Monday, 31 March 2008

Defra Consulting on Draft Soil Strategy for England

Defra has today launched a consultation on the draft Soil Strategy for England. Views are sought particularly on the direction for soils policy in the next five to ten years, aswell as considered opinion on the current pressing challenges to soils and soil function in England .

The BES will be preparing a response to this consultation in advance of the 23 June deadline. Please contact policy@BritishEcologicalSociety if you would like to contribute to this.

Click here to access the consultation document and supplementary material.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

ELQ Report Published

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee has today published the report of its inquiry into the withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications (ELQs). The Committee find that the Government presented no compelling evidence or analysis to justify the withdrawal of funding for ELQs in 2008, prior to a planned review of funding and fees for qualifications across all sectors in 2009.

The Government's arguments; that ELQ students were competing for places with, and displacing, those applying for first degrees and that the money withdrawn from funding ELQs would fund extra university places, were found to be without satisfactory evidence. Figures released by HEFCE in January 2008 suggest that there are no newly funded extra undergraduate places available in the first year of the scheme (2008/09).

The Committee call for a planned review on exemptions to the ELQ policy to be brought forward from December to summer 2008. They state that "exemptions from the withdrawal of funding...[should have] focus[ed] on students and courses likely to provide the greatest benefit to the economy and to meet skills shortages." The BES argued that subjects allied to ecology should be seen as strategically important, and so exempt from the policy.

Read the Committee's Report
Read the BES response to the Committee's inquiry

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Biodiversity and Oil Palm - Discussion Meeting

When: 8 April 2008, 6pm. Doors open 5pm.
Venue: The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Meeting Rooms, Regents Park, NW1 4RY

"The economic value of palm oil ensures it is here to stay, but the crisis threatening biodiversity and the environment demands immediate action. Guidelines have been produced on producing ‘sustainable’ palm oil. But recommendations concerning biodiversity impacts are vague and difficult to implement. Solutions require dialogue, and it is with this in mind that this meeting is convening representatives from Asian industry and government, conservation and science to discuss:

  • How is biodiversity impacted by oil palm?
  • What are the issues for industry in mitigating impacts on biodiversity?
  • How can stakeholders work together to minimise conflict?

For further information about this event, visit the ZSL website.

Chief Scientific Advisor Criticises Biofuel Target

Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA, has criticised the EU's plans to introduce compulsory quotas for the use of biofuels in petrol and diesel, before research has delivered a better understanding of their impact on the environment. Under the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, to come into force next week on 1 April, all petrol and diesel must contain 2.5% biofuels. Britain must implement this quota in order to comply with its share of a 2003 EU Directive that 5.75% petrol and diesel must come from renewable sources by 2010.

The EU plans to raise the compulsory biofuels quota so that 10% of petrol and diesel should come from biofuels by 2020.

The Government has commissioned the Renewable Fuels Agency to undertake a review of the indirect impacts of biofuel production, on greenhouse gas emissions and food security. The initial report is expected in June.

Original article - The Guardian, Tuesday 25 March 2008

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Horizon-Scanning Identifies Future Threats and Opportunities for UK Biodiversity

Nanotechnologies, artificial life and geo-engineering of the planet are just a small selection of the threats, and opportunities, for the future biodiversity of the UK, as identified by environmental policy-makers, academics and scientific journalists. The paper, published online today in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, is the result of extensive consultation across the environmental sciences community, culminating in a two-day workshop at which 35 representatives of a range of organisations met to prioritise the top twenty-five issues.

The resulting list is intended to provide a direction to policy-makers, in deciding actions to take to deal with each, and to research funders in setting the direction of strategic research. The paper, by Professor Bill Sutherland, University of Cambridge, alerts the ecological community and policy-makers to the benefits of horizon-scanning in the environmental sciences, to identify novel challenges and opportunities ahead.

Interviewed on the Today Programme with Professor Sutherland, Mr Phil Willis MP, Chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said that a "courageous government" was necessary to make decisions, based on scientific evidence, for which the public might not be fully prepared. He also highlighted the necessity for scientists and policy-makers to work more closely together than presently, to deal effectively with issues science has identified.

