Not too late to act for climate change

30 May 2019

A nature-rich future – our best insurance against climate emergency. During her lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Francesca Osowska, chief executive of NatureScot, outlined what needs to happen to limit the climate change emergency. Her full speech from this evening’s event is as follows:

"Thank you, Rebekah, for these kind words, and for telling us about Peter Wilson - what a truly remarkable person. 

Colleagues, this is a critical moment for nature and the environment.  In my years of serving government in Scotland and the UK I cannot think of a more challenging yet genuinely opportune time for working in this area.  Each week, indeed every day, we are witnessing new global and national commitments for nature and the environment – and that is both challenging and exciting. 

The theme that I have been asked to address in my talk and our discussion this evening is spot on and brilliantly timed – many thanks to the RSE and SCRR for the inspired choice.  Scotland is an international leader in the field of environmentalism – our sciences and entrepreneurial acumen have influenced policies, practices and the evidence base globally.  We are standing on strong shoulders.

Let me paint you a picture of what we could have in Scotland if we don’t act by 2030.  Imagine an apocalypse – polluted waters; drained and eroding peatlands; coastal towns and villages deserted in the wake of rising sea level and coastal erosion; massive areas of forestry afflicted by disease; a dearth of people in rural areas; and no bird song.  All of this is possible, and there are parts of the world we can point to where inaction has given rise to one or more of these nightmare landscapes.

The idea that the world only has eleven years to get onto a low carbon pathway to avoid dangerous climate change is all around us in the news.  Yes, some of it is alarmist, but there can be no doubt that certain events over the past two months have grabbed the public’s attention – Greta Thunberg and the school strikes; David Attenborough’s Climate Facts; and the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ protests are three vivid examples.  These were on the back of the urgent headline messages from the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C last autumn.

Following on from this, in the space of just a week in early May, we received the UK Climate Change Committee’s Net Zero report.  And then, on Monday 6th May, the IPBES Global Assessment of Biodiversity was launched in Paris.  This Paris report is arguably the single most significant and far-reaching environmental report ever published.  Just reflect on this single, global statistic – a million species – a tenth of the world’s total – may become extinct on our watch.  That is heart stopping!

I have two takes on this.  First, I believe we shouldn’t quibble over the science and evidence – it is irrefutable.  Second, it’s not too late to act, and a nature-rich future is our best insurance against the climate emergency.   

As the Chief Executive of NatureScot, our Government’s nature agency, I welcome the recommendations from the Net Zero report.  The Scottish Government’s swift action in lodging amendments to the Climate Change Bill, so that we can have zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, is fantastic.  Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham deserves special praise for her determined leadership on this, and indeed wider environmental stewardship in Scotland. 

Climate and nature have been in a marriage, if I can call it that, for more than three billion years – roughly, the duration of the existence of our oldest rocks in Scotland – Lewisian gneiss!  Of course, over the many millions of years that have elapsed, there have been mass extinctions of many life forms for entirely natural causes.  Major shifts in climate and nature are not unusual in the geological record.  But, the rate of the current shift is both unprecedented and phenomenal.  In the space of geological seconds – possibly milliseconds - we have crashed the marriage.  Our actions threaten to disrupt the harmony that has existed over the last ten to fifteen thousand years.  We are entering a climate which may not be capable of sustaining the planet’s billions of people and nature as we know it.

Let me explain the wider context.  The Global Assessment on Biodiversity, which we refer to as the IPBES Report, identifies the five main drivers of the loss of biodiversity - the demise of nature.  These are:

  • Changing use of the land and sea especially for agriculture, forestry and coastal infrastructure
  • Direct exploitation of organisms via harvesting, logging, hunting and fishing
  • Climate change
  • Pollution, and
  • Invasive non-native species.

As well as a driver in its own right, climate change intensifies and exacerbates all of the other drivers.  It will become far more important in the coming decades, especially if the Paris and more recent IPCC targets are not met.  It is for these reasons that on the 28th of April the First Minister declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ in Scotland.  Inspired by her earlier meeting with young climate campaigners, Ms Sturgeon commented "they are right", and pledged to "live up to our responsibility" to halt climate change.

Reading the IPBES Report it is clear we have to tackle all five drivers.  We have to do this in the context of a transition to a low-carbon economy.  Only in this way can we meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and secure a stable and vibrant natural world.  This in turn sustains our high quality of life and nature.

So, the challenge is considerable, but so are the opportunities.  The time frame to achieve all of this is small.  Time might not be on our side, but what we do have is a remarkable wealth of knowledge and ingenuity on what needs to be done.  The transformative changes that are needed will require us to speak with one voice, and to offer many solutions. 

