Benefiting from natural resources

This blog post by Jonathan Bosch, an SSCP DTP student, is part of a series on Responding to Environmental Change, an event organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Doctoral Training Partnerships at Imperial (SSCP), and the University of Reading and the University of Surrey (SCENARIO).

See the full list of blogs in this series here.


Natural resources are fundamental to human well-being, economic growth, and other areas of human development. Greater demand for food, water and energy resources against the current backdrop of climate change and population growth requires better management and more efficient use of natural resources to reduce the resulting stress on the earth’s natural systems.

In this “benefiting from natural resources” section of the programme there were three talks from representatives of three distinct sectors, presenting how the respective areas of industry, regulatory bodies, and academia are currently dealing with the management of natural resources.

 Sustainable business

Andy Wales, Director of Sustainable Development at SABMiller plc, made an arresting case for why sustainability is not only important for their business model, but also why it’s vital for its continued success. SABMiller is a multinational beer and soft drinks producing company.

SABMiller presents itself as a local beer brand, although it operates in 40 countries. As such, the business is exposed to the perturbations and vulnerabilities of, principally, local water supplies, but also grain and packaging supply chains. And with 80% of its income coming from developing markets, it cannot secure its future profitability without smart resource management. Procuring primary products from local markets is important to achieving this and therefore water management is critical.

The ‘Prosper’ programme, sits on five sustainable development pillars, and has as its catchphrase, “When business does well, so do local communities, economies and the environment around us. When they prosper, we do.” The five pillars are associated with a “thriving, sociable, resilient, clean and productive world.” Encompassed in these areas is an acknowledgement that not only do water supplies matter, but, for example, ‘clean’ – reducing its carbon footprint, and ‘productive’ – food and land security, are central to ensuring a profitable future.

A number of case studies went some way in demonstrating the achievements of Prosper to date. Already, $40m in efficiency savings have been achieved by programmes implemented in Colombia and India, using a systems approach which helped farmers choose better crop types – reducing water consumption by 30% and raising crop yield by 20%.

In Bogota, India, Prosper highlighted issues of poor land management which caused regular and intolerable spikes in water prices. Water run off was high and productive yield of food crops and milk production was low. A sophisticated approach tackled the problem by simply changing the breed of local milk cows to better benefit from the local ecological conditions. The result was an increase in the milk yield of the region and a sharp reduction in water run-off, securing milk and water availability for all users.

Prosper continues to forge collaborations worldwide in the nexus of water, food and energy security. A partnership with the WWF will continue development in that direction.

 Environmental regulation

Miranda Kavanagh, Executive Director, Evidence Directorate of the Environment Agency, focused her talk on ‘Fracking’, or hydraulic fracturing, which is one of the unconventional techniques of oil and gas extraction currently attracting world-wide media attention for its, as yet, undetermined environmental risks.

The Environment Agency’s role is in delivering on a policy framework set by the relevant government agencies, principally DEFRA. It has three specific roles in achieving this objective: Regulating industries and activities that can potentially harm the environment; advising government, industry and the public about more sustainable approaches to the environment; and specific operational work to protect and improve the environment.

The Environment Agency (EA) is guided by its Evidence Directive, which aims to use evidence to “guide and inspire” their actions and those they advise. It states that they must use the best available evidence, use environmental data to support the decisions of others, and develop a joined up approach to evidence, among other equally impressive visions.

On Fracking, the EA must balance, pragmatically, the needs and interests of different groups concerned with environment, resource exploitation and people, as Kavanagh clarified in the Q&A session. As well as the pure environmental impacts, the EA must consider the effects on people and communities, but also the need for fuel exploitation and energy security; areas of interest of both government and the energy sector.

These needs were highlighted in the Potential Contribution report produced by the UK Institute of Directors, which highlighted the social benefits of one scenario to include a likely decrease in the use of imported gas, 70,000 energy jobs and a net benefit to the Treasury.

These benefits are offset by the environmental risks, which are complex, and in some cases, undetermined. The known risks involve a range of air, land and water pollution, the release of chemical and radioactive substances, and a range of spatial and time dependent risks, which will affect exploited regions differently, and on differing timescales. For example, ground water contamination may take decades to become detectable.

The EA works in many areas to produce evidence for the advice and regulation of future potential fracking operations. The EA was, for example, instrumental in producing a UK geological map of the subsurface extent of shales and their vertical separation to aquifers. These were important as a preliminary risk assessment for a broad geological understanding of the importance and distribution of our groundwater resource. This type of evidence gathering must be done for the range of environmental concerns listed above.

Also highlighted were collaborations and opportunities which the EA are eager to develop. NERC Fellowships and various PhD Studentships are ongoing and include projects as broad as evaluating methodologies for environmental risks, but also the invention and patenting of new instruments for air-quality impacts and other applications.

The EA welcomes partnerships, particularly those involved with their Collaborative Research Priorities. Their expertise and extensive datasets are important resources which other organisations with similar resources and objectives may make use of to aid progress on some key questions within applied environmental science.

 Ecosystem services

Elizabeth Robinson, Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Reading presented two projects demonstrating her work on how scientists and social scientists can and have been working together to improve our ability to benefit from natural resources.

There has been, in the past, little need to actively manage our natural resource base, but the pressures of climate variability and population growth have made optimising the use of these resources effectively much more important. The relationship between ecosystem services – measurable by ecological scientists – and agricultural intensity – understood by management and social structures – becomes a crucial collaboration.

But what is the relationship between these inextricably connected issues? Robinson was concerned, as a trained economist, with ‘drawing a curve’ between these two dimensions, which would describe how and why a change in the intensity of agriculture would affect the ecosystem services which are critical to the sustainability and well-being of communities.

In Ghana, cocoa production was investigated in order to understand how some farmers may choose to intensify their agriculture and why some do not, and furthermore some intensifications were damaging the ecosystem more than others. Ecologists were employed to determine the relationship between intensity and ecosystem services, while social scientists interviewed farming communities to discover how the forest land was managed and what were the limiting factors to best managing the land in benefiting farmer yield and ecosystems.

It was found that there are often complicated social factors affecting how the farms and forest land was managed, and these included the ability of farmers to use or afford fertiliser, shift cultivation to newly converted forest when soils are exhausted, and even whether farmers benefit from pollination by nearby forests. It was seen that many local perceptions of resource space and property rights restricted the farmers’ ability to optimise their practices even if they desired to do so. Among many other constraints, poverty, labour availability and wages, and institutional contexts affect the outcomes when farmers attempted to intensify their practices.

Ultimately, a simple behavioural model can attempt to capture the ecological boundaries, and social constraints, and can be used to propose routes toward an optimum solution for ecosystem services and farmer preferences and resources.

The second case study was related to managing fisheries in Tanzania, where such efforts are typically addressed only when falling stocks become an issue. This project also highlighted the need to observe the socio-economic situation and implement credible solutions which may indeed lead to a slower recovery of the ecology, but which resolve societal tensions and allow the fishing communities a reliable income without implementing a total fishing ban. A ‘Bio-economic’ model was indispensable in this project too.

Watch a video of the talk on our YouTube channel.

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