Explaining the underlying causes of the nature-climate crisis, and how we can all be part of the solution

In this episode we chat to Robin Pakeman from the James Hutton Institute about the underlying causes of nature loss in Scotland. Recently revealed in a new report commissioned by NatureScot and co-authored by Robin and colleagues at the James Hutton and from the University of Glasgow, these seemingly unrelated factors can have a significant impact on both nature and climate.

We also meet with Clive Mitchell, NatureScot’s Strategic Resource Manager (Nature & Climate Change) who takes us through some of the changes that need to happen for Scotland to become a sustainable, nature-rich, net-zero nation, and he gives us an insight into some of the actions we can all take to get closer to living in harmony with nature.


Find out more

James Hutton Institute partnership news release: Considerable change needed to stop nature loss in Scotland

Understanding the Indirect Drivers of Biodiversity Loss in Scotland - A Summary

NatureScot Research Report 1309 - Understanding the Indirect Drivers of Biodiversity Loss in Scotland

Scottish Government news release: New legal targets proposed for nature recovery



Hi and welcome to Make Space for Nature from NatureScot, the podcast that celebrates Scotland's nature, landscapes and species.

I'm Kirstin Guthrie and in each episode, we will help you learn more about our amazing natural world. In this episode Claire Gordon and I chat to Robin Pakeman from the James Hutton Institute about the underlying causes of nature loss in Scotland.

Recently revealed in a new report commissioned by NatureScot and co-authored by Robin and colleagues at the James Hutton and from the University of Glasgow, these seemingly unrelated factors can have a significant impact on both nature and climate. We also meet with NatureScot's Clive Mitchell, who takes us through some of the changes that need to happen for Scotland to become a sustainable, nature-rich, net-zero nation, and he gives us an insight into some of the actions we can all take to get closer to living in harmony with nature.

So, hi Robin and Clive, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for joining us today. So, most people will be aware of some of the direct causes of nature loss, such as pollution, land use change and climate change. But Robin, your research found that there are other, perhaps less obvious factors impacting on our biodiversity. Can you tell us more please?


Yeah, so first I'd like to say that, you know, we’re in quite a bad state with our biodiversity. So, Scotland is ranked lowest in the lowest 15% globally for what's called the Biodiversity and Intactness Index, which was developed to show how our biodiversity had been lost since a pristine state.

Also, our marine and terrestrial species indicators are showing continued declines in species abundance. And the State of Nature report that's going to be released later this month will confirm that overall trend in Scottish biodiversity is negative. And even then, it should be remembered that all the trends we see in those documents are from the 1970s, so it misses out a lot of the impacts of agricultural intensification after the Second World War.

So, Scotland's biodiversity is in quite a poor state and we know some of the things that are driving it. It was pretty obvious that pollution and land use change and climate change are, but there's a lot of factors underneath those that create those problems for biodiversity. And so that's easy to think about those direct drivers, but underneath those, there's things like our own attitudes to nature and how we view resource consumption.

We can think about how shifts in population numbers and distribution can affect biodiversity. And that's very obvious in a country where the population is growing and using resources. But in Scotland, it may be because there's a shift away from our rural areas, meaning less proper management in those areas.

We can also think about how our economy is focused on short term profits and how we're dependent on trade around the world so we can export our biodiversity impacts around the world.

And then we also have problems with governance. We don't really have a long-term or a local focus in our governance very much. It's very much centralized and very much focused on the next election.

And also, we have massive technological changes that can cause both positive and negative benefits of biodiversity and it's making sure we choose that technology that does the positive things and we try and avoid the technology that creates negative impacts.


Clive, presumably these factors are not only affecting nature but climate too.


Yes, they absolutely are. So, we have a climate nature crisis because we've put too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere globally and cumulatively. That's about two thirds from fossil fuels and about a third due to land use and land use change, which is really to do with the state of our soils and how they function.

