance and signficance within wider society. Hence his whistlestop tour through the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Nagoya conference in October 2010, and subsequent ‘Aichi Targets’ and strategic plan for tackling biodiversity loss worldwide; his examination of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2010 – a cause for pessimism, Bill suggested, not to mention the policy documents which have come out of the UK this year. Badger culling and the sale of national nature reserves and the Government’s U-turn over the sale of the Forestry Commission estate were also mentioned.

Bill urged members of the BES to engage with policy-makers as these and other issues are taken forward. Sound science is needed in policy debate and Bill urged the Society to engage even more clearly and in an even more relevant fashion with policy development. Issues which members should be aware of in the future, rising up the agenda, Bill suggested, are Arctic exploration for oil – and what the opening up of the Arctic may mean for biodiversity – reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (suggesting a possible shift back to a focus on food production, away from recent rhetoric on the incorporation of ecosystem services), REDD+, an increase in the use of biodiversity offsetting in the UK and the formation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Bill started on a note of pessimism, but finished optimistically, highlighting good news around recent species recovery, with peregrines breeding in London, salmon returning to many rivers, otters now found in every county in England and the near eradication of the ruddy duck as examples. Bill also suggested that there has been a shift in recent months towards policy-makers using evidence as a basis for a decisions to a greater extent.

Whilst I agree with much of what Bill had to say, and don’t think that his optimism is misplaced, I would say that the recent National Planning Policy Framework and Red Tape Challenge suggest that there is much more that ecologists and those who care about the environment must do before we can consider Government really ‘get’ the importance and significance of biodiversity. The NPPF was an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that it had really taken the sentiments within the White Paper on board, and were prepared to integrate environmental concerns across all areas of decision making. There is little evidence that this is in fact the case, with a presumption in favour of sustainable development (economic growth is the major driver) throughout the document. The Red Tape Challenge too could pose a serious threat to environmental protection and should not simply be dismissed, as discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Prof. Sutherland’s talk was a useful clarion call for action on the part of the the BES and I for one hope that this will galvanise interest and engagement with policy issues amongst the membership.