Ecosystems: it's only natural

1st November 2010

Its only natural

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  • Natural resources ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Ecosystems



Our challenge for the foreseeable future is promoting understanding of ecosystem services, says Robert Campen.

Defra has recently launched a consultation process offering people the opportunity to contribute to ‘shaping the nature of England' by sharing views on the natural environment.

As well as a discussion document there is an invite to comment on four specific questions: Which parts of the natural environment matter most to you? How do you feel you benefit from the natural environment? How do you think we could improve the natural environment? What would encourage you to get involved in protecting the natural environment?

Taken as a whole, the landscape of the UK is a cultural landscape. It is not a wilderness in a pure sense, but many areas do provide a sense of wilderness to many people.

And the landscape we admire today has resulted from the decisions and actions of people over the millennia. Initially our impact on the wilderness would have been minimal but with the advent of farming and, later, the industrial revolution and urbanisation, our impact has grown.

Take the Peak District as an example. In the 18th Century Daniel Defoe (on his way out of Sheffield) described the Peak District as "a waste and howling wilderness".

But we now find ourselves trying to conserve this mosaic of biodiversity and cultural heritage that is the skin on a landscape skeleton and to which we have added certain value elements. Today the Peak District represents aesthetic beauty, farming systems, ecosystems, water catchment areas, recreational pursuits and so on.

A growing population

Population growth makes the case for preserving the natural environment even more compelling. At the time Defoe was writing the population of England was probably up to 10 million and by 2050 the population of the UK could be 77 million, with currently 90 per cent of people living in urban areas, and potentially 92 per cent doing so by 2030.

A journey by car or rail between major cities provides a sense of ‘crowdedness' but a real sense of perspective can be gained by looking west from the edge of the Peak District moors, across Stockport towards Greater Manchester. A classic, engaging vista sharply delineated because of the protected designation of the National Park, and with the highest UK population densities in front of you and the lowest behind you.

But has this growing population accepted the need to change its habits? The challenge of trends in consumption involving manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of goods, and of course, energy demand are very real. We are beginning to accept that our activities are very likely to be enhancing the ‘greenhouse' effect and contributing to climate change.

As the population and demands on land continues to grow it would do so against a changing climate. For example, under a ‘medium emissions' scenario and a 50 per cent probability level, we may have to adapt to the UK being warmer (up to 4.2°C), especially in the summer, and wetter, especially in the winter (UK Climate Projections, 2010).

But although the ‘we' referred to above might be the majority of scientists and politicians who engage in the field of climate change, an Ipsos Mori poll published in February this year found that just 31 per cent of British adults believe that climate change is a "definite reality" (compared to 44 per cent in 2009). And 31 per cent said the problem was exaggerated, a category which rose by 50 per cent compared to a year ago.

It is perhaps possible that recent stories in the media about climate data and email messages have dampened the public's belief in climate change, but either way, there remains a significant proportion of people seemingly unconvinced.

This could present problems in relation to decision-making and mitigating or adaptive actions. ‘We' appear not to have arrived at a cultural tipping point and people are either unaware of or unconcerned about the possible effects of climate change on the natural environment on which we all depend.

Vital uplands

Natural England, meanwhile, has published four reports on the potential impacts of climate change on the natural environment in four areas of England, (the Cumbrian high fells, the Shropshire Hills, the Norfolk Broads and the Dorset Downs/Cranborne Chase).

As part of a wider project, the reports highlight the importance of protecting carbon-rich peat soils and species that may decline whilst others may increase their ranges. The range of potential effects could be on biodiversity, landscape, recreational and historic assets and a number of options are identified.

Natural England has also published its ‘Vital uplands: Natural England's vision for the upland environment in 2060'. The aims of the vision include: "to highlight the importance of the upland environment to society as a whole" and "to provide a common goal that inspires everyone to embrace future change and play their part in achieving the vision".

It describes England in the 2060s with a set of outcomes concerning sustainable communities, managing natural hazards, health and well-being, sustainable materials use, water supply, mitigating climate change and ecosystem resilience.

