I made a podcast! Or rather co-hosted it, and wasn’t responsible for the heavy job of planning or editing it. I just asked questions. And could have gone on asking questions for hours. It was fascinating to hear the new-ish Director of the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, Dr Harry Watkins, talk about his work in urban forestry and landscape architecture, biosecurity and now in transforming what was a “museum” of plants into a maze of resilient and adaptable habitats. After many years of not questioning the benefits vs. increasing costs of the status quo, and its relevance to contemporary society and its challenges, the Botanic Gardens now are. And their response has been controversial amongst their supporters. They are building a sand dune in the middle of the Gardens… It’s all part of the Tangled Bank project, a response to the challenges and changes resulting from ongoing climate change. Any opposition to the project just need to listen to Harry explain the reasons behind it to be convinced of its importance. Why didn’t this change come sooner even?! And will other Botanic Gardens follow suit?
After many more hours, and months of work than initially anticipated, our exhibition of Peruvian peatland pics is live. I sketched the article below with colleagues for publicity purposes; this press release adds a few more details. And the exhibition itself is available to everyone everywhere fortunate enough to have an internet connection: https://peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/. Compiling the exhibition has very much been a team effort, with colleagues Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies. I’ve learnt a huge amount from their invaluable input and feedback on all aspects of this ‘outreach’ project. I hope we’ve created an accessible narrative that will inspire people to look twice at peatlands, temperate and tropical, and to consider what role they play in all of our lives. I’ve also learnt, the hard way, about the need to balance what can be a very diverse portfolio of work in academia, with publications still being the unit of currency and stamp of expertise for the (academic and employment) world. Now to learning how to achieve that balance before it’s too late…
This autumn, a touch of the tropical has come to southeast Scotland. From early August until late October, 2021, the St Andrews Botanic Gardens are hosting a photography exhibition all about Peru’s lowland tropical peatlands. Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, lecturers from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, in collaboration with the Botanic Gardens and with funding from the British Ecological Society and The Leverhulme Trust, have curated a collection of photographs that take you on a tour of the steaming swamps of the Peruvian Amazon.
The selected photographs were taken by researchers from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds, and the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP, Institute for Research on the Peruvian Amazon) across ten years of fieldwork in Peru’s peatlands. The exhibition explores three key themes: ecosystems – highlighting the “ecosystem engineers” responsible for carbon storage; fieldwork – describing experiences of data collection in the swamps; and people – illuminating the communities and activities associated with the peatlands.
In addition to the physical exhibition, a virtual gallery is housing the photographs and captions to provide online access to audiences near and far: www.peatlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk. The website is also available in Spanish and will be live beyond when the exhibition closes at the Botanic Gardens at the end of October 2021. When accessibility improves in Peru and COVID-cases stabilise, colleagues from IIAP plan to display a Spanish-language version of the exhibition in a National Reserve in the Amazonian region of Peru.
Peatlands are a distinctive type of ecosystem where the surface vegetation contributes to, and lives on top of, layers of accumulating peat. Peat is made up of leaves, roots and partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up when waterlogged, low-oxygen, low-nutrient conditions prevent decomposer organisms from recycling dead plant remains. Over hundreds to thousands of years, a thick layer of carbon-rich peat accumulates. With climate change a key challenge faced by global society, conserving the carbon stored in peatlands is becoming an international priority for mitigation efforts.
Peatlands make up over 20% of the land area in Scotland. The most common type of peatland is a blanket bog, where layers of peat carpet the bedrock, forming waterlogged, mossy and shrubby landscapes. In the Peruvian Amazon, peatlands look very different as they are generally forested and often flooded; they are the archetypal ‘swamp’. Over 80% of Scotland’s peatlands are thought to be degraded, whilst Peru’s peatlands are mostly still in an intact state.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews and other members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, are measuring and mapping the distribution of carbon within the Peruvian Amazon peatlands, the biodiversity they contain and their long-term dynamics, to understand how they develop over centuries to thousands of years. Other projects, as many of the photographs highlight, are exploring the value, meaning and cultural importance of the peatlands to the communities who live there. The photographs in the exhibition have been selected to provide an insight into not only these peatland ecosystems and the people who live in and around them, but also the experience of doing research in these carbon-rich environments. You can find out more about the different projects and team members at www.tropicalwetlands.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk.
If you do have a look at the exhibition and it leaves you with questions or comments, the curators would love to hear them. Please email Lydia Cole (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any feedback.
