Biodiversity loss mars SDG success, report finds

This piece was first published on SciDev.Net on 07.05.19

An “unprecedented” loss of global biodiversity threatens the progress of more than 80 per cent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and puts 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction, a landmark scientific report has warned.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a global assessment – the most comprehensive to date – at its 7th plenary meeting in Paris, France, on 6 May.

The assessment found that the world will likely fail to meet 35 out of the 44 SDG targets as loss of species and land degradation damage agriculture and economic growth, particularly in the Global South.

“We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity, Oxford University

IPBES chairman Sir Robert Watson said humans were “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

Some 25 per cent of species on the planet are threatened and one million face extinction because of direct human influence, according to the report, which also highlights the economic implications of biodiversity loss.

Land use for crop production has increased by 300 per cent since 1980, for example. But the productivity of 23 per cent of land globally has declined through overuse, while up to US$577 billion worth of crops annually are at risk from pollinator loss.

Eduardo Brondizio, a Brazilian anthropologist and co-chairman of the assessment report committee said climate change was also starting to play a role in driving biodiversity loss.

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius, the report notes.

“Land use change used to be the biggest driver [of biodiversity loss], followed by resource extraction, but now climate change is more pronounced – and most pronounced in the Global South,” Brondizio told SciDev.Net.

This loss is slowing down progress towards most SDGs, including those related to healthy oceans, well-being, economic equality, clean water and responsible use of resources, the assessment found.

“At the moment, people move forward on the SDGs by running down our natural capital,” EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net. “We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

Accelerating species extinction has also all but destroyed the Aichi targets on improving biodiversity, agreed by 27 international organisations in 2011. This set of 20 targets was meant to be achieved next year, but Sandra Diaz, a Spanish ecologist and IPBES co-chair, said that only four of the targets stood any chance of succeeding.

The assessment was compiled over three years by 145 scientists from 50 countries. The final report was voted on and approved at 3am on 4 May, after 45 hours of intense negotiation between IPBES member governments.

Brondizio said developing countries, in particular South Africa, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, formed a “joint voice” calling for recognition of the regional and local impact of biodiversity loss.

The problem is most deeply felt among poor and indigenous populations in the Global South, the report found.

The assessment warned that the conservation status of lands belonging to or managed by indigenous people was worsening, with 9 per cent of domesticated mammals used by them for sustenance having become extinct by 2016.

Brondizio and his team assessed more than 450 indicators of land use change in territories inhabited by indigenous people and found that 70 per cent of these indicators showed decline.

However, the report pointed out that local involvement and indigenous knowledge can lead to huge improvement in species protection.

“Thirty-five per cent of the most diverse areas on the planet are managed by indigenous people, so they are central to the discussion,” said Brondizio. “We found that biodiversity is declining less rapidly in those areas. When we include local communities in governance, it tends to have a positive impact on their livelihood and on the biodiversity outcome.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.

Climate now biggest driver of migration, study finds

First published on SciDev.Net, 08.05.19

The effects of climate change, including floods and extreme temperatures, have become more important push factors in migration than economic inequality or conflict, according to a global study.

The study, undertaken by a team at the University of Otago in New Zealand, looked at migration data from 198 countries of origin to 16 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) between 1980 and 2015.

Researchers developed a model to understand the causes of migration, divided into effects of climate change, economic performance and political strife.

“Both developed and at-risk countries need more planning and policy to prepare for what is likely to be a growing trend of people wanting to move,”

Dennis Wesselbaum, economist, Otago Business School

The model showed that rising temperatures and a growing number of weather-related disasters now cause more migration than lack of income or political freedom.

Each 10 per cent increase in temperature in an origin country caused an increase of 3 per cent in migration from that country to the 16 destination countries, which included Australia, Italy, Spain and Germany.

The study, published last month in the journal Global and Planetary Change, also found that this migration happens in stages.

Dennis Wesselbaum, the lead researcher and an economist at the Otago Business School, explains that migration actually decreased for around five years after a temperature anomaly, before increasing for the next 20 years.

“One explanation is that people move to places further away and have to save more money to finance migration cost, [or] that it takes time to identify the temperature shock,” Wesselbaum told SciDev.Net.