Link to paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology: "Future novel threats and opportunities facing UK biodiversity identified by horizon scanning"

Listen to Professor Sutherland and Phil Willis on the Today Programme, 8.40am, 20 March 2008.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Government Launches New Sustainability Office

The Government has announced the creation of a new body to tackle carbon emissions in Whitehall. The new Centre of Expertise for Sustainable Procurement will help Government departments to cut waste and reduce their carbon emissions. A new post has also been created in the Government Chief Sustainability Officer to embed a 'culture of change' across departments.

Alongside the creation of the new Centre, the Government has accepted the recommendations of the 2007 Sustainable Development in Government report. Measures to be taken across Whitehall include phasing out bottled water in meetings and the launch of a major 'green' IT programme across Government in the summer. Also from the summer, all new vehicles for ministers and permanent secretaries will emit less than 130g/km of carbon. From 2010, the Government will join the Carbon Reduction Commitment, an innovative carbon trading scheme (on which DEFRA is currently consulting) to cover all government departments, banks, retailers and local authorities, to compel them to reduce their carbon emissions.

Debate Rages on How Best to Manage Tropical Forests

At the UN climate conference in Bali in December last year, the international community accepted the need to build forest protection into the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. However, how forests will be protected was not decided and is now being hotly contested.

Advocates of the market-approach argue that including forestry credits in carbon-trading schemes is the only way to secure the future of rainforests: "In global markets, forests are worth more dead than alive...You have to look to markets to turn around what is in fact a market failure." The European Commission argues that including deforestation in carbon trading would result in the market becoming flooded, devaluing the system and instead wish to use some of the proceeds from carbon trading to create an international fund to tackle deforestation.

There is no dobut that a well-defined and focussed programme to tackle deforestation will have a marked effect on global emissions. Deforestation accounts for 5-6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually, compared with 2 gigatonnes in the entire European trading scheme.

See the original article in Nature

Current Conservation Areas Ill-placed to Deal with Climate Change Challenge

Research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that current methods of locating conservation reserves are inadequate to deal with future environmental changes. A team from the University of California San-Diego found that the need for conservation areas will shift geographically in the future, with rising temperatures. There will be greater need for reserves in tropical regions high in biodiversity but poor in the resources needed to protect species.

Conventional methods of choosing conservation areas are often based on past threats - an approach inadequate when projecting conservation needs into the future on a 50-100 year timescale. The researchers advocate translocation of conservation reserves - 12% of the world's land area- according to long-term projections. Such action will require unprecedented cooperation between countries and across traditional boundaries, they say.

Link to original research paper

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The 2008 BES Ministerial Shadowing Scheme

Applications are now invited for the 2008 BES Ministerial Shadowing Scheme.
Eight ecologists will be given the opportunity to shadow politicians for several days in London, Edinburgh or Brussels, to be followed by a wrap-up workshop in London. Joan Ruddock MP, Minister for Climate Change Biodiversity and Waste at the UK parliament, John Bowis, MEP and Linda McAvan, MEP, have all agreed to take part. Dr Ian Bainbridge, Chief Ecological Advisor for Scotland, will also host an ecologist at the Scottish Government.

This fantastic opportunity is available to current members of the BES, based at an academic institution or equivalent body and who completed their PhD no more than eight years ago. The deadline for applications is Friday 18 April.

Find out more here.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Insect Impact Set to Increase With Climate Change

Scientists studying the impact of insect feeding on a birch species (Betula pubescens) native to Northern Europe have concluded that damage to European forests through insect feeding will be exacerbated by increased global warming.

Trees damaged by insects compete less well with other species. Therefore the scientists predict a shift in the future composition of European forests as temperatures increase, with a consequent effect on forest ecosystems. As temperatures rise, insects are set to spread further north into Europe, with increasing numbers surviving milder winters. Eastern areas of Northern Europe could see damage to leaves of the birch trees increase by 5%, whilst a one degree rise in summer temperature in Scandinavia could double the incidence of insect damage.

The scientists recommend that an increase in insect damage to trees should be taken into account when modelling the impact of climate change on ecosystems.

Wolf, A., M. V. Kozlov and T. V. Callaghan (2008). Impact of non-outbreak insect damage on vegetation in northern Europe will be greater than expected during a changing climate. Climatic Change 87: 91-106.