So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted in their recent reports, a need to transition to what they called climate resilient development. So, they describe in effect a set of relationships between climate, nature and people that are at the moment broadly problematic and lead to a series of risks to society, to nature and indeed to climate itself and to transition into that climate-resilient development, which would describe a more harmonious set of relationships between climate, nature and people, they identified as the drivers of that change exactly the same factors that Robin has outlined as these indirect drivers of biodiversity loss.

So, things like governance, finance, knowledge and capacity catalysing conditions of politics and how we make decisions and technologies. So, we need to tackle both climate and nature together or we tackle neither. And indeed, those things are included.

The indirect drivers are a chapter within the biodiversity strategy, chapter six, and the overall aims of that strategy are to halt the loss of decline of nature by 2030 and to restore nature by 2045, which are very much in line with the milestones for climate change to reduce emissions in Scotland 75% by 2030 and net zero by 2045.

I think it's really important to add as well that by restoring nature in that way, we also improve our resilience to the impacts of a changing climate because climate will change over the next 30 years or so. We'll probably get another degree of warming by the 2050s and that's coming three times faster than the one that we've just had over the last hundred years.

So, restoring nature is great for securing greenhouse gases away from the atmosphere as well as building resilience to the impacts of a changing climate. As well as improving nature for itself of course as well.


Absolutely. And Robin, can you explain how some of these factors are contributing to natural loss? Is there some examples you could possibly give us?


Yeah, a very simple one is that we still subsidise fossil fuel producers, and this is a global phenomenon as well. So, it'd be very easy to reduce those subsidies, you know, remove those subsidies, and to increase tax on fossil fuels, including for the aviation sector. And that would really encourage a shift to renewable energy sources.

So, then we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and then we reduce those climate change impacts on biodiversity. But that's a simple one. A more complex one is to look at what Scotland's land produces. Much of our arable land at the moment produces barley and humans eat very little barley. And most of it's used for distilling or animal feed, meaning all a lot of the food that we eat in Scotland is produced outside of Scotland.

And therefore, we've kind of exported our biodiversity impacts to other countries. Meanwhile, we have to think about that land we have in Scotland. You know, if you think about whiskey as an example, that's a massive contributor to the economy.

And then you have to talk about is that trade-off between exporting our impacts worth it in terms of economic gain. It's even more complicated with livestock, because if you're producing livestock with grains or legumes in their diet, that's putting those animals in direct competition with humans for food by raising global prices. So poorer people around the world are influenced in terms of their ability to feed themselves because we are feeding livestock with things that humans can eat and it's far less efficient doing it that way than eating it ourselves.

So, it means a lot of the areas of land we use for livestock production in the UK and around the world could be used to restore biodiversity instead. So, you know, thinking of it the other way around, we've reduced biodiversity. We've removed it by feeding livestock the products of land that we previously had much more biodiverse communities on them. But if we do that, then that increases the price of meat. It's harder for poorer households to afford that meat and would also have real significant changes for the livestock farming sector.

So, it's a really complex and difficult problem if we want to make a transition in a just way for all parties. So, it's a really difficult way to go forward.


Clive, would you like to come on in that?


I think Robin's making a really interesting point and a very important point about the need to think about how we produce food and fibre, wood and so on, sustainably, but that we also consume it sustainably.

And it's almost certain that the more that we gear farming and forestry production of wood and food in a more sustainable way, we would also need to change our diets to consume the type of foods and the quantities of foods to marry up that sustainable consumption with the sustainable production of food and fibre. So that's a big societal change. But it's what we need to do if we're going to live within our planetary boundaries.


Yes, so what your research is saying then, Robin, is that tackling the direct causes of nature loss, like pollution and climate change, is simply not enough.


Yeah, it's almost like just tackling the direct ones is saying that if we just did our what we're doing now, but better, we'd solve the problems, but it's not actually that's, that's not the case. It's actually changing the whole effectively mindset of society, and mindset of governments away from driving for consumption all the time as a measure of how well we're doing as a society to thinking about long-term, thinking about the future and thinking about the sustainability of all our actions.