Internationally, three challenges are clear.  First, we need to ensure that science, engineering and technology can respond to meet the Net Zero targets.  Second, we need radical changes in how we manage the land, water and seas.  And third, we need a momentous shift in political and societal attitudes which in turn will change our individual behaviour and attitudes to the environment and nature.

Let me elaborate on each of these. 

Science, engineering and technology developments are moving so swiftly that quite possibly by 2030 we will witness exceptional advances in how all of this helps manage our climate.  However, there is the awful possibility that reliance on some of the novel climate-changing endeavours will dissuade public and business efforts from reducing Carbon emissions.  Part of the problem is that the professions can compete with one-another – what is viewed by one group of scientists as a solution may be paraded by another as a threat.  Another problem is complacency.  If people believe technology can solve the climate crisis they will be reluctant to change their ways.

Notwithstanding that, some of the potential solutions appear on the face of it to be amazing.  Recombining Carbon from Carbon dioxide with Hydrogen from water to make hydrocarbons is a variant on Carbon capture.  This could be an example of the circular economy, turning Carbon dioxide emissions back into fuel.  Some research is beginning to look at ‘greening our oceans’ through artificially promoting the growth of plankton to absorb much more Carbon dioxide. However, we need to be cautious on such an intervention.  Such ‘greening’ could have catastrophic consequences for nutrient flows in Tropical regions - such is the complexity of how our global oceans and climates connect and function.  As ever, we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. 

There are yet more trials planned or underway.  Some are spraying salt droplets over the ocean to create clouds which reflect sunshine.  Well, there is no need for that in the Scottish Highlands and Islands!  Other trials are trying to create clouds over the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions in the hope they will reflect the sun. 

These and other geo-engineering solutions are bewildering, and some are currently being researched at the newly established Cambridge Centre for Climate Science.  But technologies drive behaviours, and climate is not evenly distributed, so these technologies raise a very real question of power.  Who do you trust to have their hand on the global climate tiller? 

The Net Zero report argues that in the UK we need a 50% expansion of renewable energy on land and at sea to meet additional demand for electric vehicles and electric heat.  Renewable and other environmentally-friendly sources of energy are at the heart of this.  New petrol and diesel cars may be history by 2030.  Already, half the private cars in Norway are electric, and other counties are close to this statistic!

We also need sustainable bioenergy with Carbon Capture Storage to permit, yes, permit, unavoidable emissions in other parts of the economy.  Currently much of this is untested.  I believe we have to be forthright and bold and to push the science, technology and engineering arguments to a plain where we can have inclusive debates which give rise to options for action. 

Turning to our second challenge, the Net Zero report states that, globally, fundamental changes are needed in how we manage our land and seas and that transformative changes in food production systems are required.  Globally, around a quarter of all emissions arise from land use.  That’s also the case in Scotland.  However, in Scotland, where we have so many rural and maritime ‘uses’, we have an ethos of meeting challenges and seizing opportunities.

The Net Zero report argues that we should be releasing 20% of agricultural land to support emissions’ reductions through afforestation, peatland restoration and biomass production.  For us in Scotland this is difficult when so much of our food production is underpinned by rural agriculture and fishing communities which are in places, fragile.  The same goes for timber production, with ambitions to increase the extent of land under forestry, with inevitable competition with other uses.  All of our land uses must provide multiple benefits, and we have the Land Use Strategy to guide us in that.

In Scotland, we are now world leaders in peatland restoration, but we can do more to scale up our efforts and keep the Carbon locked up in what are some of the world’s deepest peat deposits.

The Flow Country, which I am delighted to see is currently being consulted on as a potential World Heritage Site, is arguably our greatest single asset as a lung for nature.  In northern Scotland the massive tracts of deep peat, with their fantastic open landscapes and some of the highest densities of wading birds recorded anywhere globally, are treasures for nature.

For farming and forestry we need to think carefully and constructively about the transformations needed in how we use the land to simultaneously reduce emissions, protect and enhance nature, and help build resilience against the inevitable impacts of a changing climate.  We have some great examples to draw on.  ‘Farming for a Better Scotland’ provides practical support to benefit farms and helps reduce our impacts on the climate.  Run by Scotland’s Rural College on behalf of the Scottish Government this is about adapting to a changing climate as well as manging nature for a better climate.

