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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law

In the lead up to the sold out Brexit debate at the University of Bristol on Friday 29 April 2016, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
The EU plays a fundamental role in shaping the environmental law regimes of its Member States and that of the UK is no exception. A significant proportion of current domestic environmental law derives from EU Regulations (that automatically become part of English law) and EU Directives (that are implemented through national legislation).

Nature conservation law, i.e. the legal regime used to protect environmentally significant habitats and species, is a case in point and the focus of this blog. Conserving nature is key not only from a purely biodiversity standpoint but also from an ‘ecosystem services’ perspective. Ecosystem services are the benefits nature brings to the environment and to people, including supporting services (e.g. nutrient cycling), provisioning services (e.g. food), regulating services (e.g. carbon capture) and cultural services (e.g. recreation)

Site designation and management is a favoured technique of nature conservation law. The well-known Natura 2000 network, would not be there if it were not for EU Directives, namely the Habitats (92/43/EEC) and Wild Birds Directives (2009/147/EC), implemented in the UK by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. Under Article 3 of the Habitats Directive, Member States are indeed required to set up the Natura network composed of Special Areas of Conservation (sites hosting the natural habitat types listed in Annex I and habitats of the species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive) and Special Protection Areas (sites for the protection of rare and vulnerable birds as listed in Annex I of the Wild Birds Directive and for regularly occurring migratory species). 
Greenfinch by Mschulenburg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
In the UK, there are a substantial number of European protected sites: 652 Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation[1] and Sites of Community Importance[2]) and 270 Special Protection Areas, covering a total of 8,013,467 ha (JNCC statistics as of 28 January 2016).

Has the establishment of Natura 2000 made a difference to biodiversity protection? 

As part of its Smart Regulation Policy, the Commission has initiated a fitness check of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives to evaluate their effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and added value. Though the final Commission report on the results of the fitness check will be available only later this year, the draft emerging findings prepared by a consortium of experts do suggest that the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives have substantially contributed to the conservation of nature and to meeting the EU’s biodiversity target.

It is fair to note that, prior to the EU Directives on nature conservation, the UK did have its own system for habitat protection, most notably based on the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Introduced in the post-war period by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the law governing SSSIs has been strengthened over the decades by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by Schedule 9 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. However, the management measures in place for SSSIs are not as stringent as those for the protection of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were introduced in the post-war period in the UK to help manage habitat protection.
It is also fair to note that in the marine environment, the UK has taken important steps domestically: the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 in England and Wales (and similar Acts in the devolved administrations) has brought in new domestic marine conservation zones that contribute to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network in UK waters. But the building of such a network is not so disentangled from EU law, considering Art 13(4) of the EU Marine Strategic Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) requires the formation of marine protected areas’ networks in the marine environments of Member States.

Clearly therefore, EU law has contributed much to the development of nature conservation in the UK. Moreover, being part of the EU means that the Commission can exercise its power to bring infringement proceedings against Member States for incomplete or ineffective implementation of EU law, thereby exercising an external check on implementation (for nature conservation, see Commission v UK, Case C-06/04 [2005]  ECR I-9017).

What would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law?

What is unknown however is what would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law in the UK because much depends on the type of post-Brexit EU-UK relationship and the agreement that will be negotiated. However, it could be argued that compared to other environmental sectors (such as waste and water) nature conservation may be more at risk.  

Indeed, even in the not-too-radical scenario in which the UK chooses to stay within the EEA, the future of nature conservation law will depend on whether there is political willingness to continue to abide by existing commitments, rather than legal obligations stemming from the EEA agreement. This is because, though the EEA agreement does contain many environmental provisions, nature conservation is excluded (Annex XX of the EEA agreement excludes the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive). Consequently, the future of nature conservation law is very uncertain in a post-Brexit world, even in the event of EEA membership.

[1] Candidate Special Areas of Conservation are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission, but not yet formally adopted.
[2] Sites of Community Importance are sites that have been adopted by the European Commission but not yet formally designated by the government of each country.
This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Dr Margherita Pieraccini, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol. 
Margherita Pieraccini

How ancient warm periods can help predict future climate change

Several more decades of increased carbon dioxide emissions could lead to melting ice sheets, mass extinctions and extreme weather becoming the norm. We can’t yet be certain of the exact impacts, but we can look to the past to predict the future.

We could start with the last time Earth experienced CO2 levels comparable to those expected in the near future, a period 56m to 34m years ago known as the Eocene.

The Eocene began as a period of extreme warmth around 10m years after the final dinosaurs died. Alligators lived in the Canadian Arctic while palm trees grew along the East Antarctic coastline. Over time, the planet gradually cooled, until the Eocene was brought to a close with the formation of a large ice sheet on Antarctica.

During the Eocene, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere were much higher than today, with estimates usually ranging between 700 and 1,400 parts per million (ppm). As these values are similar to those anticipated by the end of this century (420 to 935ppm), scientists are increasingly using the Eocene to help predict future climate change.

We’re particularly interested in the link between carbon dioxide levels and global temperature, often referred to as “equilibrium climate sensitivity” – the temperature change that results from a doubling of atmospheric CO2, once fast climate feedbacks (such as water vapour, clouds and sea ice) have had time to act.

To investigate climate sensitivity during the Eocene we generated new estimates of CO2 throughout the period. Our study, written with colleagues from the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Southampton, is published in Nature.

Reconstruction of the 40m year old planktonic foraminifer Acarinina mcgowrani. Richard Bizley ( and Paul Pearson, Cardiff University, CC BY

As we can’t directly measure the Eocene’s carbon dioxide levels, we have to use “proxies” preserved within sedimentary rocks. Our study utilises planktonic foraminifera, tiny marine organisms which record the chemical composition of seawater in their shells. From these fossils we can figure out the acidity level of the ocean they lived in, which is in turn affected by the concentration of atmospheric CO2.