Raya Muttarak, senior lecturer of geography and international development at the UK’s University of East Anglia, believes another reason for the apparent delay is that people at first try “in-situ adaptation”.

“If you experience climatic shocks in the first year, you try different ways to cope, such as planting different crops, changing jobs, borrowing money,” said Muttarak, who was not involved in the study. “You’re probably not trying to move straight away.”

The researchers found that global temperatures increased by an average of 0.8 degrees Celsius in the study period. They counted 100 weather-related disasters in 1980, but by 2015 this number had risen to 300 a year.

Around 244 million people – 2.8 per cent of the world’s population – were classed as migrants in 2015 by the UN. However, the UN has said it will not define climate migrants as refugees, a status that comes with more international support, citing concerns about watering down support programmes for those fleeing violent conflict.

A report by the UNFCC, the UN’s climate change body, found last year that, globally, countries are largely failing to deal with climate migration adequately.

“Recognising the causal factors behind this forced migration would require governments to apportion responsibility, both for the initial migration and for the solutions to it,” said Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which lobbies on environmental issues in the Global South. “In many countries this is politically toxic and, without international agreement on shared and coordinated action, proves politically very hard to deal with.”

Wesselbaum is confident, however, that the problem will be recognised “sooner or later”, adding that the results of his study offer a more nuanced understanding of how people respond to climate shocks.

The climate migration model showed that migration remained stable after storms and drought, but increased significantly after floods and extreme temperature events.

“Both developed and at-risk countries need more planning and policy to prepare for what is likely to be a growing trend of people wanting to move,” Wesselbaum added.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.

Government loyalist appointed new UK science minister as Brexit woes continue

This article was first published in Nature on 05.12.18

Amid the carnage of Brexit, the UK government has gained a new science minister. Chris Skidmore was appointed on 5 December, succeeding Sam Gyimah, who resigned last week over the direction of Brexit negotiations.

Skidmore takes over responsibility for the universities and science portfolio, a brief divided between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The post, a junior ministerial position, has had high turnover in recent years: Skidmore is the United Kingdom’s fifth science minister in eight years.

A Conservative member of parliament since 2010, Skidmore studied history at the University of Oxford, and represents a constituency in southwestern England that has strong links to science and innovation: it is home to aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the UK National Composite Centre, a government-funded research institute focused on developing composite materials and technologies. He is also a historian who has written several books on British monarchs.

“Delighted and honoured to have been appointed Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation,” he tweeted.

Skidmore favoured Britain remaining in the European Union in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. But, importantly for embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, Skidmore is regarded as a government loyalist. His voting record demonstrates continuous support for May’s policies, including her stance on Brexit. This might have been a factor in his appointment, because ministers are expected to vote with the government — and he has publicly supported May’s divisive Brexit divorce deal.

Read more on Nature.

Europe’s academics fail to report results for 90% of clinical trials

This article was first published in Nature on 13.09.18

European academics are failing abysmally when it comes to reporting the results of clinical trials, a study has revealed.

An analysis of data from the European Union’s Clinical Trial Register — published in The BMJ1 on 13 September — shows that around 50% of the listed trials have not complied with guidelines that say results must be reported within 12 months.

The researchers who conducted the analysis found that only 11% of trials run by academic centres — such as those led by universities, governments, hospitals or charities — had published outcomes after completion (see ‘Failing to comply’’).

Source: BMJ 2018;362:k3218 http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k3218

Furthermore, only 11 of the major sponsors of clinical trials — entities that are responsible for at least 50 trials on the register — had reported 100% of results, all of which were companies.

This compares to a total of 32 major sponsors that had not reported any results from their trials. All of these are academic institutions, rather than companies.

Ben Goldacre, head of the Evidence-Based Medicine DataLab at the University of Oxford, UK, and lead author of the study, says this is a serious concern for science. But he thinks that “chaos, rather than malice” is behind academics’ poor reporting of trial results.

Read more on Nature.

UK universities push for last-minute Erasmus deals

First published in Research Europe, 23.02.17

Universities in the UK are rushing to sign Erasmus+ deals to secure access to Europe for their students and academics after Brexit, Research Europe has learned.

