Posts tagged ‘Professor Rob MacKenzie’

April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie

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IMAGE: Smog in the city (www.istockphotos.com)

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

Trees of life

Professor Rob MacKenzie

Welcome to a week of the Saving Humans blog focused predominantly on how the plant life with which we share the planet is saving, and can do even more to save, us. First and foremost amongst the plant life-savers are the plant crops we’ve domesticated and changed beyond all recognition for efficient production of food. This week, however, the focus will be more on trees: wild woodland and forest landscapes; trees in agricultural landscapes; parks and gardens; and trees in streets. The blogs coincide with the launch of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), an event to launch Birmingham as the UK’s first biophilic city, and the Trees, People & Built Environment conference of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

The role and importance of the world’s woodlands and forests is hard to overstate: they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, provide recreational facilities, provide economic benefits, and are home to more than half of all species. Yet despite this the UK still has only 13% of its area given over to forest and the world’s forests are subject to continuing threats from emerging disease pandemics and from environmental change.

In response to these challenges, The University of Birmingham and the UK-based JABBS Foundation have invested £20million to establish the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFOR) that will address two fundamental and interrelated challenges: the impact of climate and environmental change on woodlands; and, the resilience of trees to invasive pests and diseases.

The Institute, which has secured initial funding for  ten years, will consist of refurbished laboratories and growth facilities on-campus, along with a large-scale, ground-breaking ‘free-air carbon dioxide enrichment’ (FACE) field facility that will enable globally leading scientists to take measurements from deep within the soil to above the tree canopy. The forest-FACE facility will be one of only two currently working worldwide (the other is in Australia) and one of only two that have ever attempted the experiment on a mature, mixed, semi-natural woodland.

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The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

Autonomous sensors and instrumented trees will allow our scientists to take measurements continuously and remotely, over timescales ranging from seconds to decades. The facility will enable our ecologists, plant biologists, and environmental scientists to raise the concentration of CO2 in a specified area in an otherwise natural environment. By measuring the trees’ response, we will elucidate environmental risk and help developed and developing societies innovate to prepare, adapt and prosper to a future that is already set in-train by our current use of fossil fuels.

Yesterday saw the release of the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is the non-technical summary of the part of the “IPCC report”, as it is known by scientists the world over, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The summary IPCC report weighing-up the evidence for man-made climate change was published in September 2013; the current part of the report is much about how we will feel climate change in almost every part of the Earth and in almost every part of society. The 44 pages of densely argued and comprehensively referenced text summarise many ways in which forests are under threat from climate change, each with the IPCC’s assessment of how confident they are in their statements:

“Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (e.g., in peatlands, permafrost, and forests) is susceptible to loss to the atmosphere as a result of climate change, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation (high confidence). Increased tree mortality and associated forest dieback is projected to occur in many regions over the 21st century, due to increased temperatures and drought (medium confidence). Forest dieback poses risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity.”

Thankfully, the report also points to the many ways — e.g. agroforestry projects and reforestation of coastal mangrove swamps in Asia — in which forests can be part of a solution or, at least, an accommodation to our changing environment. This upbeat identification of opportunities to change things for the better is the perfect introduction to this week’s series of blogs, so I leave the last word to the IPCC:

“Significant co-benefits, synergies, and tradeoffs exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses; interactions occur both within and across regions (very high confidence). …Examples of actions with co-benefits include …(ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. (IPCC, WG2 SPM, p24)”.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

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