Yeah, and it can sound a bit overwhelming for people, but I think an important point to make is that your research identified people and organisations who have a responsibility to help us make this change. So, who are these key players?


Well, I think the report really highlighted that every level of society, from the individual through to organisations involved in international governance like the United Nations, everybody has a role to play. But at the same time, it's the Scottish Government and UK Government sit at the centre of this and the change has to be initiated there. They're not the only people responsible, but it's like they have to get the ball moving. They have to get the ball rolling.

And so, they have to initiate the remedies and then all parts of society have to engage in driving that forward. So, one example if you think about it is public transport or active travel. It's far more efficient and less polluting than everybody getting into their car and driving everywhere.

So, it's a real partnership on the one hand between local and national government and all of that by the public. But you can't take a bus unless there's a bus service. You can't cycle safely unless there's cycling infrastructure. So, we have to think about how we shift the support of transport, the investment for transport away from cars, to public transport and active travel.

And that's a government and local government thing. But at the same time, the public has to engage with that and follow through and not just keep driving. So other things we could think about is the support for the agricultural sector.

So, decades ago, it was decided that sort of the extension services for agriculture could come from the private sector. And that's done really well in the sense of raising production and in protecting crops from pests and diseases. But it's almost like that's how you manage a field for its maximum capacity, but we need to think about how we manage farms and about landscapes.

And modern agriculture has kind of ignored that problem in terms of focusing on productivity, but we need a government that's offering advice to farmers about how they can shift their production, how they can think about how they manage at the farm scale to improve carbon stores and transition to net zero and to restore biodiversity where they can.

And another thing is, you know, business also has a key role to play. For example, at the moment product labeling isn't very helpful and it's really difficult to know if a label means this product meets minimum standards or this product is produced in a really sustainable way. So, if there was an overhaul of this and the government and business would have to work together on this but we could have something like a label that says this was produced sustainably or it was involved in practices that weren't.

So, like we have red or amber or green labels for fat and sugar. If we did that for sustainability, that would give people much more ability to make choices and then those choices would drive sustainable practices through the food sector or the timber sector.

So, something that business could easily do is think about how they can badge their sustainability. And those organisations that do that will probably prosper. And those that don't may see some short-term gains, but in the long-term, people will move away from buying those products.


So it sounds like everyone in society has a role to play in this, from businesses, to organisations, to governments. So, Robin, can you tell us a bit more about the recommendations that are in the report and what some of the key things are that we need to do?


The reports based around the intergovernmental panel on biodiversity ecosystem services. So, we use their headings. So, to address to each of those headings, we came up with some suggestions. So, it's very hard to list them all.

Just some examples, though, is we could really concentrate on improving our urban green space so that we can connect urban societies to what's going on in nature. So, an awful lot of people now in Scotland are living in urban areas. And it's so many generations since their great-great grandparents left the land, they don't have that much connection. So, we need to think about how we improve that.

We could bring sustainability more into the school curriculum. So actually, training our young people into thinking long-term rather than short-term.

And we have the opportunity in this sort of restoring nature and working against climate change. This requires lots of jobs, so things like tree planting, nature restoration. Currently there's a skills shortage for peatland restoration, which is the easiest win that we can do in changing our land use, is restoring peatlands.

I've already mentioned labelling food, so people really need to think about the environmental impacts of our consumption and the no brainer of reducing fossil fuel subsidies. But ultimately, we need to think about how society judges itself.

So, we see our country doing well in terms of economic growth, that's great, but that's all based around consumption very much. And we're obsessed about GDP, gross domestic product, and we see that as a measure of growth in the economy. But you could argue that actually that's a measure of increased environmental degradation. And also in an unequal society, it doesn't really represent how well most of our society is doing.

So really, I think one of the things we need to think about hard is how we measure how well we're doing as a society. So instead of thinking about economics, think about our future security against environmental risks, say, and our overall well-being. So that's health and mental health and things like this, rather than just in terms of money. In a sense, that's thinking about how we measure our future rather than our present performance.