Universities in Germany and Denmark have said that they are witnessing an increase in UK demand for partnerships under the EU’s flagship exchange programme, including deals on researcher exchange. They hope that agreements signed before Brexit will survive even if the UK pulls out of EU programmes.

EU destinations remain attractive for British students and researchers, said Tobias Hochscherf, a vice-dean at Kiel University of Applied Sciences in Germany, which has received more offers for Erasmus+ deals since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

“The EU as a community of values has generally much in common with academia: both are built upon debate and partnership,” he said. “But what is irritating at the moment, for both students and staff, is the state of uncertainty.”

The UK risks losing significant clout and funding if it is forced to withdraw from Erasmus+. Last year was the country’s most successful year in funding terms, with €126 million awarded to UK universities compared with €118m in 2015. According to the British Council, an education and culture body, more than 40,000 people from the UK went to Europe to study or do research under Erasmus+ in the 2015-16 academic year.

A source from the British Council, which hosts the UK National Agency for Erasmus+, said that the programme had helped UK universities “broaden their connections and increase their competitiveness”. The council said that it was aware of a rush by British institutions to get agreements signed, but added that it could not speculate on future scenarios.

The European Commission echoed that it was too early to tell what was going to happen to UK participation. However, a spokesman for Erasmus+ said that the option of a Norway or Switzerland-style deal—where the country pays into the programme in return for access—could be tricky, because UK prime minister Theresa May has said she opposes “huge payments” to the EU after Brexit.

Meanwhile, the general situation remains a concern for the UK’s EU partners. Hochscherf said that he has stopped looking for joint EU research bids with partners in the UK, at least for now.

“What I fear is that higher education and research will be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations between Westminster and Brussels,” he said.

Climate impact means uneven UK wind power costs

Image: Turbines on the Scottish island of Eigg: Northern Britain is likely to pay less for wind energy. W L Tarbert via Wikimedia Commons

Climate News Network, 12.02.17

Varying wind patterns caused by climate change could affect the cost of UK wind power, with northern Britain paying less than the south, a research paper suggests.

A simulation of changing wind resources by 2100 has found that the UK’s capacity for generating wind power will become more changeable, with some regions benefitting and others losing out. The year-on-year variation of wind power capacity will increase, the authors say.

The paper looked at what climate change will do to wind energy’s levelled cost of electricity (LCOE), the average value of one unit of power over the whole lifespan of the power source.

Across the UK, this cost is affected by the physical environment around the turbines and its impact on wind patterns, explains Iain Staffell, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London and co-author of the paper.

“An example would be the vegetation cover and topography, which affect how wind speeds change with height above ground,” he says. “Rougher surfaces create more drag, lower wind speeds and thus result in a higher cost.”

Policy implications

The researchers combined climate data sets to model changes in ground cover and what this would do to wind speed and availability in the UK. The simulation used by the researchers showed that LCOE is likely to rise in Wales and most of England, while it could fall in Scotland and over the North Sea.

The authors say climate change’s impact on wind patterns should inform government policy on renewable energy. For example, investors could be asked to provide better climate change adaptation plans for planned facilities under the Strategic Environmental Assessment framework or the environmental impact assessment for infrastructure.

“Companies are still finding their feet with how to analyse the impacts that climate change may have,” says Staffell.

The issue of greater variation in wind is also important, as it could have an impact on the cost of electricity produced by wind farms. Onshore wind farms in Britain run at an average of 26% of their full capacity, but this rises to 36% at offshore plants.

In 2013 the government put in place so-called strike prices for electricity, in order to protect consumers from sudden price hikes. This system – under which the government refunds power producers if market prices are below the strike price, but forces them to pay the balance if their energy is more expensive – might have to be revised under greater wind variation.

“ . . . The greatest wind resource is generally found offshore and the further north and west you go”

Staffell says that, if the LCOE increases, investing in wind farms could become less economically attractive. However, “the reverse is also true if costs decrease and investment increases,” he adds.

The results, published in the journal Renewable Energy, are from a single run of the model, and the researchers are keen to do a more in-depth study before making further policy recommendations.