New Research Shows Further Damaging Effects of Some Biofuels

New research has shown that the levels of Nitrous Oxide emissions associated with the growth of some biofuels are enough to cancel out any beneficial effect in terms of reduced CO2. Nitrous Oxide emissions associated with growing maize and rapeseed may be much higher than previously thought. These crops require significant amounts of nitrogen-based fertiliser to grow, and Nitrous Oxide emissions may be as much as 3-5% of nitrogen fertiliser input.

Nitrous Oxide persists in the atmosphere for longer than CO2: over a 100 year time frame, each molecule of N2O has an impact on global warming 296 times that of a molecule of CO2. It can also react in the atmosphere to create nitrogen oxides, which damage the ozone layer.

Growing alternative crops for use in biofuels, such as willow, poplar and switchgrass, could result in much lower N2O emissions.

Link to Research Paper

Tony Blair to Broker Climate Change Deal

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is to lead an international group to try to secure a new global deal on climate change. Mr Blair, along with specialists from across the globe and Sir Nicholas Stern, author of a definitive study on the economic impact of climate change, will work to broker a deal to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2050. The deal must be acceptable to China and the US to be successful,

The initiative will be formerly launched at a meeting in Japan this weekend, and an interim report prepared for summer 2008.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

'Science' officially adpoted by DIUS Select Committee

The Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee has officially changed its name to the "Innovation, Science, Universities and Skills Committee."

Speaking in January, when the decision to change its name was first announced, Phil Willis MP, Chair of the Committee, said: "It is an important signal to the science community that science will remain a high priority in terms of parliamentary scrutiny."

Government Publishes Science and Innovation White Paper

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has today published a White Paper on Science and Innovation, "Innovation Nation", along with the Government's response to Lord Sainsbury's Review of Government science and innovation policies. The Government aims to develop an innovative STEM workforce and strong research base to both improve the UK's attractiveness to investors and ability to tackle challenges such as climate change.
Policy developments include:

  • A new annual review of the innovation in the UK to be published, along with the development of an 'Index of Innovation' to illustrate the UK's performance.
  • The establishment of a new 'Innovation Research Centre' to ensure that innovative research outputs flow into the policy community.
  • DIUS to work with the Department for Communities, Schools and Families to promote greater take up of STEM subjects in schools.
  • DIUS is encouraging bids for a National Skills Academy for the environment.
  • DIUS to lead a cross-Government project on labour market needs for STEM skills, leading to adjustments in policy.

In its response to the Sainsbury Review, the Government pledges to improve awareness of STEM careers opportunities amongst school children, to support CPD activities for STEM teachers through the science learning centres and expand science and engineering clubs in schools.

DIUS also announces plans to consult on the Government's science and society strategy in spring 2008, focusing on the relationship between the scientific community, wider public and policy makers.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

2008 Budget - Key Green Measures

Chancellor Alistair Darling has delivered the UK Government's 2008 Budget to parliament. Key proposals include:

  • The introduction of legislation to charge for single-use plastic carrier bags in 2009 if voluntary action has not gone far enough to reduce their use
  • £26 million funding for Green Homes Service in 2008 and extension in the use of SMART Meters over the next five years.
  • All new non-domestic buildings to be zero carbon from 2019, in addition to the Government's current obligation to ensure that all new homes are carbon neutral.
  • The UK Government will ask the European Commission to revise the targets for car fuel emissions - from 130gm/km to 100g/km.
  • Reform of vehicle excise duty in 2009 encourage manufacturers and consumers respectively to produce and buy 'greener' vehicles, with the introduction of different 'bands' based on levels of emissions.
  • From 2010, new cars that emit less than the proposed EU standard of 130gm/km will be exempt from car tax in the first year. More polluting cars will pay higher costs in the first year of ownership.
  • The Government plans to explore options for the introduction of road-pricing, to reduce congestion and the amount of traffic on the roads, with a project out for tender. Results to be announced in 2009.

An increase in fuel duty, in part aiming to tackle the environmental consequences of heavier traffic, was postponed until October.

"Decarbonising" the UK's road transport

The Government is to publish the results of the 'King Review' into low carbon cars today, alongside the 2008 Budget. Professor Julia King, Vice-Chancellor at Aston University and former Director of Advanced Engineering at Rolls-Royce, has worked with Sir Nicholas Stern to generate a package of suggestions to help "decarbonise" road transport.