So, a huge amount of recommendations in the report. And I definitely encourage our listeners to have a look at that in further detail. There was a couple of things I wanted to ask about, Clive.

Can you explain what we mean by regenerative practices and what a sustainable circular economy actually is? And just explain why that would be better than our current system.


So let me start with the circuit of economy. So, our current economy is linear and extractive. We take stuff, we make stuff, we buy stuff, and then we throw it away. And that applies to all aspects of our economy. So, a circular economy seeks to maintain the value of stuff when it enters the economy and to keep it in the economy for as long as possible. So, repairing things, recycling and so on are really, really important.

But an important part of that as well is about thinking about new ways of using things. So, we don't have to buy things in order to get the benefit of that product. We could hire a car. We hire clothes sometimes if we're going out to a fancy dinner. And the tool hire shops and so on and so on. So, there are ways in which we can change the way we use things in order to do the things that we need to do.

Years ago, I came across an incredible statistic that he average life of a power drill in terms of its use is something like seven minutes. You know, do we really need to buy a drill if that's the amount of time that we're going to use it for? So, we can rethink the way that we use things, whether we need to buy things in order to do the things that we need to do.

So, the business models that support circular economy are really, really important. And of course, much of the emphasis at the moment on circular economy is in what you might think of as the material side of things and waste. So, the stuff that we buy.

But the circular economy also applies to the land and making sure that nutrient cycles and so on are as closed as they can be around the use of the land and making sure that producing more and more of what's needed on the farm rather than bringing in chemical inputs and so on from outside is an intrinsic part of the way that farms and land is managed in general. So that leads us into the regenerative practices which basically put soil and water at the heart of everything that's done on the land because ultimately everything that is done on the land depends on soils and water to create the physical and biological basis on which stuff is grown, whether that's crops or livestock.

So, some examples of regenerative land management practices include minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining living roots in the soils at all times using things like cover crops and rotations and mixed farming and agroforestry to diversify the produce that's created, the products that are drawn from the land across the year and across multiple years to maintain soil health but that change in the way that we could use the land for multiple benefits from including nature and water and all those other co-benefits but diversifying what we're taking off the land within year and from year to year is going to be more and more important as climate changes because one of the features of a changing climate will be more chaos within year and across years.

So, the idea that you could plant a crop and harvest it in the amount that you think you're going to be able to harvest it as we've always done over the last 100 years, 50 years or so, that's going to start to fall away because of in-year climate impacts, storms, pests, pathogens, disease and so on. And that's also true on kind of multiple years.

So increasingly land managers are going to have to hedge their bets to manage the losses associated with the impacts of a changing climate period of rotation is very long rotations for woodlands, much shorter rotations on farms, but we need to start thinking about yield and productivity across a range of produce over longer and longer periods of time to manage those climate risks.

So other things that feature in all of that would be maximizing crop diversity maximizing the use of organic fertilizers. So, on livestock, on mixed arable livestock systems, rather than the specialisation of livestock dairy, arable and so on that we've seen over the last 50 to 70 years. Much more integrated management, integrated pest management using crops to reduce pest infestations on the harvested crops and so on, avoiding soil loss and compaction.

So, soils do all of the things that they do when they're aerated, when they've got pore space that water can move through. That creates conditions which biological, geological, chemical processes act in soils, which ultimately lead to its fertility and carbon stocks and so on. But if they're compacted as they are by heavy machinery and some livestock and so on, then it's really hard for soils to function in this way.

And another statistic I heard in a recent discussion was that the average axle weight on a tractor in the 1970s was about a ton and a half, and now it's about 11 and a half tones. So, you know, all of that helps to impede soil function and so on. So, we really need to be much kinder to our soils and give them the profile that they deserve. I mean, they've been a sort of Cinderella subject, much neglected in all forms of land use, from forestry to farming and indeed in conservation. We just take it for granted that that soil is always going to be there doing all the things that we need for nature to thrive and to get all the other benefits off it that we need in terms of food and fibre and so on.