To coincide with World Peatland’s Day, on Wednesday 2nd June, 2021, three members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, Lydia Cole, Katy Roucoux and Althea Davies, launched a new website, which will be showcasing an online exhibition from August onwards. Funded by a British Ecological Society Outreach Grant, they have developed an exhibition of photographs illustrating life in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon. The exhibition will be physically held in the beautiful surroundings of the St Andrews Botanic Gardens, located in Fife, Scotland, from 1st August until 31st October, 2021. For those unable to get to the gardens, not least our colleagues and audience in Peru, the exhibition will also be available in an online gallery (in English and Spanish languages). Alongside the photographs, the website will contain educational materials for schools, with information sheets that will help teachers to incorporate aspects of the exhibition and our peatland research, into their teaching.
The three key themes of the exhibition, i.e., ecosystems, fieldwork, and people and peatlands, take the audience on a journey through Peru’s Amazonian peatlands. All of the selected photographs have been kindly provided by members of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium, and were taken during various periods of field research over the last decade. We’d like to thank all of those who contributed, both in the UK and Peru, without whom this exhibition would not be possible. We hope you can all join us online, or in person, when the exhibition opens in August.
Nine years, five jobs, four cities and three paper rejections….and I’ve finally got the ultimate chapter of my PhD published. It’s been a journey! There’s so much I could write here about haphazard directions, happenstance, failure, resilience, the importance of ice-cream, etc., but I won’t. I hope there’ll be time for any helpful reflections in non-Zoom person soon. For now, here is the article: The future of Southeast Asia’s tropical peatlands: Local and global perspectives, free to download for the next 50 days (thanks for the token, Elsevier). And thanks to all of those people, both acknowledged in it and not, who have been ‘there’ over the last nine+ years.
And paper’s “highlights”:
People have occupied Sarawak’s coastal peatlands for c. 200 years.
In the last century deforestation & peatland conversion have been widespread.
Local stakeholders perceive few challenges & many opportunities in using peatlands.
This conflicts with the international community promoting peatland conservation.
Differences in knowledge between local & global communities need to be addressed.
If any one of you out there reading do actually read this overly wordy piece and have feedback to share, I would love to hear it.
Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.
In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.
On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.
The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.
Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.
How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.
Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.
Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).
From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.
The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.
From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.
Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.
Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.
Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).
The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet.
To kick off what has already been an incredible year on many fronts (!), I was tasked with writing a post for the International Peatland Society’s blog, in my role as the Coordinator of the Peatlands and Biodiversity Expert Group within the organisation. Mark Harrison joined me in extracting some positive news about peatlands from 2020, to inspire us to keep speaking up for swamps in the year ahead. (The piece below is being reposted from the IPS blog, accessed here.) Onwards, and bog-wards.
As we say goodbye to 2020, to what has been an incredibly and unpredictably challenging year in many ways for many people, it is important to sift through the muddy (swamp) waters for positive news. For peatlands, the last 12 months have provided many sources of hope. Various happenings have brought the societal relevance of peatlands further into the public eye, and shone light on some of the great work of peatland scientists and practitioners across the world. Here are a few highlights (hopefully you also know of many more!).
There is a passionate campaign underway to make The Flow Country into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced in July that it will support the bid to UNESCO to consider this vast area of blanket bog as a significant jewel in humanity’s crown. If The Flow Country peatlands, which cover 2,000 km2 within the region of Caithness and Sutherland in northern Scotland, are given World Heritage Site status, they will enjoy increased resources for their protection and restoration (supporting further excellent work such as this), and helping the UK to achieve its net zero climate targets. The campaign team are busy working on the nomination materials, which will be reviewed by the UNESCO Committee in 2023. In the meantime whilst we await their decision, the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve continues to provide access to this wonderful site (in the absence of Covid-restrictions!).
This year has seen noteworthy articles published that raise awareness of the importance of peatlands as an irrecoverable carbon stock (Goldstein et al., 2020), highlight the importance of better understanding peatland carbon dynamics and incorporating them into global climate models (Loisel et al., 2020), evaluate the relative impacts of incentive vs. deterrent interventions on peat fire outcomes (Carmenta et al., 2020), and assess the value of understanding people’s engagement with peatlands and the reasons behind “caring for Cinderella” (Byg et al., 2020). In addition to these, and of central relevance to this year’s main news story, Harrison et al. (2020) published an article describing the role that tropical peatlands play in the context of global disease pandemics.
