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Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

Photo by ucumari via Flickr

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2010 is the year of the Golden Tiger. Rather fitting, you might think, considering that the United Nations has declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity: with only 3,200 tigers left, and 3 out of the 9 tiger species now extinct, biologists have placed Panthera tigris at the top of their list of critically important endangered animals.

In our rather detached view of the world, it might seem fair to ask “who cares about biodiversity?” In short, biodiversity provides a resource for our sustainable development: it improves crop performance and keeps our crops ahead in the evolutionary arms race against negative pathogens, it contributes to human health and well-being; it supplies the materials for many industrial sectors, and regulates our life-support systems such as water supply, nutrient recycling, and climatic conditions.

But more than this, as humans grow in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on Earth, biodiversity loss represents the failings of our socio-economic systems. It reminds us of limits to our carrying capacity: how much we need to keep up our old habits of unsustainable consumption. Our supporting ecosystems are crumbling beneath us, and the Christmas festivities haven’t made us any lighter. Biodiversity is so important, and so quickly receding, one wonders why a biodiversity equivalent to the IPCC has not already been formed, as has been suggested by the prominent biologist Edward Wilson.

What to look out for in 2010

The New Year also brings the second phase of the TEEB report, to be presented at COP10 of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Led by the UN Environment Programme, the study charts the value of the natural environment to humans, particularly in the economic dimension. One of their findings shows that an annual investment of US $45 billion into protected areas, many of which are at risk, could return ecosystem services worth US $5 trillion annually. Emerging from the crisis this might seem like a somewhat better investment than CDOs, but who’s going to pay? The truth is, if we leave it too late, we all will.

Environmental Markets
The TEEB study highlights the need for biological resources and ecosystem services to be accounted for on the balance sheet. The development of environmental markets promises much positive potential for a greener economy, as long as the lessons from carbon markets are heeded. Nef is aiming to be a leader in establishing such a framework to help conserve the Earth’s natural resources and improve our well-being.

The EU will report in March on a consultation over the Common Fisheries Policy. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the current management of fisheries. With criticisms from both environmental groups and scientists on one side, and fishermen on the other, it will be interesting to see whether they compromise on the sustainability and long-term viability of fish stocks in EU waters, using EU tax revenues to subsidise a bloated, inefficient and environmentally unsustainable industry.

Carbon Markets
With the dismal failure of the COP15 negotiations it will be more important than ever for public-private partnerships to take a lead role in the fight against climate change. With governments unable to respond quickly enough to the growing challenges of climate change, we need new innovative approaches to manifesting activity as soon as possible. For example, here at nef we are working to a new standard for climate change adaptation projects in local communities, and we will be seeking private sector support for these projects. Our aim is to challenge the dominance of voluntary offsetting and propose alternate voluntary activities that will benefit the communities that are being affected by climate change today.

Nature and Well-Being
Nature is a valuable resource for economic, ecological, and social value as well as psychological well-being. A growing body of evidence is making a compelling case for promoting nature from lip-service treatment to the centre of policy-making, a message that nef is preparing to send out this year at a time the government wields a cost-cutting axe in one hand and bankers nursery in the other.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Regular readers will have no doubt wondered what has happened to the nef blog in recent weeks. Truth is I’ve been on holiday. Although perhaps ‘holiday’ is too strong a word, given that my colleagues have teased me for giving up my hard-earned annual leave to do a course in environmentally-friendly land management. Perhaps I should take it as a compliment: getting mocked for being too much of a greenie at nef of all places shows that I must be doing something right.

I mentioned a while back that the practice of permaculture might hold some answers to our present predicaments around energy, climate change and looming food scarcity. Now, having spent two weeks in the Forest of Dean actually studying the thing, I feel knowledgeable – or foolhardy – enough to attempt to explain it here.

Permaculture was first developed during the energy crisis of the mid-seventies by two Australian scientists, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. Its name stands for both permanent agriculture and permanent culture: a way of growing food and organising human life in a manner that is genuinely sustainable. Permaculture seeks to be fossil fuel free: while organic agriculture dispenses with pesticides and fertilizers, it still relies on diesel to run farm machinery and operates on a similar scale to conventional agriculture. When oil becomes expensive and scarce, even organic farms will feel the pinch. To many, it is hard to imagine how we could even grow food without the help of oil. We certainly wouldn’t be able to return to a life of hard physical labour to get our daily bread: most of the knowledge and physical strength simply isn’t with us anymore.

Ducks on slug patrol

Ducks on slug patrol in a permaculture garden

Permaculture’s answer is a fairly simply one: rather than struggling against nature, either by hard labour or with big energy input, aim to work with it by designing food growing systems which mimic natural ecosystems. This means creating more or less closed systems, where human input is kept to a minimum (read: less work) and all outputs are used in a productive way (read: no waste). Permaculturists always avoids monocultures. Diversity – an important aspect of natural ecosystems – is used to create beneficial relationships between different plants, people, animals and other aspects of the land and living space.

Imagine you have a house at the top of a slope. You dig a pond beside it, because this will reflect light into the house, meaning you need to use less energy. And because the pond is at the top of the slope, you can use its water to irrigate vegetable gardens and orchards at the bottom of the slope. The pond will provide a habitat for ducks, who you will periodically invite into your vegetable garden so that they can go on slug patrol. You can also dig a trench coming out of the pond and fill it with reeds. This can be used to filter gray water (waste water from sinks, showers and baths), cleaning it for later use.  In the pond you might also have some carp, who feed on tiny animals in the water, turning unusable protein into a human food (fish). On one side of the pond you grow willow, which can be used for fencing, decoration, craft materials and firewood, while on the other you dig out “chinampas” – fingers of land that jut into the pond. Here you can grow yet more vegetables, particularly those which need lots of water. Note how inputs such as water for the garden and food for the ducks and fish have been removed or minimised, and otherwise unused outputs such as light from the pond, waste water from the house and slugs in the garden become useful parts of the system.

By clever design and a keen understanding of the kinds of ecological relationships which animals and plants need to survive, permaculturists have been able to do some remarkable things. According to a documentary we watched on the course, the self-dubbed ‘rebel farmer’ Sepp Holzer has managed to grow figs, cherries and even kiwi fruits at an altitude of over 4,000 feet in the Austrian mountains, all by using permaculture principles.

Corn and squash, growing together

Corn and squash, growing together

Permaculture is satisfying because its solutions are so elegant, so simple and yet also so ingeniously thought out. We tend to have the notion that “technology” must mean something complex, and yet we forget that some of the best technologies, the ones we use everyday without even noticing, are perfected in simplicity and need no further work. Witness the button, the stairs, the pencil. You reach the end of a permaculture course armed less with a host of facts than a way of thinking which informs a huge range of decisions you might take in your life.

And contrary to my colleagues’ jibes, the course did manage to hold its own as a holiday. Staying on an organic farm, with beautiful scenery, fantastic food, good company and regular camp fires, it hardly felt like I was doing any work at all. And that is a crucial permaculture principle. As permaculturist Andy Langford put it: “Ask yourself, as a permaculture designer, how many siestas can I easily take this week? If its less than three or four, be worried.”


Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

In one version of the story of the biblical flood, Noah gets the chance to pass on God’s warning of the coming deluge. One hundred and twenty years before the rain starts falling, Noah plants cedar trees so that he can have wood to build the ark and so that the ‘sinful’ can see what’s going on and amend their ways.

Step forward a few thousands of years and the story is being played out along much the same lines: climate scientists began planting their cedar trees at least two centuries ago, through research and the development of climate models.

Read the rest of this entry »


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.