So, putting soil health at the heart of land management is necessary for all the reasons that we've been talking about. Because it's soils everywhere that regulate the global climate, all land needs to be managed as a sort of first choice regeneratively. And that will create benefits for nature and to create more complex and connected cover that will make the land more resilient to climate impacts as well. So, there are multiple wins in adopting those approaches.


All of this sounds really sensible and it sounds really like the right thing to do. But it also sounds like we need to make some really massive changes from the way we think and act in our behaviours and attitudes right to the systems and practices that we use for things like farming and government and the way we run our businesses.

So, is this achievable? And that question is to both Clive and Robin. So maybe Robin, do you want to kick us off?


Well, to a certain extent, it has to be achieved. Otherwise, we're in real deep trouble. And the slower we are to act, the bigger the hole we'll have to dig ourselves out of. So, we need to push forward. But I think the real thing that we need to see is political courage. Scotland's doing comparatively well against other countries in the globe, but it's got a long way to go. We've got a lot of good ideas, but we're going to need to see step changes in policy that's going to be needed over the next decade or so.

So, we need to act relatively quickly. Part of that political courage, I think, is going to be transferring power away from the centre. So, we've seen in Ireland how successful citizens' assemblies have been and the great advantage of those citizens’ assemblies is that they're less influenced by the media, they're less influenced by vested interests.

So, they can actually take decisions that require courage and thinking about the long term. So, they're not thinking about the next election they're not thinking about how to keep a certain business or a certain industry sweet or keeping them the media sweet.

They can actually make decisions that are really radical and long term and we need to think about how we govern ourselves as a nation and how we can use the benefits of the democracy we have. Also, actually, don't imagine that's the best way of doing things. We can move forward and think about how citizens can participate rather than just be represented in parliament.


I very much agree with all of those points that Robin's just made. I think there's two, for me, really powerful examples of just what we can do when we put our minds to it. So, over the last 70 years, we've seen radical transformation in land use as a result of intensification and focusing on productivity and yield as the basis for all forms of land management.

And that's being driven by the alignment between government policy and practice, the training that farmers get in the field through the support and advisory services, the farming land management education system through colleges and universities and so on, industrial and academic research business activities, technology developments, all of these things have aligned around maximizing productivity and yield for particular crops and livestock and so on and so on, systems that have been devised around that.

Now, what would happen if we geared that system to regenerative practices and productivity and yield? A report that was done for the Climate Change Committee just at the end of last year suggested that there may be a 10% or 15% hit on yield for some systems, for some crops and livestock in regenerative systems. But that's without taking account of the research effort that could be deployed to support those regenerative practices.

Some commentators have suggested that the yield penalty might be zero or even positive if we start growing the right crops and produce the right ways on the right areas of land and so on.

And even if there is a yield, as Robin has said, we need to adjust our consumption accordingly. So, one of the major problems that we've had with that kind of linear extractive economy is a sort of predict and provide basis for all the things that we do, whether it's an energy or transport or food and so on. And the one thing that we can learn from the past is that if we create the supply, the demand will expand to fill it.

And in food systems, that's not great because we don't as individuals, there's an awful lot of food that we don't need to consume in the amounts that we do. And so, we've got big problems in our food systems arising from really problematic distribution of food, on the one hand with food poverty and famine in some parts of the world, all the way through to over-consumption of the wrong types of food, leading to all sorts of health problems in other countries, the UK included.

And I think when you start to add up the full costs of the food system, including the subsidies that it receives, along with the pollution that it's able to get away with, including greenhouse gas emissions, along with the health impacts of eating inappropriate amounts of and types of food and so on, then we begin to see the real cost of the food system.

And not many people and farmers are benefiting from that, but a few large producers and businesses and so on are. So, I think if we really do need to question the distribution issues associated with choices in how we use the land and sea. So, we can turn things around over a fair 50-to-70-year period if we put our minds to it.