They also say that choosing the right site for wind power remains paramount, as the impact of climate change on turbine efficiency is still less than the impact of a bad site decision.

Meanwhile they suggest looking at the energy grid to ensure that power can be easily transferred from the best wind power locations to where it is most needed. Staffell highlights the “spatial mismatch” of the national grid, which is at its most developed in the large population centres of south-east Britain.

“[But] the greatest wind resource is generally found offshore and the further north and west you go,” he says.

Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen

A proposed Hawaiian bill aims to stop the sale of lotions containing certain UV-filters, but their effects on coral are disputed.

Nature, 03.02.2017

Legislators in Hawaii are trying to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain two UV-filtering chemicals, after studies suggested that they harm coral reefs.

On 20 January, Hawaii state senator Will Espero introduced a bill which would ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in Hawaii (except under medical prescription) to the state Congress. Espero argues that a ban is important to preserve the state’s tourism industry, because Hawaii relies heavily on tourists attracted by its coral reefs.

The bill is already attracting attention from other regions with economies reliant on reefs, including Palau and the British Virgin Islands, Espero says. But manufacturers argue that more evidence is needed to warrant a ban.

A bar in the state of Hawaii would be the strongest political measure yet taken against the chemicals – although some manufacturers already sell “reef-friendly” sunscreens without them, produced in response to scientific and consumer concerns. “Since there are eco-friendly sunscreens on the market now, a total ban hurts no one,” Espero argues.

In November 2015, a group of European Parliament members proposed a motion to ban oxybenzone in cosmetic products throughout the European Union, but that legislation has stalled.

Sunscreen research

Espero’s bill draws largely upon research done by US scientists led by Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia. In 2016, his team reported that oxybenzone and octinoxate could stunt the growth of baby corals, and that oxybenzone was toxic to seven coral species in lab tests1.

A 2008 study from a different group had found that oxybenzone is likely to cause coral bleaching both in the lab and in the wild in several tropical regions2. Other studies have suggested that oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor among marine creatures such as shrimps and clams3.

In ongoing follow-up work – which has not yet been published – Downs’ team detected oxybenzone contamination of up to 4,000 parts per trillion (ppt) in the waters off the most popular beaches of the Hawaiian island of Maui. An oxybenzone concentration of around 400 ppt over several days is enough to induce coral bleaching in warm waters, they say. The team suggests that when people snorkel or swim, sunscreen washes off their skin and out into the reefs.

“In many geographic locations, oxybenzone and sunscreen pollution poses a serious environmental hazard,” says Downs.

But other reef scientists are more circumspect about the role of sun-screen chemicals in coral-reef destruction. Many factors damage coral reefs, says Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton, UK, but he agrees that sunscreen pollution might be detrimental in areas with lots of tourists.

“Banning sunscreen will not solve other problems: for example, temperature anomalies, overfishing, coral predators and the big issue of coastal runoffs that pollute and destroy reefs,” he says. “But if you have places with a high load of tourists going in, it is not unreasonable to stay cautious and say, ‘Yes, there may be additive effects.”

Disputed effects

But sunscreen manufacturers such as L’Oréal disagree that a ban is needed. “Regulatory decisions have to be made on sound scientific evidence and multiple studies,” says Marc Leonard, head of L’Oréal’s Research & Innovation, Environmental Research department in Aulnay-sous-Bois, France. “They have to be completed by different teams to provide a significant bundle of evidence. We are very far from it in this case.” Despite this, says Leonard, L’Oréal are working on making sunscreen products without oxybenzone, in anticipation of a possible ban.

L’Oréal has not itself reported any tests on the effects of oxybenzone or octinoxate on coral reefs. In June 2016, the manufacturer presented work done with researchers at the Scientific Centre of Monaco, on a different UV filter chemical in its sunscreen, called avobenzone. The scientists reported an adverse effect on corals at the high concentrations of 5 milligrams per litre (5 parts per million) – but that has little relevance to normal levels of exposure.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a national trade association for manufacturers based in Washington DC, says that it will oppose a ban until there is more evidence. “We sympathize with the desire to preserve Hawaii’s coral reef, but there is no scientific evidence that under naturally occurring conditions, sunscreen ingredients are contributing to coral-reef declines,” says a spokeswoman for the group.

