By Steve Wilkinson
Governments across the UK are currently considering their response to the economic crisis that COVID 19 has created. Action to stimulate economic recovery is urgently needed. There is a strong emphasis on finding opportunities to "build back better" and to integrate environmental considerations into recovery packages. If long-term economic and social benefits are to be achieved, action to tackle the inter-related crises of climate change and biodiversity loss is also essential.
As plans are developed, it is critical that the UK’s strong environmental credentials are maintained and enhanced. There is an opportunity to increase the UK’s international credibility and influence by showing how to grow a greener economy and using this as an exemplar to encourage other countries to take similar approaches. Equally, it's important that we are open-minded and prepared to learn from what has worked in other parts of the world.
At the heart of building a greener economy is a recognition of the benefits provided by the natural environment. Examples include locking away carbon dioxide to help tackle climate change, and managing the flow of water to reduce the risk of flooding under increasingly uncertain weather patterns. These benefits are often referred to as "ecosystem services". The value provided by ecosystem services can also be affected by human activities, both directly (for example, by changes in land-use practices) and indirectly (for example, as a result of the impacts of air pollution). As new policies to stimulate the economy are developed and implemented a strong focus on managing ecosystem services will ensure that the right things are happening in the right places to get the best return.
JNCC’s role in relation to a green recovery is not to set policy nor to take action on the ground. Our role is to support those who make policy and operational decisions through the provision of sound evidence and advice. Good evidence will help decision-makers to weigh up benefits, costs and trade-offs, and so make well-informed choices.
Much of our work involves bringing together the scientific knowledge of diverse elements of the research community to develop an integrated approach to problem-solving. We are actively developing our knowledge in a range of areas, including:
- Mapping Environmental change – integrating satellite imagery and other data sources to map and assess the state of the environment. How this is changing will be key to decisions in many sectors including agriculture, forestry and tourism.
- Air pollution – air pollution affects crop yield and biodiversity as well as human health. Our focus is on enhancing UK joint working to make better use of modelling and evidence to target emission reductions and streamline decision making.
- Offshore renewable energy – we are working to understand the impacts of increased offshore renewables development on the marine environment and how these can be mitigated and managed. Improving this evidence base includes working with government and advisers across the four UK countries, as well as directly with industry, via initiatives such as the Offshore Wind Strategic Monitoring and Research Forum (OWSMRF).
- Monitoring the natural environment – the species surveillance schemes run by JNCC with a range of NGOs provides a world-leading example of cost-effective monitoring and detection of change in the natural environment. Combined with other data sources this provides evidence to inform policies and assess their impact on critical species.
The approaches being developed across the four UK countries to grow their economies following COVID will differ but have many similarities. Ensuring they are green recoveries will require making best use of existing and emerging evidence. JNCC is helping to develop the approaches to support this and to share experiences. Real impact means also looking beyond the UK itself. As well as accelerating and improving the development of problem-solving approaches within the UK, we are increasingly turning our attention to how these innovative approaches might be applied elsewhere around the globe. Thus, in bringing the latest scientific evidence, tools and techniques to meet the challenges of our changing environment and struggling economy we are helping to create a more environmentally sustainable outcome from the COVID pandemic.
The COVID pandemic is having an unimagined impact on health, livelihoods and economies. There is an opportunity now to salvage something positive from the crisis by making best use of the science and evidence to highlight the value and benefits provided by the natural environment and to ensure these are central to the recovery and ultimately a more sustainable future. JNCC has a key role to support this both across the UK and elsewhere across the globe.
Hero image: Ringlet (Photo by Maddy Long)
1. Windfarm at Thanet, Kent. There will be a strong push for more renewable energy but the environmental impacts of this need to be understood and mitigated. (Photo by John Goold)
2. Earth observation image of Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. Improved mapping of the benefits of the environment will inform where investment might be best targeted. (@Sentinel-2 analysis-ready data supplied under Open Government Licence v3 by the Defra Earth Observation Data Service (earthobs.defra.gov.uk) and JNCC's Simple ARD Service)
3. Volunteer at a bioblitz. Networks of volunteer recorders will be critical in assessing the impacts on biodiversity (Photo by Anna Robinson)