Robin Matthews: Climate change poses growing threat globally

The James Hutton Institute is actively involved around the world working with local communities to prevent famine. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
The James Hutton Institute is actively involved around the world working with local communities to prevent famine. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Forget domestic political woes, the world is facing much more serious dangers writes Robin Matthews

Amongst the ongoing concerns about geopolitics, including Brexit and its consequences, the second Climate Change Risk Assessment published last month by the Committee on Climate Change is a solemn reminder that there are other even greater challenges to the way of life in the UK that we must not forget about.

The report highlights the increased risk of flooding from changes in the patterns of rainfall; risks to agriculture, forestry and human health from higher temperatures; risks to water availability for humans, energy generation and industry; risks to our natural assets, including soils, water resources and biodiversity; risks to our food supplies from abroad; and increased risk to humans, crops, livestock and trees from pests and diseases moving into new areas.

Research at the James Hutton Institute has shown how the suitability of land for different purposes will change under future climates. This has provided a basis for understanding, for example, where best to grow crops and trees and restore peatlands to help meet Scotland’s stringent greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Related work is focusing on management options to enhance the resilience of Scotland’s soils, water resources, biodiversity and land use. That work is funded by the Scottish Government under its Strategic Research Programme to support progressive policies around mitigation and is a high-level acknowledgement of the potential impacts of inaction.

There is widespread recognition of the role of soil/land in sequestering carbon, but with increased temperatures and lower rainfall, the amount of carbon stored in soils is at risk of loss to the atmosphere as CO2, particularly in fragile soils such as peatlands. Developing ways to protect and restore peatlands is an important contribution to meeting the targets, as well as bringing co-benefits such as enhanced biodiversity.

Responding to climate change does not stop at Scotland’s borders. Research at the Hutton has also shown that because around 50 per cent of the UK’s food is now produced abroad, the impacts of climate change on production systems in the countries where that food is grown will also have implications for us: the UK can’t claim clean hands while allowing other countries to exacerbate the problem or jeopardise their own environment. It remains to be seen what the impact of new trading relations brought about by the UK’s decision to leave the EU will have on these food-supply chains.

Recognising the inevitability of rising temperatures, Hutton research is exploring ways to make key crops such as potatoes and barley more resilient to higher temperatures and drought, which will help to offset some of these impacts. Others are benefitting from the Institute’s internationally-rated soils work, with projects working on how to restore degraded soils in Africa and Asia to be more productive in the face of changing climates.

The increased risk from pests and diseases under future climates brings added urgency to understanding better the mechanisms conferring broad-spectrum and durable resistance to these in crops and livestock. Whilst much work at the Institute has focused on responses to individual diseases of current importance on cereals and potato, attention is increasingly focussing on understanding sustainable crop production with enhanced resilience towards pests and diseases in general in systems based on Integrated Pest Management – combining different management strategies and practices to grow healthy crops and minimise the use of pesticides.

Climate, pests and diseases and macroeconomic effects do not recognise borders so it is key we continue to collaborate internationally, especially with our neighbours in the European Union. It will be essential to recognise, preserve and enhance the great benefits we have thus far gained from the EU. These include the free movement of labour, which provides mobility to the best researchers to work in Scotland and the UK and keep our international lead in agricultural and environmental research. Our highly competitive and excellent science has meant we are a net beneficiary and proportionally receive more funding than others which benefits the Scottish and UK rural economy and environment.

The new situation is also an opportunity to look at new ways of maintaining the current, and developing new, international collaborations as part of the way we work. There are also opportunities to take a fresh look at policy and ask if it is fit for purpose and is still meeting contemporary needs. This will need robust scientific evidence and analysis to ensure we have the best policies possible that suit our unique situation and values. Scotland has leading policies on climate change and recently was second best only to Sweden in meeting reductions targets so there is scope to continue to be world leading in what is still the biggest threat to our existence.

• Professor Robin Matthews is a senior climate and land use scientist working at the James Hutton Institute, a world-leading scientific organisation that researches crops, land, water and the environment.

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