Downs says that his team has seen a clear effect in Maui – and that he feels there is already enough evidence to justify a ban there. Some Hawaiian politicians have tried to push for more funding to support research into the issue. But a bill to the US Congress, asking for funds for the University of Hawaii to further investigate the effect of sunscreens on reefs, stalled in February last year.

“We have advocates and science on our side,” Espero says. “Fishermen, boat owners, sailors, ocean-sports enthusiasts, ocean-tour operators and environmentalists rely on the ocean for recreation and jobs. Opponents will be out there, but supporters as well.”

Nature
doi:10.1038/nature.2017.21332

Science Europe lobby group hit by sudden exodus

29.11.2016 – Original story on Nature.com

Brussels-based advocacy group aimed to provide single voice for scientists in the EU – but is losing members.

Influential research organizations are pulling out of Science Europe, the Brussels-based advocacy group that aims to champion researchers’ interests with European Union policymakers.

All but one of France’s research-funding organizations are preparing to leave the group at the end of this year, Nature has learned — including Europe’s largest basic-research agency, the CNRS, which controls an annual budget of €3.3 billion (US$3.5 billion). Germany’s Helmholtz Association, which runs 18 national research centres, and France’s agricultural research agency (INRA) both left quietly last year.

The loss is “definitely a blow, and may be a deadly one”, says Peter Tindemans, the secretary-general of EuroScience, a grassroots association of researchers in Europe. He thinks that Science Europe is struggling to balance the different priorities of its members, because some are grant-awarding organizations, whereas others are institutes that primarily perform research. But Science Europe itself is not fazed by the exits, says its president, Michael Matlosz.

Science Europe was formed in 2011 to give the many national research organizations scattered across Europe a stronger, united voice on EU policy. Collectively, these organizations control most of the continent’s basic science funding — but, individually, it can be hard for them to navigate the Brussels lobbying jungle to influence policymakers.

Science Europe runs events to push scientists’ interests with politicians, and publishes reports on research policy. In October, for example, it released position papers on the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme and on open access. At the start of last year, it represented 50 organizations, but by the end of 2016, its membership looks set to have fallen to 43.

Struggling to be heard

The departing French agencies all declined to comment. But sources familiar with the situation told Nature that the organizations filed applications to leave at the end of 2015, to comply with the one-year notice period.

Matlosz told Nature that the CNRS and France’s atomic energy commission (CEA) are definitely leaving, but that the country’s medical research agency, INSERM, and its research institute for development (IRD) haven’t yet confirmed their decision. “Science Europe is a living organization, we have members coming out and in,” he said. “All members pay an annual fee to be part of our activities, so for many it depends on financial constraints.”

Matlosz is also chief executive of the national research agency (ANR), the only French organization that isn’t preparing to leave Science Europe. “We are very satisfied with it,” says an ANR spokeswoman.

The organizations that left last year give differing reasons for their exits. “In Science Europe, it was very difficult for research organizations to have a voice. At some point, it just ran itself without any involvement of the members,” says a member of staff at INRA who was involved in INRA’s departure but did not want to be named. “At INRA, we just did not have enough capacity to be in the different work groups, where you have to be strongly involved to be able to give your opinion and influence the organization’s processes.”

A price hike triggered the exit of the Helmholtz Association. Science Europe’s annual fee doubled, causing an internal review of costs and benefits, says Annika Thies, director of the association’s Brussels office. “There were several activities we considered to be positive and useful, but others of less relevance for us,” she says — although she declined to say what they were.

Repeated criticism

Science Europe has reconfigured itself a few times since its creation — causing rearrangements that have brought criticism from its members. Matlosz is its third president in three years. In 2015, the organization decided to form a single advisory committee consisting of 30 researchers from around Europe, ditching its previous structure of six committees. The final minutes of one of these dissolved groups (which provided the viewpoint of engineering and technical sciences) noted members’ regret that “Science Europe does not use the structural importance of its Member Organisations in the European research system to engage more aggressively with the European Commission on policy issues”.

