Environmental Science – the right tool for managing the Earth system

“It isn’t enough to repair the damage our progress has brought. It is also not enough to manage our risks and be more shock-resistant. Now is not only the time to course correct and be more resilient. It is a time to imagine what we can generate for the world. Not only can we work to minimize our footprint but we can also create positive handprints. It is time to strive for a world that thrives.” Jean Russell

Environmental science is a practical, team based, multidisciplinary field that solves complex problems that have ‘wicked’ dimensions of culture, history, economics and environment.  It synergistically – the whole is greater than the parts – integrates physical and biological sciences within a real world context of society.  It provides the most flexible and comprehensive approach to designing sustainable futures, assessing and managing environmental risk and environmental planning and management.  The alternative is the politics of despair.

“We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced.”   http://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252

It is speculative science  – tipping points – in the Earth system. There are 9 of them apparently.


Speaking as an environmental scientist – there is an underlying reality. But these are far from beyond the capacity of rich economies to redress.

A myopic vision involves narratives of moribund western economies governed by corrupt corporations collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions – leading to less growth, less material consumption, less CO2 emissions, less habitat destruction and a last late chance to stay within the safe limits of global ecosystems. And this is just in the ‘scholarly’ journals.

Iriai is a Japanese word meaning to enter into the joint use of resources. There are ways to a bright future for the planet, its peoples and its wild places – but these need to be consciously designed in a broad context of economics and democracy, population, development, technical innovation, land use and the environment. There is a stark choice in which narratives of catastrophe and economic, environmental and social collapse have no place. Which future is for you and your children? Economic collapse, civil strife, war – or prosperous and resilient communities in vibrant landscapes?

We might even solve global warming. Electricity is 25% of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.  A multi-gas and aerosol strategy is required – carbon dioxide. CFC’s, nitrous oxides, methane, black carbon and sulfate. Ongoing decreases in carbon intensity and increases in efficiency and productivity. And technical innovation across sectors – energy, transport, industry, residential and agriculture and forestry.

Some of the answer is under our feet.  Rattan Lal – himself a scientific treasure – estimates that some 500 Gigatonne (GtC) carbon has been lost from terrestrial systems.  ‘Soil is like a bank account – we must replace what we have removed.”

This soil carbon store can be renewed by restoring land. Holding back water in sand dams, terraces and swales, replanting, changing grazing management, encouraging perennial vegetation cover, precise applications of chemicals and adoption of other management practices that create positive carbon and nutrient budgets and optimal soil temperature and moisture. Atmospheric carbon is transferred from the atmosphere to soil carbon stores through plant photosynthesis and subsequent formation of secondary carbonates. The rate of soil carbon sequestration ranges from about 100 to 1000 kg per hectare per year as humus and 5 to 15 kg per hectare per year inorganic carbon. The near term potential for carbon sequestration in agricultural soils is approximately equal to the historic carbon loss of 80 GtC during the modern era.  This is about 10 years of global annual greenhouse gas emissions. At realistic rates of sequestration 25% of current annual global greenhouse gas emissions could be sequestered over 40 years. In Australia a comprehensive program of ecological restoration across landscapes – worth every cent for many reasons – would enable all and more greenhouse gas emissions from energy to be offset.

Carbon sequestration in soils has major benefits in addition to offsetting anthropogenic emissions from fossil fuel combustion, land use conversion, soil cultivation, continuous grazing and cement and steel manufacturing.    Restoring soil carbon stores increases agronomic productivity and enhances global food security.  Increasing the soil organic content enhances water holding capacity and creates a more drought tolerant agriculture – with less downstream flooding.  There is a critical level of soil carbon that is essential to maximising the effectiveness of water and nutrient inputs.  Global food security, especially for countries with fragile soils and harsh climate such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, cannot be achieved without improving soil quality through an increase in soil organic content.   Wildlife flourishes on restored grazing land helping to halt biodiversity loss.  Reversing soil carbon loss is a new green revolution where conventional agriculture is hitting a productivity barrier with exhausted soils and increasingly expensive inputs.

Increased agricultural productivity, increased downstream processing and access to markets build local economies and global wealth.  Economic growth provides resources for solving problems – conserving and restoring ecosystems, better sanitation and safer water, better health and education, updating the diesel fleet and other productive assets to emit less black carbon and reduce the health and environmental impacts, developing better and cheaper ways of producing electricity, replacing cooking with wood and dung with better ways of preparing food thus avoiding respiratory disease and again reducing black carbon emissions.  A global program of agricultural soils restoration is the foundation for balancing the human ecology.