As COP15 comes to an end, so does our series profiling just a few of the many innovative and impactful scientists working in Scotland to conserve biodiversity at home and overseas. In this closing piece, Professor Mathew Williams outlines the current state of nature and outlines solutions for its restoration (adapted from a talk given at the National Museum of Scotland, 16th December 2022).

Nature embodies many concepts, but fundamentally it is defined by life and life’s connectedness. We are entirely embedded in nature: part of it, not separate. And so our economy operates within nature. As our economy has grown, our footprint on nature has expanded.

Nature in crisis

Nature is damaged, and our economy and our society are therefore at risk. The great acceleration of economic growth we have experienced since 1950 has generated extraordinary progress in human wealth and health that we should celebrate. But economic expansion has generated enormous pollution of our oceans, atmosphere and landscapes. While food production has increased in past decades, this has been at the expense of our soils, which show widespread degradation. The future of food production is at risk unless soils can be protected and restored. Our coastal habitats have been cleared for developments, but this has exposed coastal communities to increased risks of flooding. Climate change has increased the risk of wildfires and led to damaging air pollution, loss of life and fear for millions of people.

For decades, we have failed to realise that we are part of a global system of which nature is the foundation: nature is often missing from our lives and excluded from our decision-making. Our economy has been built for efficiency and hence is highly linear, generating enormous waste and pollution. The complexity of our economy and its opacity means it is hard or impossible for consumers to make nature-positive decisions. A century of addiction to fossil fuels and cheap energy has locked us into polluting behaviours. And there are feelings of powerlessness among individuals faced with a global challenge. Governments struggle to make joined-up policy transitions that support nature. The need for international coordination around economic transitions slows changes further.

There must be more urgency in protecting and restoring nature. We have lost decades in half-measures and debate. The need for action is clear and immediate given the evidence of losses. Nature is complex, operating over a vast range of scales – from gene to planet – that we struggle to appreciate and understand. This complexity, and particularly the challenge of joining the dots from biodiversity to human health and wealth, is a brake on progress. The urgency arises from a concern among scientists that we will cross ‘tipping points’ in the Earth system when nature is degraded, from which we will not be able to recover.

What are tipping points? I often took my children to science events at the National Museum of Scotland. At one event on forces, much to their consternation, I volunteered to sit on a chair of nails – about 100, six-inch nails. It was surprisingly comfortable; I felt well supported. Analogously, society is supported by nature as though resting on multiple columns. Like myself, sitting in that chair of nails, we feel secure: we are unaware of the support. But we are chipping away and removing nail after nail of nature’s support through our polluting actions. A tipping point occurs when suddenly the remaining supports cannot hold the load. The whole system collapses, or begins to damage society as the support becomes imbalanced. COVID-19 should serve as a warning: a failure to understand our place in nature and to use science-evidenced approaches for resilience led the world across a tipping point into a desperate experience.

A white man in a beige jacket and blue open-necked shirt smiles at the camera. He is standing in front of a garden shrubbery
Prof Mat Williams

Addressing the nature crisis

So, what is to be done? Addressing the nature crisis requires fundamental changes in our lifestyle to protect and restore nature, to rebuild the supporting structure of life. Technology will be part of the solution – for instance renewable energy sources to cut atmospheric pollution. But reducing the human footprint will be critical – limiting our need for energy and new materials is vital. To be politically acceptable, these lifestyle changes must also increase health and wealth across society.

Decision-making – from the individual to the nation state – needs to reflect our place in a global, connected ecosystem. Citizens need education about nature, new tools to support sustainable decisions, new ways of thinking and planning. Economies need incentives and regulation to reduce pollution and embrace circularity – that is, reducing inputs, reusing materials and recycling matter.

Giving space to nature is vital, because we don’t yet fully understand its complexity, and therefore must assert precautionary principles. We need to debate how to achieve space for nature in a crowded island and in the seas around it, given multiple demands on space for the production of materials, food and energy generation. We need to ensure that nature restoration works for local communities, providing a just transition for all of society.

The individuals and projects featured in this series show how science and innovative management together can help restore nature. We need to learn from and use these examples to help drive change. We need success stories to motivate society and to lead the way towards nature restoration.

We also need to use demonstrated successes to catalyse private investment into nature restoration. Green investment is vital to scale-up pilot projects and deliver the massive restoration that is required in Scotland and globally, for instance repairing our damaged peatlands. We need to link our scientists with entrepreneurs to develop and deploy innovations for nature, like we see in the EarthShot prizes.

New science can help us better monitor nature, whether by satellite remote sensing, environmental DNA sampling, or citizen science. Monitoring helps drive better management, and provides feedback to policymakers and practitioners on what works where. Tracking invasive species, mapping degraded peat, monitoring forest structural diversity or seabird populations can underpin more effective nature restoration. Continued monitoring to show change over time is vital to show how and where we are reversing nature decline and then enhancing nature. Case studies in highland estates can show us how to transition from a sporting past to a nature-positive future that supports local communities. Scientific engagement with land managers – farmers, foresters, crofters – is vital, to shape their practices towards nature positive outcomes.

Successful nature restoration demands a systems approach, on land and in our oceans. Nature is the connectedness of life, and includes our economy and our physical environment as a system. Restoring nature must recognise the complex network of life and society and its variation in time and space. We must be bold in action but aware of risks across the system. Will restoration in Scotland cause loss of nature elsewhere? For example, reducing livestock numbers in Scotland might enhance deforestation in Brazil if diets do not also change. What are the unintended consequences of restoration? Reforestation in Scotland’s uplands could threaten grassland bird species or lead to loss of peat. On the flip side, there are many co-benefits of restoration: peat restoration can lock in carbon and also lead to flood prevention downstream.

Nature is a gift that keeps on giving, ever renewing itself as long as tipping points are not exceeded. That is why nature restoration is so vital and will pay for itself many times over.

Prof. Mathew Williams is the Scottish Government Chief Scientific Adviser for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. He leads the Global Change Ecology Lab in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.