Launch of ESCom-Scotland

Struan gave the following speech at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation on 29 April 2014.

The importance of working together for sustainable ecosystem management cannot be understated. And I'm glad to see that the central message of Ecosystem Services Scotland is just that.

I've been an MEP for 15 years, and during that time I've served on the Environment Committee, the Agriculture Committee and the Fisheries Committee. I've also served as President of the Parliament's Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Intergroup. So I've witnessed the good that we can do when science, policy and practice come together. But I've also seen the bad that can happen when we don't.

That's why I'm excited to see a new initiative like ESCom. In recent years we have seen an explosion in the amount of groups and organisations which seek to enhance environmental protection and better support natural resources. There is now an inordinate amount of NGOs, lobby groups, science-bodies, politicians and individuals who try to influence legislation at the local level, in Holyrood, at Westminster, in the European Parliament and even on the global scale.

The problem is that the proliferation of all these groups means that there is often a duplication of effort. Real progress is limited as many groups often end up working at cross purposes to one another, which could have been avoided with a little collaboration.

That's why something like ESCom is needed; to establish a community of practice between individuals, policy and practice behind sustainable ecosystem management. And the time is ripe for such an initiative.

It is a sad fact that scientists reckon we are currently suffering the worst biodiversity loss that the world has ever known. Experts believe that between 150 and 200 species are being lost every 24 hours. Many of those losses can be attributed to climate change. We need to teach the public that biodiversity is valuable; it has an economic, social, aesthetic and practical value from which every one of us individually benefits. Biodiversity services purify the air we breathe, act as a global air conditioning system, provide us with rainfall and oxygen and fertilise plants. We have never put a price tag on these ecosystem services because they are invaluable. But sadly, some people think that anything that is free has no value and therefore can be exploited and abused.

In Brussels, we have set a series of 2020 targets to counter these problems. But we have to take care that the policies we pursue are sustainable. The drive to produce biofuels is causing global deforestation, which as well as releasing massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, could also lead directly to global famine. Deforestation is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and boats combined.

We are potentially creating a bigger global problem than we set out to resolve. In the US, vast quantities of maize are being converted to bio-ethanol. This in turn has led to huge tracts of the Amazonian rainforest being burned to make way for growing maize and soya as food crops to make up the shortfall.

Meanwhile the Indonesian rain forest is being torn up to make way for biofuel crops like palm oil to supply the EU market. Such policies are thus destroying the world’s air conditioning system while at the same time releasing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That's why MEPs voted to limit biofuel targets to 5.5% last year.

But greed instead of care for the environment has become the defining feature of our strategy for tackling climate change and the race to biofuels is potentially threatening the lives of millions of people as the global population soars from its present 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050.

An extra 6 million people are born every month. By 2030 the world population will have expanded by such an extent that we will require a 50% increase in food production to meet anticipated demand. By 2080 global food production would need to double. But the reality is that an area the size of the Ukraine is being taken out of agricultural food production every year due to drought and as a direct consequence of climate change. Global food production is declining rather than expanding and our headlong rush to produce biofuels is taking even more land out of food agriculture. And the problem isn't confined to production. One third of global food production is wasted. If food distribution was improved the one third of the global population who are malnourished could have a better chance of survival.

Linked directly to this argument on sustainability is the question of renewable energy. Allowing windfarms to be developed on peatland is a catastrophic mistake and will cause irreversible damage. Peatlands form a crucial part of the world’s air conditioning system. Peatlands and wetland ecosystems accumulate plant material under saturated conditions to form layers of peat soil up to 20 metres thick – storing on average 10 times more carbon per hectare than other ecosystems. Peatlands occur in 180 countries and cover 400 million hectares or 3% of the world’s surface. Scotland, Finland and Ireland have a unique role to play in preserving and maintaining this global resource. So we must take care to seek a balance between renewables and ecosystem protection. We must always beware of the unintended consequences.

Fragile marine ecosystems like seagrass meadows, kelp forests, maerl beds and salt marshes are being dug up to provide offshore renewables. Scottish waters are home to the vast majority of the UK's seagrass meadows, kelp forests and maerl beds. They are habitats for a range of species and are some of the world's largest stores of carbon. These natural carbon capture & storage ecosystems store ten times the carbon of tropical rain forests.  Destroying these habitats would release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and would only add to climate change. Yet we are tearing them up to build gigantic concrete and steel renewable systems. Again this is massively destructive and wholly misguided.

We need to pay more attention to the ecosystem services provided by different aspects of our EU environment such as the peat bogs and the blue carbon marine ecosystems. They form an essential part of our global air-conditioning system and we cannot allow them to deteriorate or to be destroyed by misguided development.

But don't be confused into thinking that all development needs to be stopped. It does not. What we need is appropriate development. What we need is a platform for science, policy and practice to come together so that we can ascertain what is appropriate. That's where ESCom has a role to play.

Appropriate development is crucial because more economic growth, not less, offers the best hope for averting a further great extinction of species. As people become wealthier they demand stricter controls on the environment from their political leaders. They donate to environmental NGOs who put pressure on politicians. Richer countries generally have better governments and better governments combat pollution and help biodiversity to survive. We need to ensure that more and more of these resources are devoted to conservation and environmental management. 

And it isn't all doom and gloom. There are some success stories in the drive for sustainable development. The American Bald Eagle, whose population had fallen to only 412 breeding pairs in the 1960s, has expanded to over 7,000 now.

Whale populations are mostly recovering thanks to a moratorium on commercial whaling. An even better example of improving or stable biodiversity between rich and poor countries with good and bad governments is the case of South Korea, one of the world's fastest growing economies, where forest cover is stable and North Korea, which has lost one third of its forests in the past 20 years.

But the problem of biodiversity loss is in no way solved. Thousands of species are teetering on the brink of extinction and climate change and/or demand for land could tip many of them over the edge. So we have work to do.

That's why initiatives like ESCom are so important - because it is now increasingly accepted that the full implementation of the strategies which will preserve and enhance our biodiversity require action from a variety of stakeholders, institutions, administrators and businesses.

I'm delighted to be here today to help launch Ecosystem Services Scotland. Initiatives like this are absolutely crucial so that decision-makers can make informed decisions. If ESCom is supported, nurtured and allowed to grow then there is no reason why it cannot act as a model for collaboration and joint understanding in this field, not just in Scotland, but in the wider UK and across Europe too.

I'm excited to see this new initiative flourish and my only question is; why didn't you do it sooner?!