Comment: Adaptation is key in climate challenges

'Warming of the Earth's climate is indisputable'. Picture: PA
'Warming of the Earth's climate is indisputable'. Picture: PA
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SCOTLAND can set a global example, says Dr Robin Matthews

Our atmosphere and oceans have warmed, ice has diminished, sea levels have risen and concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s upcoming Fifth Assessment Report, show that warming of the Earth’s climate is indisputable, and it is “extremely likely” that human influence has been the dominant cause.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change is seen as the major environmental issue of our time, and the research that the James Hutton Institute is carrying out in partnership with the Scottish Government and other funders is making an important contribution.

Although Scotland is a relatively small contributor to overall global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is one of the higher per capita emitters. The Scottish Government has accepted that it has a responsibility to demonstrate to the rest of the world that it can reduce emissions and move to a low-carbon economy. Accordingly, it passed legislation committing to GHG reduction targets that are among the highest in the world: 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. Recognising that some change will occur even if emissions are successfully reduced, it has also embarked on a programme to support adaptation to the climates of the future.

The James Hutton Institute is at the forefront of climate change research. Through the ClimateXChange initiative, set up by the Scottish Government in 2011, the institute has been providing information to policy teams on peatland restoration, agricultural mitigation, risk to biodiversity, impacts on tourism, wind farms, domestic energy demand, carbon trading and how the country is adapting to climate change.

Peat covers 22 per cent of Scotland’s land area. Peat soils are huge repositories of carbon, taken from the atmosphere by long-dead vegetation over the past 5,000-10,000 years.

Unfortunately human activities over the last two centuries have degraded some of these areas and partially released this carbon back into the atmosphere. Hutton researchers are involved in projects aiming to restore these degraded soils to stop further carbon losses and eventually recapture some of this carbon. This is seen as a good way to help meet overall net GHG emission reduction targets in addition to other positive benefits on biodiversity targets, drinking water quality and surface water management.

The Institute is also researching factors that influence how we move towards a more sustainable and low carbon society. In the EU-funded Towards European Societal Sustainability project, our researchers are assessing the potential of local and regional community-based initiatives to be greener, and are developing tools for communities contemplating similar activities to assess their impact.

Aberdeenshire is one of six case studies in the Green Lifestyles, Alternative Models and Upscaling Regional Sustainability project, which is looking into transitions to more sustainable lifestyles and a greener economy. It focuses on energy use, housing, work-leisure balance, food consumption, mobility and the consumption of manufactured products. The project will study the role flexible working policies have in reducing commuting miles, and positive outcomes for work-life balance and time pressure.

We are also bringing our expertise to bear on helping other countries address the effects of climate change. The REDD-ALERT project involves partners in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cameroon and Peru, and is investigating ways in which international carbon finance could be used to help reduce GHG emissions from tropical deforestation, which contribute 12 per cent of total global GHG emissions. Scotland is a world leader in environmental science, and the James Hutton Institute brings together a huge range of scientific disciplines to address challenges facing the world in a changing climate.

• Dr Robin Matthews is leader of the Vibrant and Low Carbon Communities Theme and coordinates ClimateXChange activities at the James Hutton Institute

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