Was it a COP-out?

After a year’s delay, COP26 has now been, and gone. And the next Conference of the Parties, the 27th gathering of the 197 countries who make the decisions on how to fulfil the goals of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which they all signed up for), is already being talked about. Next year, each nations’ negotiators, and their support teams, will meet in Egypt to share what they’ve been up to over the last year; what practical actions and/or policy changes and/or plans they’ve made to stick to their ‘promise’ of reducing their country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and by the amount that scientists think is needed in order for the world to stave off dangerous increases in temperature.

Are we not already beyond the dangerous increases stage? I think most scientists would say that the imperative of maintaining temperatures to 1.5°C is already unachievable. And misses the point. Certainly, the details of the agreement of nations made at COP26, to essentially “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of fossil fuels, will not accelerate our approach to limiting temperature rise to the mythical 1.5°C. But progress was made, I have heard.

Reflecting on the various conversations I’ve had with people much more involved in COP26 than me, and on reports I’ve read from the event, it seems that ‘nature’ and (some of) the voices of (some of) the people who aren’t normally given space at these talks, were considered. Big business is also, necessarily, supporting the development of fora between trading nations and of tools to more accurately monitor supply chains, especially for products coming from countries with vast areas of forests and peatlands, vulnerable to the power of the global commodities trade. The Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) dialogue is one fora. And Sainsbury’s are one ginormous business having a go at leading the way.

There were numerous individuals attending the Conference who were also leading the way. A great number walked to COP26 from across the UK. One very special guest walked to COP26 from Syria. Little Amal made the journey (with a bit of help!) to tell the “unpalatable truth” about the challenges faced by so many refugees. Michael Morpurgo gives a moving Point of View on the inspiration behind this brave girl. And her presence at COP26 also reminds us of the growing injustice wrought by climate change, in addition to the injustice that has gone into creating it. But I cannot talk with any authority on that subject. On the subject of peat however, I can.

Through my role as the Coordinator of the Expert Group on Peatlands and Biodiversity, of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Peatland Society, I had the opportunity to give a whistle-stop tour of the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon to the audience convened by the Global Peatlands Initiative. The UN-led Initiative is a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to coordinate and share information and expertise with the goal of promoting the conservation and sustainable management of the world’s peatlands. I presented the work of the Tropical Wetlands Consortium to the audience of the Peatland Pavilion at COP26, within the Peatland Partnerships in Climate Change Mitigation and Nature Recovery session, organised by the International Peatland Society. Intact peatlands are increasingly being acknowledged as a key natural way of mitigating against (through absorbing carbon) and preventing further increases in (if not drained & transformed) atmospheric CO2. It was evident from the extensive engagement that the Peatland Pavilion achieved (Michele Obama even popped by, apparently!) that peat is becoming acknowledged as one of the “superstars” of nature-based approaches to achieving Nationally Determined Contributions.

Promising words. Now to action.

Making an impact….in UK environmental policy

On 6th March B.C. (just before lock-down), I organised an event at the snazzy, “gold-standard of sustainability” British Ecological Society Offices in London, to let ecologists know how they can Make an Impact: Understanding the ways they can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy.  The event was held jointly by the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group and the BES Policy Team.  We had an excellent bunch of speakers and a room-full of engaged attendees.

I thought I’d post some of the resources from the day here:

Now over to you/me/us.  And perhaps now is the time to think about what changes are possible, what a different world could look like A.C. and how we can influence that.

A story of flaming bogs in Borneo

I’ve made a pact with myself that I will write a plain language summary for each paper I publish as the first author, to make my work more accessible for people beyond the ivory tower.  Some journals, e.g. People and Nature, now encourage this for each of their publications.  Whether you believe or not that scientists have a role in advocacy, I believe that sharing the treasure of knowledge with the people that funded our adventure is our responsibility.  And perhaps it’s better to tell the story with scientific facts, than ‘facts’ derived through alternative means?  Here is my first attempt at an accessible summary for my last publication. (Though it’s still too sciency, a good friend pointed out – I’ll try for properly plain next time!  All comments welcome!)

Over the past year, it’s been rare to pass a day without hearing of forests burning, whether in Australia, Brazil or Siberia.  The frequency and intensity of forest fires seem to be increasing, with devastating impacts on people and nature.  But fires in forests are not a new phenomenon and can be vital to the resilience of these ecosystems.  Historical and palaeoecological work can provide context from which to compare these contemporary fires and provide evidence to demonstrate the impact of management and policy.

One type of forest that has gained a global reputation in recent decades for its spectacular fires is degraded tropical peat swamp forest.  In an intact state, these waterlogged ecosystems accumulate carbon under their prevailing anaerobic conditions, making them hugely important for mitigating the effects of rising GHG emissions.  But are fires unique to degraded tropical peatlands or do intact peatlands burn too?

Our recent paper* answered this question for three peatland sites along the coast of northern Borneo, within the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  We collected a set of peat cores from each site and spent many hours in front of the microscope gathering data on elements of the landscape over the last 7,000 years.  Fossil pollen grains were identified to provide knowledge on the floral components of the landscape over time and distinguish major ecosystem types.  Fossil charcoal particles were counted to reconstruct past fire regimes in these swamps, including incidences of forest burning that were above the background levels.  We also looked at a wide range of historical and contemporary literature to explore the interactions that people have had with these peatlands over the last 500 years: the approximate time of people’s arrival in the flooded coastal forests, the changes in land titling and the political pressures on land management in recent millennia.

Our results demonstrate that intact tropical peatlands do burn.  They probably burnt more in years when the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) – a climatic phenomenon that brings drier, warmer weather to this region in irregular, sub-decadal intervals – was stronger, but the peat swamp forest seemed to recover even from these more intense fires.  However, cue people’s entry into the story, c. 1850s, and the narrative changes.  Fossil charcoal levels reach unprecedented levels, in parallel with indicators of deforestation.  And the peat swamp forest shows signs of losing its long-standing stability – the ecosystem’s resilience appears to be compromised by the simultaneous forces of fire and deforestation.

Many of the forests standing in the Anthropocene have been degraded.  Their resilience has been compromised by unusually low precipitation (resulting from regional climatic drying) or by management interventions that disrupt natural disturbance regimes, or by both, pushing them beyond the limits of their ecological memory.  Our work suggests that tropical peatlands have recovered from episodes of burning throughout the Holocene.  But the presence of people, agriculture and fire in peatlands seems to be a recipe for disaster.  There is no shortage of contemporary literature and news reports supporting the notion that a drained peatland burns.  Our work contributes to the common narrative that for climate change mitigation and for the universal long-term benefit of people and nature, drainage and deforestation are not compatible with sustainable management of tropical peatlands.

 

*Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A., and Willis, K.J. (2019) Fire in the Swamp Forest: Palaeoecological Insights Into Natural and Human-Induced Burning in Intact Tropical Peatlands. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048

 

 

Friend and FAO

Earlier this year, as a result of making friends at a conference years ago, I had the privilege of working with a bunch of the world’s most knowledgeable peat-ple on this article for the FAO, published to coincide with COP25: Peatlands: the challenge of mapping the world’s invisible stores of carbon and water. (Page 46-57 in the linked document).

Our main message, watered-down, is that mapping peatlands is no easy task and there is still much work to do on the ground, and across the globe….but we are fast working on these knowledge gaps and know enough about the important role that peatlands play in mitigating climatic change that we would be fools to let them squander.

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?