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Education: The Key to Unlocking Long-Term Sustainability

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Introducing Jack Thirkell, our bio-scientist and environmental advisor.

Hi Jack – can you just give us a top-level introduction as we kick off today’s interview?

I am a keen advocate for science-driven reform and innovation, particularly in a time when we face unprecedented environmental, climatic and biodiversity challenges. I have a background in biosciences, I hold a MSc and am currently finishing a PhD.

As we move away from the remnants of the pandemic, how do you feel sustainability, and the themes within this broad term, are now viewed by the public?

There has never been greater awareness for sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, and the collective need for us to do more. This is largely driven by the many charities, NGOs and individuals doing brilliant work to raise awareness and promote environmental issues. We cannot forget though that the ongoing pandemic, like epidemics before it, likely originated from populations of wild animals, which goes to highlight the need to dramatically reduce encroachment, exploitation, and persecution of natural ecosystems.

What is offsetting? and is it enough to just offset a trip to help in the fight against climate change?

Offsetting in its simplest form is a means by which to offset carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas that is partly responsible for increasing global temperatures and ocean acidification. The largest sector responsible for carbon emissions is the energy sector (electricity, heat and transport), accounting for ~73.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the agriculture, forestry and land use sector accounts for ~18.4% (published by Climate Watch and the World Resources Institute, 2016). The act of burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas, as well as large-scale deforestation and soil disturbance, are the principal drivers of carbon emissions. While carbon offsetting (i.e. becoming carbon neutral) is not an entirely new idea, arguably such initiatives have to go further. One such way is carbon positive offsetting, whereby more carbon is offset than is emitted through an activity.

Although there are new technologies that are capable of scrubbing atmospheric air and removing polluting particulates as well as carbon dioxide, reforestation when undertaken correctly is one of the best ways to help sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide. As the name suggests, reforestation involves the planting of trees, whether that be hedgerows, orchards, woodlands or forests. Not only is carbon dioxide inherently vital for trees, reforestation – provided there is good species diversity – can provide much-needed habitat for countless wildlife species. Furthermore, reforestation can help stabilise bare ground, improve air quality and intercept rainwater, reducing runoff.

Is there enough being done to highlight not only the importance of true sustainability, but the themes of biodiversity, and reforestation? If not – what can be done to not only increase awareness but to actually increase tangible results?

Last year’s United Nations Climate Conference, otherwise referred to as COP26, was an international summit that brought together the most influential government leaders, scientists, businesses and industries with the sole goal to tackle climate change. Almost 200 countries agreed to accelerate climate action in order to deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit global warming by preferably less than 1.5°C, relative to pre-industrial levels. Failure to limit global warming potentially threatens the lives of millions, will decimate coral reefs and increase sea levels. Positive action will be best achieved through, adapting to protect communities and natural habitats, mobilising finance and working together. Hopefully, what we see come of this is a collaborative and decisive way by which to mitigate, adapt and reduce the current reliance on fossil fuel in favour of clean renewable energy. Greater transparency and accountability within the industrial sectors regarding their green credentials might also help bolster public confidence that these big organisations are doing their bit too.

Deforestation, is one of the largest emitters of CO2 - why is that?

Sadly, deforestation is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide emissions on account of the both the rate and prevalence that trees that are being felled worldwide. According to the Global Forest Watch, between 2001-2020, there was a total loss of 411,000,000 hectares of tree cover, equating to 165Gt of carbon dioxide emissions. Trees sequester carbon dioxide from the environment, which is accumulated as carbon within their woody biomass (up to 50% of the dry mass of a tree is carbon!). Woodlands and forests are enormous sinks of stored carbon. All the time carbon is stored within the tree’s tissues, it prevents carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.

Some sceptics are saying that planting trees doesn’t work for climate mitigation - why is that?

Much has been made about reforestation efforts being the Holy Grail, however, reforestation in isolation is unlikely to solve all our environmental and climate predicaments. Although most are in agreement that trees can sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide, a lot of focus has been on the number of saplings planted, with rather less emphasis on keeping the trees alive and working with local communities. It is also important that the right type of tree is planted in the right area, for example, planting in snow-covered regions could result in the absorption of solar radiation that may increase warming. Furthermore, monoculture tree plantations and poorly diverse reforestation efforts need to be avoided. Species diversity and genetic diversity need to be encouraged. Reforestation is not a silver bullet, greater protection needs to be afforded to existing forests, while also increasing awareness as to how we can reduce our energy consumption and particularly, our reliance on fossil fuels.

