Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Big Ideas Change the World

Mike Childs at Friends of the Earth is responsible for suggesting a fair chunk of my environment reading list this month, courtesy of the latest in his 'Big Ideas Change the World' blog. I am, therefore, chuffed that he has agreed to be this site's first guest blogger, by allowing me to reproduce his piece. I hope it inspires you too.

Last month I outlined our early thinking on cities, as part of our three year Big Ideas Change the World research programme. This month I want to share with you some of our early thoughts on ‘bioproductivity’, as well as my own top five reads on the subject.

When we talk about bioproductivity we mean the total amount of biomass nature manufactures through growing plants, animals and insects, plus nature’s wondrous diversity, and the knowledge that flows from it which is so useful for medicines, etc – in other words, nature’s bounty.

Bioproductivity is utilised by humans – e.g. for food, fibre, energy – and by wildlife for food and shelter. It also provides ecosystems services – such as climate regulation, nutrient recycling and soil formation.

There is an amazing rich literature on this subject which we will synthesise as best we can and publish at a later date, but here’s a taster of my own favourite reads:

1. Bradley Cardinale from the University of Michigan published a paper in the journal Naturelast year that identified the impact of biodiversity loss on humanity. In it he identified that many of the ecosystem services provided by nature are weakened by biodiversity loss. For example, ecosystems are less efficient, and therefore less productive, as biodiversity is lost. Biodiversity also increases stability. In short, if we want productive and resilient systems in the future we ought to give much greater weight to protecting biodiversity.

2. Shiri Avnery, from Princeton University, tells of the impact that ground-level ozone is having on plant productivity. Ozone pollution is formed from chemical reactions between pollutants from industrial facilities, power plants, and motor vehicles. Avnery found that in 2000 the reductions to crops from ozone pollution were 8.5-14% for soybean, 3.9-15% for wheat and 2.2-5.5% for maize. In 2030 they suggest the yield loss is expected to be higher, with 14.8-19% for soy, 5.4-25.8% for wheat, and 4.4-8.7% for maize. These are amazing figures and it’s a real surprise that the impact of ozone pollution is rarely talked about.

3. Callum Roberts, from the University of York, has written an excellent book called Ocean of Life. In it he describes historical accounts of plentiful seas and how post-1950 the introduction of technology such as sonar, computers and satellites has decimating stocks. He shows that catch data reveals that the in Britain in 1938 five times more fish was caught as today. A vivid illustration on how poor fisheries management has led to a decline in bioproductivity of fisheries. The book, which is a very accessible read, also details the numerous threats to our oceans and makes policy recommendations for restoring our bountiful seas.

4. Modelling by Tom Powell and Tim Lenton, from Exeter University, point to the critical importance of both reducing meat consumption and increasing agricultural efficiency if land is to be freed-up for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Bioenergy with CCS is necessary in addition to reducing carbon pollution fast in order to take carbon out of the atmosphere. Without this the chance of avoiding dangerous climate change is very low, as Met Office research revealed last year.

5. Jonathon Foley’s 2011 paper in the journal Nature – Solutions for a cultivated planet – is a highly respected outline of some of the major solutions that need to be implemented. Stopping expanding agriculture into uncultivated ecosystems, cutting greenhouse gases, phasing out water pollution from agricultural chemicals and reducing unsustainable water withdrawals are his top four priorities, with closing ‘yield gaps’ on underperforming lands, increasing cropping efficiency, shifting diets and reducing waste the primary tools he identifies. With colleagues at the University of Minnesota he has set-up an excellent web-site to showcase sustainable solutions.

I could have pointed to many other excellent reads, for example on biodiversity hotspots, nitrogen pollution, or food waste.

All this reading, and more, suggests that the scale of nature protection needs a step-change. Currently only a fraction of our land and seas are protected from damage. It suggests that we need to manage our demand of bioproductivity, through for example significant changes in our diets. And we need to enhance the productivity and resilience of our food systems through valuing and supporting biodiversity and by turning our backs on unsustainable monocultures.

Over the next few months we will finalise our thinking on bioproductivity and publish work on what we see as key interventions. Meanwhile if you have any comments we would love to hear them (post comments on-line at the blog:

Next month I’ll report on the launch of our new Big Ideas Change the World web-pages, and the publication of research on the key changes we have identified as necessary to get cities going green and driving global change. I’ll also share some of the reading that has been suggested to us on consumption and identity, which is topic three in our research programme.


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