The report is expected to suggest that the lifetime running costs of a car, for a ten-year period rather than one year as presently, should be clearly displayed in car showrooms, enabling people to make more informed, and greener, choices. It is also likely to propose a colour-coded tax disc scheme, based on vehicle emissions levels.

The BBC reports that Professor King cautions against the uncontrolled expansion of biofuels but that the review suggests that the Government should mandate a certain proportion for use in the fuel mix at pumps.

The 2008 Budget and King Review will be published at 12.30pm.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Science Communication: Still More to Do

The latest Public Attitudes to Science Survey (PAS) was launched today by Research Councils UK and DIUS. The Survey, for which over 3,000 members of the public were questioned about their perceptions of science in society, found that 73% of participants would like scientists to discuss scientific research, along with its ethical and social implications, with the public. 78% agreed that members of the public should hear about new areas of science and technology before they happen, not after. TV remains the most common way for the public to find out about science, although the use of the Internet for this purpose is growing.

Only one in ten young people said that science would make a good career choice.

Minister for Science and Innovation, Ian Pearson MP, commenting at the launch, said : "...a key challenge for the scientific community is to ensure it continues to communicate with the public about the research scientists are engaging in and the positive and negative issues that may arise from it."

New Chair of Science Advisory Council Announced

The new Chair of DEFRA's Science Advisory Council has been announced as Professor Chris Gaskell. Professor Gaskell is Principal of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.

The Science Advisory Council was formed in 2004 to provide DEFRA with expert independent advice on science policy and strategy. The Council reports to DEFRA's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Bob Watson, who then communicates this information to Ministers.

2007 Floods "not linked to climate change"

A new report by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) confirms that the intense UK summer floods in 2007 were not due to climate change but were a 'singular event'. "The summer 2007 floods in England and Wales - a hydrological appraisal" systematically analyses the factors which led to the 2007 floods, an event on an unprecedented scale which cost the UK economy £3 billion.

Rainfall amounts and intensities overwhelmed urban drainage systems, with a dramatic increase in levels of run-off, due to rain falling on already saturated soil. Long-term rainfall and flow records do not however reveal any clear trend towards an increase in flooding magnitude in the UK, but instead mark this out as a singularity.

The floods of 2007 do reveal the UK's vulnerability to climatic events; vulnerability which has increased markedly due to development on flood plains.

Monday, 10 March 2008

New Method of Measuring Biodiversity

Research by scientists from Sri Lanka and Germany, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has contributed to the debate on the interactions between key species and biodiversity in tropical forests. The scientists analysed how individual tree species in a tropical forest affected those nearby, whether increasing or decreasing biodiversity in their surrounding areas. They found that two thirds of species had little or no effect on the species around them, whilst the remaining third affected growth only in a small surrounding area (up to 20 metres). This supports the theory that the diversity of forests and similar complex natural ecosystems depends not on a few dominant species but on the overall interactions between organisms.

The method developed by the scientists, 'Individual Species Area Relationship' (ISAR) could be used in scientific conservation management of forests.

First Meeting of the Committee on Climate Change

The Committee on Climate Change meets for the first time today. The Committee will set a succession of five-yearly carbon budgets and advise the UK Government on whether the target to reduce carbon emissions by 60% (on 1990 levels) by 2050 should be revised upwards to 80%. The Committee must deliver its report on the 80% target by the end of 2008.

The Committee will deliver an annual report to parliament on progress made against meeting the emissions-reduction targets, with Ministers asked to justify why targets have not been met, if this is the case. The Committee is also to advise on whether to incorporate international aviation and shipping emissions in the UK's targets and budgets.

The Chair of the Committee is Lord Adair Turner. Members are Lord Robert May, Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Professor Jim Skea, Dr Sam Fankhauser and Professor Michael Grubb.

Friday, 7 March 2008

National Science and Engineering Week 2008

Today sees the launch of National Science and Engineering Week 2008 (7- 16 March). This initiative, funded by DIUS and coordinated by the BA and the Engineering and Technology Board, is an opportunity for all ages to get involved in science and technology activities and to discover the excitement of science.

Ecology-related events taking place around the country include a conference on 'Cutting Edge Research in Ecology and Conservation', at the University of Exeter, and a one-day event at the University of Leicester on advances in understanding of the ecology and behaviour of dinosaurs.