There is also a list of ‘top 10 changes for a better uplands' (in no particular order): stabilised soils, diverse open uplands, grazing systems that provide food and much more, more and better managed woodlands, green energy, low carbon growth, better understanding, professional knowledge, reward and recognition, cooperation.

The vision describes, through maps, many of the benefits people derive from the upland environment and how we might secure these for the future.

It also explains an economic valuation of upland ecosystem services which explains the economic implications of land use change in the uplands at a variety of scales.

The same would apply to all areas of the UK, not just the uplands. A difficulty remains that for many people it is probably hard to imagine the English landscape of 2050 - or 2080 - even if we try to approximate the potential climate experience to that of a Mediterranean country. It's never easy at the inter-generational level of change.

But in many areas of the country actions are already occurring that would be relevant to a climate change adaptation strategy and to valuing ecosystem services. As we gain more information and understanding of the issues we are likely to need to identify priorities and accelerate action.

In its publication ‘Delivering a Healthy natural Environment' Defra shows how the National Ecosystem Framework is being applied nationally.

Stressing the importance of "identifying and involving all relevant stakeholders in the decision and plan-making process", Defra notes that "this is particularly relevant where ecosystem services are generated at a point distant from where the majority of beneficiaries are".

The example given concerns issues surrounding water quality or provision across a large catchment area.

The future of our cultural landscape relates back to a practical policy framework and the sets of decisions we take as we balance environmental, economic, social and political issues, the last three of which tend to be over the short-term.

This is a challenge for all of us: the needs of the present are often a clear priority in relation to ‘possible scenarios and needs of the future'. The current economic crisis is a case in point. Clearly, this would be part of a stakeholder engagement process in decision-making.

Stakeholder engagement

This article started with a summary of some key statistics concerning the population and its distribution. A challenge, highlighted by Defra, becomes apparent if one considers how to engage with all relevant stakeholders. Identifying ‘all relevant stakeholders' and engaging with them in a meaningful way could be a significant part of the challenge.

Working with, say, a village community of 1,000 people on a Biodiversity Action Plan project is one thing, but bigger issues over wider areas with distant stakeholders may be another.

Across the high moors of the Peak District an initial list of stakeholders is relatively easy to identify: landowners are relatively few in number and key agencies and organisations form a list of ‘the usual suspects'. But what, for example, of the more than half a million people in Sheffield?

In a similar way to the challenges of promoting understanding of a single national park, Defra notes that the language of ecosystem services is ‘new' to many stakeholders.

This is especially the case with those who are distanced geographically, or otherwise, from ecosystem services. Rural-urban outreach programmes can engage people in a positive way in the benefits and values of ecosystems.

In certain other instances the distance can be reduced through less positive experiences. Residents of Sheffield, for example, started to become very aware of the impact of heavy rain on the surrounding moorlands in summer 2007 but there remains work to do to raise awareness of the exact cause of the rapid run-off and the significance of mitigating actions. The disaster in itself catalyses more effort to positively engage with people (see for example, Moors for the Future:

Agencies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and Defra are actively working with organisations such as local authorities, businesses, the voluntary sector and the health sector to find ways of embedding the framework for ecosystem services, and identifying options and actions at local level within a national framework. There is a great need for environmental professionals of all specialisms to contribute.

Environmentalists and many other types of professionals in all sectors need to continue to collaborate in promoting understanding of ecosystem services and translating that into practical actions towards delivering the wider outcomes of sustainable development.

A policy framework for ecosystems services exists and can be shared among professionals. To communicate with the wider public and to gain a cultural shift we need to be able to explain the language and concepts of ‘ecosystem services' in a meaningful way - probably without use of the term itself. Environmentalists have a key role to play in working with other professionals to develop messages and methods of communication.

The writer Maggie Gee makes the point that the often used term ‘stewardship' (in an environmental sense) is not a useful metaphor: she quotes James Lovelock as having once said "that it was like putting a goat in charge of a garden".

With careful choice of metaphors and a multi-disciplinary approach to engaging people we might just be able to develop a wider understanding of environmental values and our new cultural landscape of the future.


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