And this takes me to my third point, about behavioural and societal changes.  We have to work with people so that everyone understands that healthy, diverse nature plays a full and key part in sequestering greenhouse gases and regulating water flows to reduce flood risk.  Healthy nature encourages us to be healthy – we want to get out and see nature, enjoy it, and be inspired by it.  We want to be outdoors, and develop an educational culture of learning outside the classroom.  We need to be nurtured by places around us, and not cooped up and seeing nature ‘out there’ unconnected with us.  ‘Connecting people and nature’ has been my personal mantra since I joined NatureScot. 

Degraded nature is a liability.  Examples include: seas lacking in kelp forests and seagrass meadows; fragmented and poor condition saltmarshes; uplands dominated by eroding peat and heavily grazed with unstable slopes; woods lacking in species and structural diversity; and widespread impoverished soils.  Never mind the release of greenhouse gases and exacerbated flood risks, such landscapes just don’t do it for our psyche.  

All of this points to a very careful re-think on how we collectively work with the land and sea.  We need to have one eye on the future and another on the past!  We may have been myopic, but now need to be bifocal! 

Looking ahead, our baselines are shifting like tectonic plates colliding catastrophically.  The shifting states of nature in the last century associated with the first 1°C temperature rise may not be relevant to this Century.  There's at least a further 0.5°C climate warming already locked into the system as a result of past emissions.  So we have to adapt as we mitigate.  All of this is pointing to more empathy, care and action – stewardship.  But who acts and in whose interests?

A stronger voice for younger people is crucial.  Inspirational young people like Greta Thunberg and the school strikes for climate, nature and its plight are massively influential.  Greta has arguably done much more than bringing the climate emergency to the fore.  She and colleagues are compelling us to think about far wider and deeper perspectives.  They are questioning the power relations that allow changes to happen.  Their emphasis on questions about governance is central to the IPBES Report recommendations on transformative change.

I believe we need to debate these issues in the light of emerging evidence.  We have to build a consensus around solutions for a more sustainable platform for nature and us.  Transformational change only happens when we have courage and a belief in what is needed.  To get there, we need to create the means for working together imaginatively and trustingly. 

It is increasingly clear that the diversity of people involved in making decisions has to change.  For too long global decisions have been made by narrowly focused people in their own images. 

That young people have been driving our collective consciousness is great to see.  They are the future guardians of our environment.  If we don’t get it right, they suffer.  NatureScot has been working with a group of young people – our ReRoute panel – to get their views on future decision-making in nature.  How can we all involve our young people in this vital debate?

I’d like to look further at the five drivers of the IPBES and how we can work at these in Scotland.  I’m pleased to say a lot of excellent work is already underway here.

Changing use of the land and sea – especially farming, forestry and fisheries.  Each one of us has to eat and drink.  What we chose to consume says a lot about how we care about nature and climate.  Changing the use of the land and seas will need to involve both the production and consumption of food, including fish, and wood products.  Much of our food relies on domesticated wild crop relatives and traditional breeds of livestock, and maintaining these is central to the resilience of our food systems.  Over the last few decades, the ways in which we use our seas have changes significantly, for example aquaculture and offshore renewables.  Marine resources have a crucial role to play in the resilience of food and energy provision, and Scotland is well placed to show a lead here internationally.

Direct exploitation of organisms.  Key here is how we manage conflicts in wildlife management.  Geese, raptors and beavers all come to mind in terms of how they impact on agriculture and game management.  In advising on sustainable marine fisheries, we have to continue to work on embedding the ecosystem approach in the management of our seas.  It’s clear that the sustainability of marine fisheries is dependent on the quality of the natural environment.

Climate change.  Peatland restoration protects stored carbon.  But beyond that, active and healthy bogs sequester additional greenhouse gases too.  They also provide other benefits such as regulating water flows to reduce flood risk and enhancing the species and habitat interests.  Our pioneering work on blue carbon in our coasts and seas, such as management of kelp forests, can help to sequester carbon as well as absorbing wave energy and reducing coastal flood risk.  Planting native trees by rivers can also reduce flood risk and enhance freshwater biodiversity, not least through providing shade and cooling in warm weather.

The Scottish Government’s award-winning ‘Dynamic Coasts’, led by NatureScot, and delivered by the University of Glasgow and others,  is a fantastic partnership project.  It has assessed coastal changes and infrastructure, and how these will respond to sea level rise and flood frequency.

Pollution.  We are working closely with colleagues on a range of issues including acid deposition on sensitive upland habitats.  Work in this area will grow prominently, not least as research shows just how harmful air pollution is to us.  We are rightly beginning to look very closely at Nitrogen emissions and their many impacts on people and nature.  There is much we can do here already given the science readily available.