There is an opportunity for the public to ask questions of scientists on anything, however perplexing or confusing, and scientists will then answer these on the 'Big Questions' message board, through the media or through events taking place around the country. Some of the UK's most influential scientists and PM Gordon Brown have also posted questions which they would like other scientists to answer.

Contribute to a 'Big Question'

New Darwin Initiative Launched

The UK Research Councils and 'Darwin 200', a collection of organisations across the UK planning events and activities to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009, have today launched a new website which aims to connect Darwin's work and evolutionary research with the public.

2009 marks both the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, 'On the Origin of Species.' In preparation, the new website will allow the public to contribute podcasts, vodcasts and pose questions to researchers about evolution. The aim is to find out what the public find fascinating, puzzling or difficult about Darwin's work and evolutionary theory in a modern context. This will allow RCUK to gauge what the public would like to see as part of next year's celebratory events.

Access the new website 'Darwin Today: Celebrating Modern Evolutionary Research'

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Major Restructuring of the CAP Called For

The House of Lords European Union Committee has today called for a major restructuring of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), phasing out farm subsidies from 2014 and diverting the resulting funds into rural development, which currently comprises only one fifth of the CAP spend.

The Committee's report, 'The Future of the Common Agricultural Policy' criticises the current subsidies as acting as a 'proxy for attainment of goals', including environmental goals, which should be targeted directly, nationally or internationally. The proposed restructuring of the CAP will allow broader challenges and opportunities facing Europe's rural areas to be better addressed.

The Committee also says that although the farming industry has much to do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact, climate change may offer an opportunity for the farming industry to tap into new funding streams, through the provision of environmental services such as peat soil and flood-risk management.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

EFRA Committee Announces Scrutiny of Draft Marine Bill

The EFRA Select Committee is to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Marine Bill once this has been published by DEFRA, expected within the coming weeks.

Once published, comments on the draft Bill will be invited by the Committee.

Latest news from DEFRA on the Marine Bill

Guidance on submitting evidence to a Select Committee

EAC Report on Climate Change: Government Publishes Response

The Government has published its response to the Environmental Audit Committee's report on 'The Structure of Government and the Challenge of Climate Change'.

The Government rejects the Committee's assessment that, as the Government has acknowledged is likely, the inability of the UK to reach a target of 20% reduction in CO2 levels by 2010 (on 1990 levels) constitutes a failure, arguing that the UK is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas levels by 23% of 1990 levels by 2010 and remains a world leader in tackling emissions.

The Government does not support the Committtee's proposals that the Committee on Climate Change be charged with a review of climate change policy across Government, with the aim of improving coordination across Departments. Nor do the Government support the suggestion for a Climate Change Minister with overall management responsibility for climate change policy. The Government argues in its response that this is unnecessary, due to the existence of the Office of Climate Change, which it says fulfils this coordinating role, pulling together climate change initiatives across Government.

The Government notes that concerns of the Committee that moving energy policy to BERR, rather than into DEFRA, was a missed opportunity for greater coordination in climate and energy policy but argues that a multitude of policy areas must interact for climate change policy to be successful, an arrangement covered by the Governments' Public Service Agreement to tackle dangerous climate change.

The Government will continue to review how cross-departmental working on climate change can be improved.

An EU 'road map' for cleaner energy

A scientific project funded by the EU's research programme has found that introducing hydrogen into the energy system would significantly reduce total oil consumption by the road transport sector: by 40% by 2050. Hydrogen is one of the most realistic options for environmental and economic sustainability in the transport sector.

The HyWays project has produced a 'road map' to analyse potential impacts on the EU economy, society and environment of the large-scale introduction of hydrogen, and an action plan detailing what must be done to achieve this. The road map estimates that by 2030 there will be 16 million hydrogen-powered cars.

10 member states took part in the project, including the UK. All chose the production of hydrogen from natural gas, biomass and wind energy, with some also including nuclear and coal-fired power stations as a means of generating hydrogen. The study found that the production of hydrogen from fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage could make a significant contribution to lowering CO2 emissions. The report urges the EU to take the lead in developing the technology and infrastructure needed to increasingly utilise hydrogen in transport.