The exodus may be a case of history repeating itself. Science Europe was built from two former advocacy groups: the European Science Foundation (ESF) — a funder of coordinated projects between research funders within and outside the EU — and EUROHORCS, which represented the heads of the European research councils. In 2011, many research organizations left the ESF in protest after they failed to achieve a two-thirds majority to reform and strengthen their voices. Science Europe was meant to be a response to this shake-up, with the goal of taking over the ESF’s advocacy and lobbying efforts in Brussels.

Tindemans thinks that the dissatisfaction in Science Europe may be due in part to the national funding agencies concentrating on lobbying policymakers, instead of also working together to fund joint projects, as they used to do in the ESF.

Departees from Science Europe have other bodies that can offer them support and influence in Brussels. The Helmholtz Association, for example, is a member of EARTO, the European association of research and technology organizations. INRA, meanwhile, works closely with COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology), a network that supports trans-national cooperation between European researchers.

Meanwhile, Science Europe is readying itself for a busy 2017, Matlosz says, with a focus on the mid-term review of Horizon 2020 and a planned lobbying push to support basic research in the European Research Area. “We continue to have a strong consensus on this among members, so we can speak out strongly.”

Against the grain

01.12.2016 – Original story on ResearchResearch.com

Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, tells Inga Vesper about efforts to bring scientists and farmers closer together.

Europe’s farmers have a difficult relationship with those beyond their community. The consumers of their products, the 500 million Europeans who need a daily splash of milk in their coffee, tend to perceive farmers as swimming in subsidies, while EU politicians prefer to keep a safe distance from the demonstrations staged regularly by agricultural unions in Brussels.

Farmers themselves remain fragmented, with their own small businesses tied to a particular place. Farming practices are deeply rooted in tradition, and the language of cross-border collaboration and pan-European investments does not usually apply to farmers’ lives.

But more involvement of science is needed to bring farmers together on issues that affect them, says Mark Holderness, executive secretary of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research. It is also needed to tackle the huge problems around food production and climate change.

“One thing we have lost track of is the link between agricultural science and its clients,” says Holderness. “Research judges itself against quality standards that are external to the farmer, such as scientific papers. But for science to deliver something useful to farmers, we need to give farmers a direct say in what is researched.”

Based in Rome, GFAR was founded in 1996 to promote conversations between farmers, politicians and research funders. Its aim is to make agricultural and food research driven “by the needs and demands of societies”.

Over its 20-year history, the forum has made progress in giving farmers a voice in research projects, Holderness says. For example, its Foundation for South-North Mediterranean Dialogue worked with farmers, local universities, chambers of commerce and even chefs to analyse which innovations would be most useful to agricultural regions around the Mediterranean Sea.

It has also turned its attention to improving farming metrics used in policy decisions, in line with the approach of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Governments like to boast about yields and tonnages for farming outputs, but gather little data on other areas, Holderness says—even though pressures such as climate change, poverty and increasing food waste demand better monitoring of agricultural impact.

“We are stuck in this paradigm that says ‘Let’s measure productivity’, but that is a perverse driver,” he says. “We need to measure much broader criteria, such as nutrition, waste and emissions. At present we are not aware of the full associated costs of farming.”

The forum’s efforts appear to be gaining traction. In July, the European Commission published a strategy on agricultural R&D that focused on bringing farmers and scientists closer together, by using online technologies.

And in October, a Slovakian EU presidency conference on the bioeconomy concluded that farmers must be involved in innovation and technological roll-outs from the start.

But the impact of any political strategies will be limited without big changes in funding capacity, Holderness says. The paradox is that the EU member states most reliant on agriculture are also the lowest spenders on research and among the least influential on EU priorities. Only 5 per cent of Horizon 2020 money goes to agricultural research and innovation, despite the fact that in member states such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria agriculture provides employment for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce.

Holderness says this demands an urgent rethink of priorities. “To make research spending fair, we need to look at the demand within countries and the political imperative for countries to be self-sustaining,” he says. “Rather than starting from a technology, we should look at future demand in Europe and work back to what research and innovations we need to get to that future. That would reframe the entire debate.”

