Call for evidence: Biodiversity and Ecosystems
About UCL CBER:
The Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research (CBER) is an interdisciplinary centre within University College London’s Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. We undertake research at the interface between biodiversity and environmental change including investigating the consequences of biodiversity loss, establishing how environmental change has shaped biodiversity patterns and how this might continue into the future, as well as looking into the limits of adaptive change. These research areas are addressed using field, lab and computational studies.
CBER includes twelve senior research staff, including eight professors, as well as around 20 postdoctoral fellows and more than 30 PhD students. This response draws on expertise in ecology, evolution, and conservation biology across the centre.
Members of CBER staff have been involved in past calls for evidence, including for the recent PostNote on Insect declines.
UCL CBER welcomes the Environmental Audit Select Committee’s inquiry into Biodiversity and Ecosystems. As a community of world-leading researchers in biodiversity and ecosystem science UCL CBER is able to present some of the key issues in regard to the questions asked in this call and provide evidence of the underpinning research.
Biodiversity change has been pervasive and on-going, with human impact causing increasingly rapid changes to the natural environment. It is only more recently that the extent to which these changes are impacting people, through changes in the provision of vital ecosystem functions and services, has become clear. To prevent the loss of these services and the associated benefits to people, biodiversity declines must be slowed, and ‒ in the longer term ‒ reversed. The UK government is in the position to adapt policy to drive the required change for the benefit of all, and we believe the goal should be a preventative rather than reactive approach to UK biodiversity and ecosystem conservation.
In the following sections, we provide evidence against a selection of the questions posed within the call.
Key points summary:
1. Biodiversity monitoring needs to be expanded beyond easily monitored species. Monitoring should encompass as much of biodiversity as possible, including understudied elements such as soil diversity, and ecological and genetic diversity within species. Monitoring should inform the supply and use of ecosystem function and services. Effective monitoring across all elements of biodiversity will allow a better understanding of the impacts of certain activities. To achieve this, there needs to be increased support for long-term monitoring (funding is presently focused on short-term projects).
2. Interactions and relationships need to be accounted for. Species do not respond to environmental drivers (e.g., climate change, land use change) in isolation. Instead, they respond to multiple drivers in complex ways, with some threats potentially exacerbating the impacts of other threats, and interactions among species causing further complexity. It is important to consider these interactions when trying to understand the impact of certain activities or drivers of change so that impacts are not underestimated (and considering the possibility for non-linearities when drivers interact).
3. Government and consumer-led changes to production and consumption are needed. The goal should be to reduce the impact of economically important systems on biodiversity and ecosystems, both at home and abroad (i.e., through supply chains). Approaches that focus on consumer-led changes to consumption will be beneficial but should be supported by government and policy-led approaches.
4. A landscape approach to environmental land management is needed, to ensure the sustainability of services upon which we rely (e.g. food production, carbon storage). The UK is a mosaic of land cover types, supporting and connecting a diversity of plant-, microbial- and animal-life. Without maintaining this mosaic many of the goods and services we gain from the land would not be supported or be sustainable.
How effectively is the Government monitoring the impact of UK activities on biodiversity, at home and abroad?
Due to its long history of amateur collectors and natural historians, the UK surpasses other countries in its national-scale biodiversity monitoring, with long-term trends in abundance and occurrence available from both standardised and opportunistic monitoring which allows broad assessments of UK biodiversity such as the UK State of Nature report and the UK Biodiversity Indicators. However, there are gaps in monitoring that currently limit our understanding of the impacts of UK activities on biodiversity, and the sustainability of such activities in the future. Current forms of monitoring and assessment will continue to provide valuable information in trends over time; however, alternative forms of monitoring (see point 1 below) and the compilation of available data (see point 2) should be used to determine a more complete picture of biodiversity change.
- Until now, monitoring has tended to be largely opportunistic, making use of existing organisations, taxonomic expertise and voluntary networks. We suggest that future monitoring should be more strategic and be designed to prioritise species and ecosystem measures that (a) inform about the overall state of biodiversity, not just the easy-to-observe, and (b) inform about the supply and use of ecosystem functions and services that are significant for people and the economy. Current gaps in monitoring include, but are not limited to: biological communities in soils (which underpin terrestrial biodiversity and support a number of ecosystem functions required for agricultural production including decomposition – a key process for food security and carbon storage), limited coverage of plants and invertebrates (the functions of many invertebrates are not fully understood, so losses have unknown impacts. Known functions, including pollination and pest control, are essential for agriculture), and ecosystem-level monitoring (including functionally important areas such as peatlands (carbon storage), salt marshes (water filtration), wetlands (storing flood waters), grasslands (forage)). To understand the impacts of UK activities on biodiversity, a good grasp of trends in time and space across as much of UK biodiversity as possible is necessary.
