Using the Environmental Sciences for a Sustainable Future

Prof. Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor at DEFRA, last night delivered a fascinating presentation on ‘Using the Environmental Sciences for a Sustainable Future’; taking place as the annual Institution of Environmental Sciences ‘Burntwood Lecture’, held at the Royal Society.

Over the course of an hour Professor Watson delivered a wide-ranging overview of the major challenges facing humanity in the coming years, from climate change, to food production to biodiversity loss, water quality and human security, and offered his view on how society could tackle these. Prof. Watson criticised governments for treating environmental and social challenges in isolation, creating policy silos; climate change, biodiversity loss, food, water and energy security are all interrelated and should be viewed as such. Climate change needs to be integrated into all sectorial policies and into national economic development; without this, much of the aid provided to the developing world, for example, will fail.

Prof. Watson touched upon work he had led as Director of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD). 40% of food harvested in developing countries never makes it to market whilst 40% of food in developed countries is wasted once it has reached the market. Reducing post-harvest lost must therefore be a priority for science and technology research. Yet Professor Watson said that we can solve today’s hunger problem, where 1 billion people go to sleep hungry each night, without major advances in science; citing Agroecology as a huge area for development and stating that many of the problems relate to disparity in distributions of food.

Prof. Watson’s talk was packed with information, far too much to do justice to here. However, it was very interesting to note his view on what needs to change in order to build a sustainable future; one where a 4 degree rise in temperature is unlikely. A price must be placed on carbon, combined with technology transformation and the mobiliation of behavioural change throughout society. Efficiency in enegy production and use will be important; a shift from coal to gas as fuel and, if coal is used, capturing and storing carbon emissions. Improving the supply of renewable energy; nuclear power and managing soils and forests more efficiently will also have key roles to play.

Prof. Watson showed a very interesting diagram towards the end of his presentation outlining how society is segmented in relation to climate change and environmental issues. Dealing with the ‘honestly disengaged’, who recognise the issues but aren’t prepared to change their own behaviour in any way, for example, requires legislation, whilst those already engaged with the issues need to be supported in their efforts. Unless policy-makers understand how society is divided, they will lack an understanding of the policy responses to use to deal with these groups.

Overall Prof. Watson highlighted the importance of good governance in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Political will and moral leadership is needed; the UK has in some respects led the way, with the development of the world’s first ‘Climate Change Act’, but Prof. Watson said more is needed; the USA in particular needs to show leadership, bringing China and India on board with a global agreement. Technological innovation is also necessary. Finally, in a call to the scientific community Prof. Watson urged scientists to communicate with the public; engaging with their local councils, local MPs and local media, to convey key messages about the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation. People must understand, through science communicators, what the science is telling us, and what the future implications are of policy decisions to tackle these global challenges.