Green Action Week: Professor EJ Milner-Gulland discusses how the whole University community needs to pull together to deliver on our environmental commitments
As Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity, I work broadly on ways to make humanity’s relationship to nature more sustainable. That’s why I was so proud to be a part of the process that led to the University committing to biodiversity net gain by 2035, one of the two high-level goals of the Environmental Sustainability Strategy (alongside net zero carbon).
The key is to start by preventing damage; it’s safer to avoid damage than to repair it later.
The first step in getting to this goal is to understand our current environmental impacts. Because Oxford was the first institution to do a full and rigorous analysis of the biodiversity impacts of its operations, our baseline analysis was published in Nature last year. That was an exciting moment, particularly because the authors included members of our Estates team, academics and undergraduate students – demonstrating how the whole University community needs to pull together to deliver on our environmental commitments.
Based on our University’s work on the Environmental Sustainability Strategy, the United Nations Environment Programme (Youth and Advocacy team) approached us, and we joined forces to launch the Nature Positive Universities Alliance at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in Montreal in December 2022. Vice-Chancellors from more than 120 universities worldwide have so far committed to moving their institutions towards becoming Nature Positive by understanding their current impacts, setting targets for reducing them and reporting transparently on their progress.
As we know from our analysis of Oxford’s impacts on biodiversity, becoming Nature Positive is not easy. But as universities we have a special role to play in addressing the environmental crisis, not just by mitigating the impacts of our operations, but also through our research, and in our role as educators and influencers (whether in our cities, for our governments or globally).
It can be hard to know where to start though, either as institutions or as individuals. An approach that I find useful is the ‘Four Steps for the Earth’ of the Conservation Hierarchy. First avoid doing harm wherever possible, and then minimise the harms you can’t avoid. Next think about how to restore the damage done to nature, and then how to make nature better in other ways. The key is to start by preventing damage; it’s safer to avoid damage than to repair it later.
One example of how this works is changing our diet to become more sustainable. This needs to happen on a global level, because food systems are linked to more biodiversity loss than any other driver, mostly via habitat loss but also over-harvesting. It’s also a sphere in which all of us can play our part. First by avoiding particularly high-impact foods where possible, then eating less of these types of food, reducing waste, and finally supporting biodiversity restoration in areas where our food is grown. Recently we worked with Lady Margaret Hall to do an audit of their food impacts and work through options for mitigating them using this framework.
One thing I would like to emphasise is that this isn’t about banning things. It’s about being more conscious and making positive changes whenever possible. For example, we know red meat is bad for biodiversity and the climate, but – tragically for people like me – tea, coffee, cake and chocolate also have a major impact on biodiversity.
Not so long ago, most people in the UK cooked meat once or twice a week, and very little went to waste. They’d have a Sunday roast, turn the leftovers into sandwiches or curries, and make stock with the bones. Now many people eat meat daily. Mass-produced meat is associated with poor welfare standards and substantial environmental impacts (both through the destruction of habitat but also pesticide use, pollution and over-use of water). So, one way to reduce our biodiversity impacts could be to buy local extensively farmed meat, less often, make sure every part is used, and savour it more. I find Pasture for Life particularly inspiring; it’s a group of farmers whose animals are grass-fed and whose farms are havens for biodiversity.
Finally, it can be overwhelming to think about the scale of the challenges we face in reversing biodiversity loss for the planet. But if we all work together, we can succeed in changing the structures and systems that have brought us to this point. This needs to be done both top-down and bottom-up. Thinking specifically about our own Environmental Sustainability Strategy, we have a really ambitious plan, but we won’t achieve it unless every member of the University, whatever our role, works together to make change towards a more biodiverse future.
This article was originally published here