Covid-19 has touched us all, including the communities living in the World’s peatlands. Working with an international team of co-authors (including us both), Harrison et al. (2020), make apposite connections between the current Covid-19 pandemic and tropical peatlands drawing attention to the consequences of neglecting this globally important ecosystem in these challenging times. We describe how tropical peatlands could prove a potential source of zoonotic emerging infectious diseases in the future, with wildlife harvesting and habitat degradation bringing people into contact with potential animal vectors. Of more immediate effect, we describe the likely/ensuing impacts that the Covid-19 pandemic is already having on communities living in and around tropical peatlands. Food security, health provisioning and livelihoods have been compromised by the interruptions to transport resulting from the pandemic within the peatlands of Borneo and the Peruvian Amazon. Peatland research, restoration and conservation have also all been disrupted, increasing the susceptibility of already degraded peatland areas to fire and illegal activities. On a positive note, the article concludes by providing specific recommendations on how tropical peatlands can be managed to mitigate the risks of this pandemic and potential future ones. Hopefully these recommendations will be heeded.
Many tropical peatland areas are vulnerable to the impacts, whether directly or indirectly, of Covid-19 (Harrison et al., 2020). A remote tropical peatland community in Buenos Aires (upper image), within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peruvian Amazon, which is accessible only by boat. People living here and in neighbouring communities rely heavily on resources extracted from the surrounding peat-forming Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps. Urarina indigenous groups living in peat-rich areas, harvest palm leaves from which to make textiles (lower image); important both practically and culturally for these isolated communities. The palms also offer plentiful food for wild fauna and thus the palm swamps in which they grow are important hunting spaces for people, providing bushmeat in locations far from the nearest market. Photo credits: Lydia Cole.
Finally, the UK Government has been put under further pressure recently to ban peat compost for amateur gardeners. The UK aimed to phase out peat compost for home use in England this year, but the target was only voluntary, meaning political will is limited and enforcement non-existent. Campaignsdrawing attention to this Government failing are helping to ensure it does not go unnoticed.
Despite these ‘wins’ for peatlands in 2020, there remain many challenges to protecting these invaluable ecosystems sufficiently from degrading human activities (for example in the Congo basinand Indonesian Borneo). Continuing to bring peatlands into public view and onto national and international policy agendas is vital, and one that the International Peatland Society is committed to as we dive into 2021.
Dr. Lydia Cole, Coordinator IPS Biodiversity Expert Group University of St. Andrews
Dr. Mark E. Harrison University Of Exeter, Cornwall
On 26th November 2020, I had some fun getting stuck into the Scottish Research Showcase. It involved creating a short video that represented an aspect of my work. So I created the (rather naff!) introduction to peatlands that’s embedded in the tweet below. There were some fantastically creative videos made by other Scotland-based researchers, so I’d recommend browsing #Exploration20 #GlobalScienceShow tweets from the day (e.g. one researcher tells their story via an animation in the form of crochet!). I have much to learn about, and from, the boundless and fun world of science communication!
I’m re-postingthis blog with permission from the University of St Andrews’ Energy Ethics group, for whom I wrote this piece.
As part of Energy Ethics 2020, I joined three other panellists on Friday 13th November to debate the question: Arerenewable energy technologies a sustainable solution for meeting the world’s growing energy needs? It was a fascinating 90 minutes, filled with interesting and shocking facts about the dimensions of renewable energy in the 21st Century. I learnt that if we wanted to rely on biofuels, we would have to plant crops on the whole of the world’s terrestrial surface in order to replace the 15 Empire State Buildings’ worth of crude oil that is currently extracted per day; that an average electric car uses three times more copper than a conventional car (where does this come from!?); and that many people in the Majority World lack access to sufficient energy to light up their homes for educational purposes or to cook without subjecting the household to air pollution, let alone have access to renewable energy sources. The challenges of powering the world on renewable technologies were as palpable as the need to overcome them in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; and reducing this reliance is imperative if we are to limit the impacts of ongoing climate change.
I am an ecologist, who has studied landscapes in which bio-energy production has been one option for land use. Since energy use and sourcing is a topic that touches all of our lives, I have spent some time thinking about how we might produce renewable energy whilst ensuring we uphold the environmental pillar of sustainable practice. I remember being excited by palm oil, touted as the great solution to diesel-fuelled transport. After millions of hectares of Southeast Asia were converted into oil palm plantations, the critiques started to roll in: we are taking up precious agricultural land to fill our cars with biofuels whilst people starve; we are destroying miles upon miles of biodiverse tropical forest to plant a monoculture that provides limited habitat for wildlife; we are creating huge carbon emissions in the process of growing this ‘renewable’ fuel, amongst other condemnations. I remember getting excited about Jatropha, claimed to be a more renewable alternative, as a biomass crop that could be grown in areas that were already ecologically degraded. But Jatropha did not prove the golden ticket either: the crop requires significant inputs of fertilisers, pesticides and water (through irrigation systems) in order to be productive, and the process of converting Jatropha seed oil into biodiesel results in large greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions itself. There are large questions around the sustainability of these two biofuels (and many others). There is also enquiry to be made around whether they are actually truly ’renewable’.
