Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference 2018: Panel Debate

In this blog, Elsa Kivinen, a second year undergraduate studying Geography and sustainable development at St Andrews University, reflects on a lively debate at the third student conference #SEECC2018

Shown here, from left to right: Professor James Curran, Chair of Board of Directors of James Hutton Institute, and member of Scottish Government’s Climate Change Delivery Board. Nicola Melville, Senior Scientist, SEPA, and Conservation Committee member with Scottish Wildlife Trust. Edward Baxter, Landowner, farmer and PhD student. Susan Davies, Director of Conservation, and Board member of the James Hutton Institute, and Venture Trust. Professor Des Thompson, SNH’s Principal Adviser on Science and Biodiversity, and Chairman of the Field Studies Council.

Shown here, from left to right: Professor James Curran, Chair of Board of Directors of James Hutton Institute, and member of Scottish Government’s Climate Change Delivery Board. Nicola Melville, Senior Scientist, SEPA, and Conservation Committee member with Scottish Wildlife Trust. Edward Baxter, Landowner, farmer and PhD student. Susan Davies, Director of Conservation, and Board member of the James Hutton Institute, and Venture Trust. Professor Des Thompson, SNH’s Principal Adviser on Science and Biodiversity, and Chairman of the Field Studies Council.

What are the greatest environmental challenges facing Scotland? How do we conserve biodiversity if nobody has any experience of it? What is the vision for our uplands in 50 years’ time? What impacts – positive or negative – will Brexit have on the Scottish environment?

These questions, among others, were selected by more than 100 conference delegates, mainly students, to be debated at the third Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference 2018 (#SEECC2018 ), held in March at St Andrews. The theme was ‘The environment of Scotland in the next 50 years’ and the panel members included representatives of key stakeholders in Scotland. 

In an enjoyably interactive debate, wonderfully chaired by Sally Thomas, Director of Policy and Advice, SNH, the panel debate started with the question receiving the most votes from the audience:

What are the greatest environmental challenges facing Scotland?

Climate change and the disconnect from nature were mentioned first by Nicola and then Susan, who also highlighted the importance of ensuring that social inequality should not prevent people from engaging with environmental issues. Edward added that the total area of agricultural holdings in Scotland is around 70% of Scotland’s total land area, and unfortunately the price of food does not reflect its cost to the environment.

James wondered whether it is worthwhile to invest enormous amounts of financial capital in research trying to find undetected oil reserves when we know we should already diversify the energy portfolio towards more renewable energies.

Members of audience were eager to participate in the debate, too. One of the issues that came up was how to discourage excessive consumerism and how to make sure that states and actors share responsibilities fairly and justly, because in the near future, many developing countries are going to have increased carbon dioxide emissions due to their development, and a rising ‘middle-class’ consisting of affluent people!

The second question addressed was:

How do we conserve biodiversity if nobody has any experience of it?

James stated that he considers regulation to be one of the most effective ways of securing nature and biodiversity conservation, especially in cases of urgency. However, regulations often take time to be applied and require a good understanding of the time and place they are going to be implemented in, and some ethical problems arise e.g. who pays: the polluter or the ecosystem user?

Another way to encourage people of all ages to conserve biodiversity would be to make them appreciate what it has to offer. Edward suggested secondary school interdisciplinary outreach should improve young people’s awareness of the origins of their food and environmental processes. Both Susan and Nicola concurred , commenting that that efficient ways of preserving biodiversity are through increasing environmental awareness on different levels, encouraging interactive opportunities (such as this conference) and reminding young citizens of their skills so that they would not forget them.

Phd research student and her field assistant surveying a quadrat in Glen Tilt. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Phd research student and her field assistant surveying a quadrat in Glen Tilt. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Des concluded by reminding everyone how difficult it is to measure things such as “nature deficit” and environmental awareness, but that there are many ways to do it, with each having its own issues. His open-ended question was: would success be best measured by the amount of knowledge of, care for, or interest in the environment?

What is the vision for our uplands in 50 years’ time?

The consensus was that Scotland will probably have more forest cover, and that the land will be managed for multiple benefits rather than for one interest. However, assessing and prioritising those multiple benefits is very difficult because different stakeholders value different aspects of nature – everyone benefits from different components, and often these are derived from opposing strategies (trees versus windfarms versus open grouse moors). There was a consensus that we need a public conversation on this, to develop ideas on “multiple benefit approaches”. It was noted that one of the biggest private landowners in Scotland is a the billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who is encouraging wide-scale ‘rewilding’, but even that does not ensure that rewilding takes off as a major land use. Edward concluded that as long as private land-owners are willing to negotiate about ‘their’ land-use, we can remain optimistic about the future of Scottish uplands.

Scots pine growing beside the River Feshie, Glenfeshie. ©Lorne Gill

Scots pine growing beside the River Feshie, Glenfeshie. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

What impacts, positive or negative, will Brexit have on the Scottish environment?

This unavoidable question was first answered by James, who expressed his disappointment about Brexit. Possibility for improvement exists, but is not likely, James, felt. According to him, waving goodbye to European Court of Justice would be a huge loss for both the environment and people in the UK.

Nicola worried about the loss of jobs and research funding, which are both likely to be an inevitable consequence of the UK leaving the EU.

On the other hand, the decentralisation of decision-making could benefit those who feel perplexed by the complexity of EU regulations. For example, Nicola commented that waste management legislation is perceived by many as complex, and if the UK targets are not set as high as by the EU, the future would not look grim – but of course, that could be dire environmentally. Ultimately, the targets set by the EU are outcome-based and it is up to the Member States to discuss the implementation processes on a national level. Edward and Susan were trying to look forward with a positive ‘can-do’ attitude, stating for example, that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is hardly great for advocating environmentally-friendly practices; if the UK sets ambitious goals on its own, there is hope. Des advised that we ‘should move on from grieving!’

The consensus was that no matter how you voted in the Brexit referendum, the interest of everyone is to make sure the environment does not suffer from the political and legal changes.

To conclude, despite being one of the youngest participants, I felt very welcomed and positively surprised by the accessibility and breadth of information presented here and covered during the rest of the two-day conference. It was highly motivating to listen to both the panel speakers and the students presenting their studies and to think where I could be when I reach different stages in my academic career.

This entry was posted in conference, conservation, Ecology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.