Invasive non-native species – referred to as INNS.  In addition to our statutory roles we are leading the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative which is an exciting and ambitious four-year partnership project set up to tackle INNS alongside rivers and watercourses in northern Scotland.  Threats from INNS are increasing with the growth in international trade and travel.  INNS are the single biggest threat to nature in our protected areas, so we are involved in many projects to combat this.  For example, we are controlling toxic giant hogweed in the Lower Wick River Site of Special Scientific Interest in Caithness, and getting rid of Japanese knotweed from the Ballantrae Shingle Beach SSSI in South Ayrshire.  These are two examples of scores of locally vital projects underpinned by robust biosecurity principles and practices.

Let us look ahead.  At the end of next year the Conference of Parties on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (the CBD) will be held in Kunming in China.  This will be the international stage at which targets and actions will be set out for the next decade.  These will build on the IPBES Report that I have discussed.

In Scotland, we have a great range of projects underway as outlined in Scotland’s Biodiversity: a route map to 2020.  I’ve mentioned some of these already.  Most of them have already hit their targets and involve a massive effort by agencies, NGOs, local communities, land managers, and a wealth of collaborations.  A good number of these are supported by EU and National Lottery Heritage funds – two vital funding streams.  Collectively these projects are working towards meeting the Aichi 2020 targets of the CBD. 

An improved evidence base, incorporating innovations in satellite and other forms of remote sensing and huge support from citizen science, will transform our effectiveness by 2030.  Species tracking and alerts, including for INNS, means we can make rapid responses to danger.  Near real-time species-habitat analysis and modelling, and rapid assessments of conservation status, enable us to be much better at taking action.  We are working on the development of a comprehensive habitat map for Scotland’s land and seas which will reduce decision times on development proposals.

A Review of the Biological Recording Infrastructure in Scotland was published by the Scottish Biodiversity Information Forum last autumn.  This is the most comprehensive appraisal of citizen science wildlife recording and data management to-date.  We are advising Government on how this might be taken forward.  Our family of citizen scientists is, on the basis of our population, one of the largest and certainly the best in the world!  You name a group of animals, plants or other organisms – and we have around 90,000 species in Scotland – and you can be sure we have a group reporting on them!  And this knowledge doesn’t just benefit Scotland – we make a vital contribution to global knowledge.  Of course, this chimes with the RSE’s own strapline ‘Knowledge made useful’!

Let me leave you with four key areas where we need to act, and then a final thought.

For Food Production – we need to consider pathways to sustainable food systems which build on existing land use and marine planning and which shift to the sustainable management of both the supplier/producer and the demand/consumer sides of food systems.  Well-structured regulations, incentives and subsidies are needed.  And these have to operate at landscape and sea-scape scales. 

And we can act now through cutting down the use of single use plastics, and drastically reducing our food waste.

For cities, towns and villages - integrated city-specific and landscape-level planning for nature will give us sustainable and equitable places in which to live and work.  This will make a significant contribution to coping with the climate emergency. 

We can act now through using more sustainable forms of transport.  As a cyclist, you’d expect me to say this! 

For the economy - achieving a sustainable basis involves fundamentally reforming economic and financial systems.  We need to tackle poverty and inequality as vital parts of sustainability, aims that are central to the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework.  Our investment in nature is beginning to be recognised in national accounting.  We need to ensure that organisations, businesses, communities and individuals make far more of nature’s benefits. 

We can act now by ensuring that nature is valued far more highly for its own existence, as well as for the huge public benefits it provides.

For a nature-rich Scotland - we need to operate at a landscape scale involving far greater involvement and investment in local communities – in both rural and urban settings.  There is a growing appetite for this investment, culturally and socially. 

We can act now through encouraging this investment enthusiastically.

Colleagues, I have taken you through international and national work to ensure we have a nature-rich future.  I believe this is the best insurance against our climate emergency.  Nature has an essential role to play in how we reduce emissions, and how we adapt to changes into which we are already locked.  By working with nature we can help moderate the changing climate – and through a more stable climate, we can sustain a far healthier and more resilient environment.

If we achieve all of this and more, Scotland will be an even greater international leader for the environment.  If we do what we've always done, we'll just get what we've always got.  We simply cannot afford to do that.  We stand on strong shoulders, but now must work for generations to come.

Our collective ambition is clear.  This is what nature needs.  This is what Scotland needs.  Ask not what nature can do for you - ask what you can do for nature.  That is how we will, collectively, be international leaders for the environment.

Thank you."