According to Oxford’s online Lexico, a renewable resource is defined as one that is “not depleted by use”. The resource therefore has to regenerate at the same rate that it is harvested or otherwise consumed. For example, sufficient time must be left between the logging rotations in a tree plantation to ensure that the trees grow to reproductive age before they are harvested. If trees are harvested too early in their growth cycle for natural regeneration to take place, a key dimension of the renewability of the resource is undermined, along with the interdependent system in which it grows: the soil, with its finite stock of nutrients and growing material; the water supply to ecosystem; and the diversity of plants and animals involved in nutrient cycling and natural regeneration. If the context and condition of the whole ecosystem is considered, as the fundamental housing from which renewable resources are produced, many of our current ‘renewable’ resources would be axed from the list.
One resource that epitomises this renewability challenge is peat. Peat accumulates at an average rate of one millimetre per year, in waterlogged environments where the lack of oxygen slows down or entirely halts the process of decomposition. Burning one cubic meter of extracted peat is the equivalent to releasing one thousand years of accumulated carbon. It is produced through the natural process of harnessing the sun’s energy via photosynthesis, the same process as produces wood-fuel, but the slow regeneration time of peat demands that if we burn it, we must do so at an impractically slow rate.
Aside from the extensive time required to re-accumulate the equivalent carbon belowground that is extracted when peat is harvested, the process of extraction itself often leads to large carbon emissions. The equipment deployed uses fossil fuelled combustion engines and emits CO2, but even greater volumes of GHGs result from the disruption of the waterlogged environment, which is an inevitable part of the extraction process. This prevents the ongoing ‘sinking’ of CO2 from the atmosphere into the peat substrate. It also results in the release of carbon that was previously inaccessible to the forces of decomposition, which cycles the plant-derived organic carbon back into the atmospheric gas that we have come to dread. Rwanda, a country striving for domestic energy security and energy accessibility for all, has recently built a peat-fired power station. International financing and engineering assistance, primarily from Finland, has supported the development of this “sustainable electricity” infrastructure. But this strategy of burning peat for electricity generation is far from sustainable, and even further from a system harnessing a renewable resource, as I have touched on here.
Though the balancing of the three pillars of environment, society and economics to develop sustainable solutions to meet our energy needs is no trivial task, a sufficient understanding and consideration of the environment component is essential if the other two pillars are not to be undermined. But when has any big transition occurred without challenge? And it is challenge that drives innovation and positive change. To end the discussion, the panellists were asked for their final (ideally positive!) reflections in order to provide food for thought moving forward. Building decentralised, appropriate renewable energy systems at a community level was mentioned by several of us. One panellist emphasised the need to create macro-policies with micro-foundations. He also reflected on the need for a dimension of international cooperation and support, through knowledge transfer and financial assistance, to lend the opportunities of renewable energy to those countries less able to develop their own. Promisingly, finding the money for these initiatives now seems more possible than ever, with recent COVID-19 related budget decisions demonstrating to the population here in the UK that our national Government can deliver when it chooses to. There was further optimism in the recent election of a new leader in the United States of America, Joe Biden, who has both acknowledged the reality of climate change and will likely choose to provide national and international leadership on approaches to solve this challenge. But we were reminded, as conscious citizens, that we must hold our leaders to account and show them that we are willing to embrace equitable and truly sustainable solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our age.
Back in January, I published a short piece on an interdisciplinary workshop that I’d run with Althea Davies and Kath Allen at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in December 2019, in Belfast….back when many people gathered together in small spaces, and hugged. Today, the Relational Thinking blog of the BES’s Journal People and Nature, published the extended write-up of the event and our learnings from it. Please have a gander if you’re interested. Preparing it recently for publication, both Althea and I remembered how exciting and stimulating it had been for us to run the event and reflect on it afterwards. We are currently working on extending and sharing our learning, and that of several invited others, in a new Guide to Better Science, which we hope to be published by the BES next summer. Hopefully these resources provide some structure and inspiration for interdisciplinary endeavours out there, be them in person or on Zoom!