Alternatively, European farmers could follow the lead of other regions, Holderness suggests, and set up joint investment funds. The Australian government has initiated a project on grain research under which the government matches the amount that farmers pay into a common research pot with additional public funds. “It’s industry investing in its own research and having a direct say in what is done,” Holderness says. “And it keeps the scientists on track to deliver something useful for the farmers.”

Holderness says he is optimistic that the forum’s work to bring farmers’ local viewpoints into agricultural science will ultimately help the field to compete for funding with trendier subjects such as digital technologies or space. “Agriculture ministers would like more science investment, but they do not have the evidence,” he says. “As it stands, science is prone to seeing agriculture as a last-resort industry, not as the most important industry on Earth.”

EU climate spending criticised by auditors

31.11.16 – Original story on Climate News Network

The EU is billions of euros below its climate target and there are insufficient checks on where much of the €1 trillion budget is going.

The European Union could miss its climate spending targets due to fragmented funding and inflated numbers, warns the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

Although in percentage terms the figures look small, the fact that the total budget is €1 trillion means a great deal of money is being spent on purposes other than mitigating or adapting to climate change.

A report by the ECA reveals that some of the funds labelled climate adaptation were “not proven” to be that. If other criteria were used, the actual spending on climate-related issues in fisheries and agriculture alone would be €33 billion less than estimated.

The report says the EU will spend just under 19% of its budget on climate-related activities by 2020, short of the union’s 20% spending goal. Between 2014 and 2016, EU climate spending hovered at around 17.6% of the budget, but did not increase significantly, the auditors found. Spending was meant to have reached 19.7% of the total budget by 2017.

With the EU budget for 2014-2020 standing at just over €1 trillion, the projected loss of climate investment could be in the billions.

Fragmentation

One reason for missing the target is the fragmentation of EU climate spending, the auditors say. Instead of pooling the funding into one climate action pot, the European Commission decided to channel money from different streams towards climate activities, leaving it up to the respective fund managers to decide how this would be done.

Sources of climate funding include fisheries, farming and technology development. In these areas there has been “no significant shift towards climate action and not all potential opportunities for financing climate-related action have been fully explored”, says the ECA.

Markus Trilling, finance policy coordinator at the watchdog Climate Action Network, thinks the EU needs better management of its spending. “Large parts of the funding to European farmers, both direct payments and under rural development programmes, are labelled climate adaption, but positive environmental impact is not proven,” he says.

Another reason behind the shortfall identified by the auditors in their 22 November report is the European Commission’s habit of using planned expenses, which, the report says, do not always mirror actual spending.

“The European Commission should immediately
improve its so-called ‘climate action tracking’
methodology to get a more accurate picture of the
volume and actual impact of climate action spending”

However, a spokeswoman for the European Commission’s climate action directorate says efforts to ramp up climate activities are under way, and that the EU is still broadly on track to meet the target by 2020. “We have already managed to integrate climate-related spending into our policy and this is an achievement of its own,” she told Climate News Network.

Such efforts, however, have not extended to all parts of the climate action budget. Horizon 2020, the EU’s research programme, spends only 24% of funds on climate-related work, while its target is set at 35%, the auditors reveal.

Furthermore, they say that the EU lacked a specific plan as to how it would ensure programmes that have fallen behind will catch up. Spending on climate action would have to increase by 22% every year until 2020 for the target to be met, the report found. “Progress has been made, but in key spending areas it is largely business as usual,” says Phil Wynn Owen, the auditor who oversaw the compilation of the report.

Climate tracking

In addition, the EU’s efforts to track climate spending are poor, the auditors say. If the commission used what the court deems “internationally established methodologies”, such as those used by the OECD, actual climate spending under the agriculture and fisheries heading would be around €33 billion less than currently estimated.

“The European Commission should immediately improve its so-called ‘climate action tracking’ methodology to get a more accurate picture about the volume and actual impact of climate action spending,” says Trilling.

The EU’s 20% spending promise is a vital contribution to meeting the UN emission reduction targets set out for its member states. According to Trilling, the EU cannot maintain its aspirations to lead on the Paris Agreement if spending is not ramped up in time to meet the promise. To be a climate action leader, “the whole EU budget has to be 100% climate-proof”, he says. – Climate News Network

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