- Available data on drivers of biodiversity change at the national scale are enabling a closer look at what is contributing to observed biodiversity declines in the UK; for example, the contribution of neonicotinoids to UK pollinator declines has been shown. However, the form of driver data required (with national coverage and fine resolution to match up with biodiversity data) is not available for many drivers, or where it is available it can be difficult for researchers to access. To more fully understand the impacts of UK activities on biodiversity, national-scale data on potential drivers are required and they need to be easily accessible. Potential datasets may include information on pollutants in soils, water quality, irrigation, livestock density, light pollution, but these are just a few examples. Good examples of UK datasets currently available are the UKCEH Land Cover plus maps which include data on crop cover, fertiliser use, and pesticide use at the national scale. Datasets of similarly high quality and scope for other environments (e.g. woodlands, freshwater systems, etc.) and activities (e.g. peat extraction, forestry, etc.) are needed.
- Monitoring the impact of UK activities abroad (e.g., through supply chains of the goods we consume) is a challenge since biodiversity data are much scarcer in other global regions, particularly in the tropics where biodiversity is high, and from where we source many raw materials for our consumed goods. It is essential to know the extent to which changes in production and consumption at home lead to remote impacts on biodiversity in other countries. The move of many environmentally damaging production processes to other countries, including lower income countries, can mask the full impact of our national consumption. In addition, the UK depends on imports from abroad for many essential goods and services, including food, so loss of biodiversity abroad, and the benefits to agriculture it provides (e.g. pest control and pollination), will have a knock-on effect on UK food security. Accordingly, investing in biodiversity monitoring overseas provides valuable information for ensuring the sustainability of imported goods and services.
- Species do not respond to environmental drivers in isolation, but respond to multiple drivers in complex ways, with some threats potentially exacerbating the impacts of other threats, and interactions among species causing further complexity. Many environmental impacts involve both types of interaction (between threats or between species) and are often difficult to predict. It is therefore important to monitor interactions among species as well as changes in ecological network structure, beyond single species or ecosystem features. Possibilities to explore these changes in structure include the characterisation of pollination networks and of soil networks (which can be done using metagenomics). “Whole-ecosystem thinking” in research programmes will ensure impacts are not underestimated by ignoring network interactions.
- Interactions are also important when considering climate change impacts on biodiversity and people. The diversity of plant, animal, and microbial and fungal life interacts with the wider biophysical environment, including the climate, to determine when and where particular species can persist. Increased biodiversity within species (i.e. genetic diversity within and among populations) also increases the rates at which species can adapt to climate. Since climate change will become a much greater threat in the future, understanding these interactions now will allow mitigative responses.
- There is a need to better understand network structure within ecological communities and how complex interactions are linked to ecosystem functioning, or the health and sustainability of ecosystems. As systems become less diverse, they are also becoming potentially less resilient to future shocks such as climate change induced drought or disease. These instances are particularly relevant to agriculture with serious potential impacts for people and UK food security. Research demonstrates that there are strong connections between biodiversity, the intactness of ecological communities and their ability to support ecosystem services and functions. However, the strength and nature of these relationships is likely to vary across communities and under different environmental stresses.
Where should the four nations prioritise resources to tackle biodiversity loss?
Technological advancements and ‘big data’ have enabled us to consider biodiversity in terms of species, populations, genetics, and their contribution to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the services they can provide. In doing so, the importance of common species, as well as rare, in supporting the healthy ecosystems on which we rely has become clear. Now, to best support biodiversity and ecosystems, we need to consider the interactions taking place within and among ecosystems. Research, policy, and action have tended to focus on single elements of biodiversity and human impacts. However, interactions between species and across drivers of change must be considered to get a complete picture of the true impact of biodiversity loss. To do this: data on drivers at a national scale need to be aggregated and supplied for research; long-term monitoring needs to be supported by long-term funding; and research into multiple drivers and their interactions with biodiversity needs to be supported and encouraged. Many of the current gaps in monitoring have already been highlighted above, and it is within these, and other growing areas that research should be supported.
- Long-term monitoring needs to be better supported. Current funding approaches focus on short-term projects which do not yield the data across long timeframes required to understand long-term trends in biodiversity and the consequences of human activities on ecosystems. Monitoring would greatly benefit from long-term sources of funding and national coordination.
- Monitoring can be both cost-effective and better connected to people by exploiting new and emerging tools and approaches. A number of technologies hold opportunities for monitoring, including remote sensing to assess landscapes, and metagenomics to quickly assess ecosystem health. Alternative forms of data such as local and specialist knowledge provide additional, often low-cost, data sources. For instance, there is a wealth of knowledge in the UK in our public gardeners, our farmers, our fishermen, etc. that should be utilised. This could include observations on changes in planting, timing and watering for farmers and horticulturalists, as well as other potentially shifting practises. Support is required to collate and organise these forms of data (including funds for the maintenance and updating of such records).