What is the connection between GHG, CO2, weather patterns and crops?

Greenhouse gas molecules absorb heat (infrared radiation) radiated from the Earth’s surface, which is then re-emitted, resulting in both an increase in lower atmosphere air and surface temperatures. Warmer air is able to hold more moisture and therefore, with a rise in global temperature comes an increase in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. This, along with other factors such as rising sea temperatures and melting glaciers and ice sheets, have all contributed to more frequent and unpredictable weather events (i.e. high temperatures, droughts, floods, wild fires, etc.). Notwithstanding genetically modified crops, crops have evolved over millennia in a relatively stable atmosphere. However, over the last few decades, with increase climate change and uncharacteristic changes in temperature and rainfall, crops worldwide have been failing.

What programs, or research, is on the horizon that will change the fortunes of our planet? Whether technological or otherwise, it would be great to learn more about the strategies moving forward?

The Earthshot Prize, spearheaded by HRH Prince William, is a new global environmental prize that aims to promote change through five ambitious ‘Earthshots’; Protect and Restore Nature, Clean our Air, Revive our Oceans, Build a Waste-Free World and Fix our Climate. These are considered to be the most pressing environmental issues, which require immediate solutions. Between 2021-2030 a total of 50 one million pound prizes will be awarded to environmental innovators. While such a prize has clear potential to enact measurable change, for every winning project there are many more nominated projects that go unfunded. Although, just being shortlisted for The Earthshot Prize likely raises a project’s profile, a tiered funding approach may ultimately lead to more projects making impactful environmental gains. One such finalist was, an ecological data-driven platform that brings together practioners and connects restoration sites worldwide.

Are world Governments engaged enough to drive true change in the world of sustainability? If not, what can be done to steer them on this important topic? Does data play an important role here?

With regards to sustainability, Governments have never faced greater public pressure. The recent COP26 showcased that it is possible for world Governments to gather in one place and generally agree on and proceed in a united approach for the betterment of the environment. Time will tell whether this is for show or whether they are able to drive true change. But in either case, high-resolution bioclimatic data will highlight achievements and failings. Climate predictions and policies are based on hugely complex climatic models, which fundamentally rely on data.

Are we being encouraged enough to realise true change? If not – what programmes and infrastructure needs to be in place for the younger generation to contribute to this important area?

Environmental sustainability, climate change and biodiversity management are all topics explored, to a greater or lesser extent, in the UK educational system. However, arguably it is not so clear how to navigate and develop a career in any of these fields. Yes, all these would be included in a typical biology syllabus, but probably alongside genetics and cellular biology. While such a syllabus gives a broad overview of biological sciences, it is possibly too large a field to group everything under one umbrella. It is encouraging to hear that a GCSE in Natural History has been announced and is under development, but it is likely to take several more years before this is actually taught. Could the education system not extend this further and similarly introduce an A level in Natural History? In doing so, there would be a clearer route of progression.

What areas are not being explored enough and why do you think this is?

While there has been significant interest, technological advancements and media hype around renewable and clean sources of energy, the pace of implementation needs to increase. Financial, technological limitations, infrastructure and geopolitical concerns are probably the biggest hurdles needing to be overcome in order to make this a reality. The world needs energy, from charging your mobile, driving to the shops, to visits overseas, consuming energy is largely unavoidable. This requirement for energy is unlikely to decrease, in fact it is much more likely that we will need more energy over the coming years. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2040 the world’s population will grow by 500,000,000 and that energy demand will increase by 27%. In addition to renewables and despite the current geopolitical climate, ramping up energy production from nuclear fission could be another source of zero-emission clean energy.

Is there enough funding at the educational level and if not, does this create a chasm between education and action?

Particularly in higher education there are many varied and pertinent degree courses, with most undergraduate and master’s students paying for their enrolment on these courses. If funding was available to at least subsidise these courses, this could encourage a greater number to study and forge environmental sustainability-centric careers. Even among the broader population, climate change, deforestation and renewable energy are certainly becoming talked about and heard about more frequently. Ultimately, it is likely that real change will come about when governments, policy makers and industries are really challenged into making change, but to enable that then there has to be sustained awareness and education.

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