And the other example that for me demonstrates just what we can do when we put our minds to things in terms of public good is the response to COVID. You know, look what happens when government action aligns with creativity and innovation from industry and so on in working towards a public good.

So, I think those two examples really fill me with confidence about, you know, we've got a big problem, but we can fix it if we put our minds to it.


Yes, that's absolutely true. And thinking about our listeners and what they can actually do, you know, with the Make Space for Nature campaign, we try to break it down into perhaps, you know, a top 10 type ways that people can help nature, for instance.

What can we do as individuals to help reduce our own impact on nature and the climate?


So, thinking about the indirect drivers, an awful lot of the problems that we have with climate and nature come down to consumption. What do we consume and how do we consume it? And that's a big area, it's a problematic area. So as individuals, we like to think that we make carefully considered decisions based on the evidence and act accordingly.

Speaking personally, like I think for most people, in reality, that's not the case, you know, and if we did that as kind of coolly and rationally as that suggests, most of us would struggle to get out of bed in the morning because we'd be confronted with so much choice as it were and evidence.

So, we make all sorts of shortcuts and snap decisions in how we make choices and then we sort of retrofit the evidence around that. That's problematic because, you know, what's driving us to make those choices is sometimes not very obvious. You know, we're responding often to the goods and services that we buy, the holidays that we take, are often expressions of our status and symbolise our kind of position in society and so on.

We walk into a supermarket, we're confronted with an array of product placements that are leading us towards certain things and away from other things, we get those 'BOGOF’ offers, you know, the buy one, get one free and so on. And advertisers know that when you buy that second or third item and get it free, your average rate of consumption, is faster for the second and third items than it is for the first one. So overall, what they're doing is increasing your rate of consumption of those items. If you bought them individually as you need them, you'd buy less of them and so on. So, these are all devices that advertisers use to increase our rates of consumption, thinking that we're saving a bit of money. And obviously that's really important to us as individuals.

But I think being alive to what are the pressures that are driving us to make the decisions that we're making. And social media is another example of, you know, that the, you know, what we search for, the returns, the search results that we get, we're all based on our preferences and so on. So, they're reinforcing what we already think we need to do and so on. So, I think being able to kind of stand back and think about why we're making a purchase as we are, what's driving that really is I think a really big challenge for all of us.

And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed to a lot of those issues around status consumption as they called it in terms of driving rates and types of consumption that are really problematic in terms of energy and greenhouse gases and state of nature and so on.

So, from all of that, I think we can all make decisions about what we buy, what we consume. We can buy nature-friendly products in general terms. And sometimes it's not easy to find out which are the nature-friendly products, but some are labeled as such. And if products aren't labeled, then just assume that they're not going to be very good for the climate or nature, because most of the time they're not, frankly. Search out the ones that are easy to find that are good for planet and people and start from there.

Generally, the more processed the food is, the worse it's going to be for nature and climate. So, try and eat unprocessed foods as much as possible. And if you're an ecologist, you'll know that the natural systems tend to be more productive at lower trophic levels. The higher you go in those so-called trophic cascades, what's eating what, as it were, at the food chain, the less abundance there is.

So, gearing your diet towards lower trophic levels, eating more plants, more as it were plankton from the sea if you like, the less environmental impact it's going to have.

So, we can connect with nature, we can teach our children about the joys of being out and about in nature in high quality, good environments.

And, of course, MPs and MSPs listen to what people tell them in their mailbags and emails and so on. So, you know, if you’re concerned about these issues, it's really important to tell your MP, your MSP about them, to give them the confidence that the action required for Net Zero, for a nature positive future is as loud and clear as it has been.

And I guess that's, you know, for me, one of the disappointing things about recent announcements from the UK government, the clarity of the direction that has been in place for the last 10 years in the UK is beginning to be eroded by these kinds of announcements. So, we need to be telling our politicians that these things matter to us.


Thanks very much for joining us today, Robin and Clive. We know that nature loss and climate change are huge issues facing us, but it's clear from what you've told us that we can all play our part in tackling this challenge together.


Thank you.


Thank you.


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