- As mentioned above, there is a need to compile national-scale, fine resolution datasets on the drivers of biodiversity change. Aggregating, validating and publishing datasets on drivers will enable national-scale analyses to understand their overall impact as well as any spatial or temporal changes. Compiling these data where they are currently unavailable or not easily accessible should be considered a key goal.
How should the Environmental Land Management scheme maintain and improve biodiversity?
- The natural environment is interconnected across wide landscapes. There is a need to ensure that a more integrated, landscape approach to land management is taken. For example, when managing agricultural landscapes, there is increasing evidence that the local availability of natural habitat is a positive driver of biodiversity in agricultural systems, and that simplified landscapes (landscapes with little variation in vegetation, such as monoculture) have negative consequences for ecosystem services such as pollination and pest control. The management of landscapes incorporating agriculture and the wider countryside requires a broader perspective than the farm scale alone; instead, a broader landscape approach to management is needed. The Environmental Land Management scheme should ensure that the landscape is considered as a whole, and not just separate parcels of land or certain use types.
- Similarly, urban areas must also be considered as part of the wider landscape. The benefits of greenspace in urban areas go beyond just biodiversity benefits. There is increasing evidence of the positive effects of greenspace on human mental health,. For example, researchers have recently shown the positive effect of greenspace exposure in childhood on preventing psychiatric disorders later in life, highlighting fundamental links between UK socioeconomics (e.g. societal wellbeing, NHS costs, etc.) and biodiversity.
- Within the Environmental Land Management scheme, it is important to consider multiple forms of biodiversity as an indicator of success. Consideration should be given to maintaining populations that are large enough to harbour the potential for future evolution. The consideration of species abundance, not just the presence of a species within a community, is important since both common and rare species can contribute to ecosystem services in different ways. Similarly, genetic and functional diversity indicators will also play a role to ensure that all facets of biodiversity are considered as indicators of success, not just species presence. Genetic diversity is important for community resilience and adaptation to a changing environment. Functional diversity looks at the traits present within a community which will affect the ecosystem functions that they contribute to.
What are the possible approaches to balancing economic growth and conservation of nature and its contributions? Is there evidence these approaches work and can be implemented?
Food production and consumption are major drivers of UK economic growth, human well-being and the environment. Both at home and abroad, food production is essential but can also be hugely damaging to biodiversity and ecosystems, to the detriment of future food security. There is a need going forward to consider these impacts and make changes for the benefit of both people and the environment. However, these changes must be driven by both the government and individuals.
- One approach to beneficial change is through changes in consumer behaviour, encouraging a move towards more environmentally sustainable products as well as encouraging (or incentivising) ethical consumption of services (for example green banks and green energy). There have been clear changes in consumer attitudes regarding the use of single-use plastic in recent years, leading to notable behaviour changes in individuals, as well as provisions by retailers and producers (e.g. reusable coffee cups, carrier bags, fruit and vegetable bags in supermarkets, etc.). This was primarily driven by a concern for the impact of plastic waste in global oceans, highlighted in the BBC Blue Planet 2 documentary - the most-watched TV programme of 2017 (> 14 million viewers). Similar examples of behaviour change driven by consumer attitudes towards biodiversity conservation include: a push for palm-oil free products; increasing demand for vegetarian and vegan products in supermarkets and restaurants; increased proliferation and use of “zero waste” shops, and increasing demand for cruelty-free and vegan toiletries and beauty products. Even during the current coronavirus pandemic, when behaviour changes could be reversed, many people are choosing to make their own, or purchase reusable, face coverings, to limit waste. Encouraging or incentivising behavioural changes such as these can lead to a drive to reduce impacts on the environment.
- The role of the UK in impacting global biodiversity and ecosystems cannot and should not be ignored, particularly given the knock-on consequences for people’s wellbeing in the UK (e.g. via the provision of imported goods and services, including a large proportion of food products). There should be a drive towards a better understanding of the impacts of imported goods on the environment where they are produced, and incentives to import those with low impact where possible. The public should be educated on international sources of food and other everyday products, to promote responsible consumption to improve the sustainability of goods sourced for import to the UK. Linked to our previous point, this will require a better understanding of the environmental impacts of imported products. Imports are important for both well-being and the economy. However, the government cannot ensure the long-term safety of UK biodiversity and ecosystems when the health of interconnected ecosystems and climate is at risk overseas.
- The changes mentioned above cannot be driven by the consumer alone. Incentives and support by the government will be essential for ongoing growth in green production and consumption. For example, investing in and incentivising environmentally friendly production processes will ensure products are available at an affordable price which will lead to greater uptake and resulting economic benefits. Consideration of subsidies to make ethically generated products cheaper or finding ways to make green products available to a wider range of people (rather than just those fortunate enough to be able to afford them) will be key.
 Standardised monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey, Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, National Bat Monitoring Programme, Rothamsted Insect Survey.
 Volunteer-led recording schemes: https://www.brc.ac.uk/recording-schemes
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