We found that CO2 levels approximately halved during the Eocene, from around 1,400ppm to roughly 770ppm, which explains most of the sea surface cooling that occurred during the period. This supports previously unsubstantiated theories that carbon dioxide was responsible for the extreme warmth of the early Eocene and that its decline was responsible for the subsequent cooling.

We then estimated global mean temperatures during the Eocene (again from proxies such as fossilised leaves or marine microfossils) and accounted for changes in vegetation, the position of the continents, and the lack of ice sheets. This yields a climate sensitivity value of 2.1°C to 4.6°C per doubling of CO2. This is similar to that predicted for our own warm future (1.5 to 4.5°C per doubling of CO2).
Our work reinforces previous findings which looked at sensitivity in more recent time intervals. It also gives us confidence that our Eocene-like future is well mapped out by current climate models.

Fossil foraminifera from Tanzania – their intricate shells capture details of the ocean 33-50m years ago. Paul Pearson, Cardiff University, CC BY

Rich Pancost, a paleoclimate expert and co-author on both studies, explains: “Most importantly, the collective research into Earth history reveals that the climate can and has changed. And consequently, there is little doubt from our history that transforming fossil carbon underground into carbon dioxide in the air – as we are doing today – will significantly affect the climate we experience for the foreseeable future.”

Our work also has implications for other elements of the climate system. Specifically, what is the impact of higher CO2 and a warmer climate upon the water cycle? A recent study investigating environmental change during the early Eocene – the warmest interval of the past 65m years – found an increase in global precipitation and evaporation rates and an increase in heat transport from the equator to the poles. The latter is consistent with leaf fossil evidence from the Arctic which suggests that high precipitation rates were common.

However, changes in the water cycle are likely to vary between regions. For example, low to mid latitudes likely became drier overall, but with more intense, seasonal rainfall events. Although very few studies have investigated the water cycle of the Eocene, understanding how this operates during past warm climates could provide insights into the mechanisms which will govern future changes.
The Conversation
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Gordon Inglis, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Organic Geochemistry, University of Bristol and Eleni Anagnostou, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Real world risks and extremes

Few locations in London are more appropriate to discuss risk and extremes than the Shard in London. The daring skyscraper, completed in 2012, was among the first high-rise buildings to be designed in the aftermath of 9/11 - terrorism risk mitigation has been a major challenge for the structural engineers working on the project.
The Shard, London
On the 8 April 2016, the Mathematics Institute of the University of Warwick, in partnership with the London Mathematical Laboratory and the Institute of Physics, held the Real World Risks and Extremes meeting at the WBS campus at the Shard.

The invited speakers included Dr Gordon Woo (Risk Management Solutions), Professor Willy Aspinall (University of Bristol Cabot Institute and Aspinall & Associates), Professor Jean-Philippe Bouchaud (École Polytechnique and Capital Fund Management) and Professor Giulia Iori (City University London), as well as the writer Mark Buchanan (author and columnist for Nature and Bloomberg), who chaired the final panel discussion. The objective of the meeting was to foster interdisciplinary discussion on the methodology of extreme risk assessment and management, and this common theme was tackled in the talks from very different angles. 
From the left: Professor Aspinall, Dr Woo, Professor Bouchaud and Professor Iori.
The day started with a thought-provoking speech by Dr Woo, who called for a new approach in the treatment of historical extreme events: rather than treating them as the only source of data, we ought to be performing some counterfactual analysis as well. Besides what we have experienced, what could have happened? Asking these type of questions, according to Dr Woo, would improve the robustness of risk assessments, after all, what happened was just one of many possible outcomes. Thinking about what could have been would help us to better prepare for the future.

Professor Aspinall followed with a talk about the use of expert judgement to quantify the uncertainty in mathematical models of natural processes. This is especially important when policy decisions are being taken based on these models, as in the case of climate change. The methodology was used to evaluate the uncertainty in the correlations between the different drivers of sea-level rise, discovering that its extreme values could be higher than previously predicted.

The talks by Professor Bouchaud and Professor Iori focused on the use of statistical mechanics-based and agent-based models to understand complex systems such as economics at a country scale or the global banking system. In particular, they both focused on the possibility of identifying the set of variables which govern crises in these systems. This is especially important for high-dimensional systems, as while there are many variables at play, generally only few of them can shift the system state from stable to unstable. 

The Cabot Institute’s Dr Max Werner (Lecturer in Natural Hazards and Risks in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol) was one of the organisers of the event: 
“Our main objective for the meeting was to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion about how to improve uncertainty assessments of risks to society, especially given complex interactions and correlations among the many components of a natural or socio-economic system. The speakers represented such different fields of the risk sciences and industries, and yet their common ground became very clear during the panel discussion chaired by Mark Buchanan: don’t place your trust blindly in quantitative models or in past observations – use expert judgement of what might happen, supported by insights from qualitative models of complex systems and an analysis of near-misses. For most scientists, including myself, that are engaged in quantitative modelling of past and future observations, this consensus was an important lesson in how our science should contribute to policy and decision making.”
What I found most interesting about the meeting was the diversity of the point of views of the speakers and the participants. From mathematics to philosophy, and from engineering to finance, all the way through natural and actuarial sciences, there is a lot of exciting research being done on the risk posed by extreme events and complex systems. How to assess these risks, how to communicate them in an effective way, how to manage them and how to turn them into opportunities are challenges that we as academics need to explore, if we want to help our societies to thrive and flourish. 

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Giulio Galvan from the School of Engineering at the University of Bristol.  Giulio's research looks at the vulnerability and resilience of infrastructure networks.
Giulio Galvan