Green jobs and a blue economy

Iterative engagement and clear communication are key if we want our science to be heard by decision makers, reports Dr Neda Trifonova from her BES fellowship with NatureScot.

Arran Northern Mountains
Arran Northern Mountains Shutterstock/James Linighan

A step-change is occurring in the use of our coastal seas, specifically by the addition of large-scale offshore renewable energy developments, in part driven by the UK and Scottish government aspirations to achieve Net Zero targets, create ‘green jobs’ and develop the ’blue economy’. To ensure the compatibility of such developments with other marine management issues and sectors (e.g. fisheries, marine protected areas), we need to evaluate environmental and socio-economic effects simultaneously. However, the nexus between pressures, such as changes in the biophysical environment from the introduction of structures and extraction of energy, and the consequent impacts on  ecosystem services delivery and natural capital assets is poorly understood and rarely considered through a whole ecosystem perspective.

We can therefore point to two opportunities to improve most environmental assessments and strategic plans for development: (1) by incorporating the multifarious reality of ecological relationships within an ecosystem, instead of retreating to a linear appraisal of pressure-asset-impact, and (2) to better reflect the true and diverse values of nature, through a ‘natural capital approach’. Efforts to tackle the latter deficiency are gathering pace, as we recognise that decision-making continues to pitch outcomes for nature against those for businesses or local economies. As stressed in the Dasgupta Review of the Economics of Biodiversity (2021) and the IPBES Values Assessment (2022), our economies and wellbeing are embedded within and dependent upon nature.

At this time of fundamental change in our use and development of our seas, the right balance of trade-offs and synergies across social, economic and environmental outcomes is important. Therefore, there is an urgent need to capture evidence-based links between ecosystem change, ecosystem services delivery and socio-economic impacts. This can improve strategic marine spatial planning, and the licensing and management decisions that follow. This should aim to minimise environmental risks, aided by a recognition of the broad scope of benefits from nature for human wellbeing.

To address this, as part of my fellowship with the BES and NatureScot, I conducted an ecosystem-level approach for the Orkney marine region, adding a natural capital interpretation of results to illuminate how ecosystem changes would manifest in socio-economic outcomes. This proof-of-concept work, which includes identifying data deficiencies for modelling power, aims to show how ecosystem modelling can support decision-making in the marine environment in the context of climate change and different marine uses (e.g. fisheries). The modelling approach incorporates interactions from the biophysical environment up through top predators (seabirds and marine mammals) and their links (as natural capital assets) with the flow of ecosystem services and delivery of socio-economic benefits. Greater integration of both biophysical and socio-economic information should allow evaluation of how ecosystems would change under different future scenarios and what the consequences would be for the economy and human wellbeing. Using scenario analyses, the approach can provide a dynamic assessment of alternative marine use management (e.g. renewable developments, changes in fishing catch and aquaculture development) and climate change outcomes. Therefore, this whole system approach can inform policy making decisions by providing assessments of trade-offs and synergies across ecological, social, and economic outcomes. Ultimately, this seeks to provide a much better evidence base for marine spatial planning in the context of reducing climate change and delivering sustainable use of our seas with socio-economic benefits.

Making sure research outcomes are easily accessible, clearly communicated and usable by decision makers will ease the pathway to advances in policy and management decisions

The fellowship has been an immensely prestigious and valuable experience. During the placement, I have had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience interacting with policy and decision makers, improving my policy knowledge and awareness. I have built strong professional relationships with public bodies, which can continue beyond the fellowship period, and engaged widely with the BES’s policy work through the activities of the BES Scottish Policy Group. I had the privilege of working closely with marine planning and policy expertise at an exciting and crucial time for environmental policy, providing opportunity to increase the impact of my work and build my policy engagement skills. Unexpected outcomes include being invited to be a member of the ‘International Council for the Exploration of the Sea Working Group on Ecosystem Assessment of Western European Shelf Seas’ that aims to produce high quality science that underpins holistic, adaptive, and evidence-based marine management. I had multiple opportunities to present the outcomes and impact of my work to a wider policy and scientific audience which helped improve my science communication skills.

I found my experience working with policy and decision makers to be valuable regarding the impact of my work, engaging with wider audience but most importantly it gave me the opportunity to design useful and impactful science. My research was co-designed and discussed with policy and decision makers to ensure meaningful outcomes that are relevant. I would advise fellow ecologists to promote collaboration by sharing skills and exposing their work to a wider policy and scientific audience. Undertaking a whole-system approach and iterative engagement are essential to better connect academia and decision makers, to support a timely response to ongoing and emerging issues.

This article was first published in our membership magazine, The Niche, Autumn 2020.