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Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment


At the Parallel Forum meeting in March 2015, Dr Toby Gardner from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), one of the Forum's witnesses, joined us over Skype and we asked him a series of questions about his work in Brazil.  I also interviewed Professor Tim Wheeler, also a Forum witness, and asked his questions about his research and work at DFiD.

Interviewing Dr. Toby Gardner

Dr. Toby Gardner is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an environmental policy focused non-profit. Dr. Gardner’s research pertains to the affects of globalization on tropical regions. The Forum focused on two recent publications by Dr. Gardner to spur conversation: “The Amazon in transition: The challenge of transforming the world’s largest tropical forest biome into a sustainable social-ecological system,” and “Governing for sustainability in agricultural-forest frontiers: A case study of the Brazilian Amazon.” During the Forum, conversation centered on several key themes: scaling, interconnectedness between actors, and the need for urgent environmental policy action.

The Forum explored challenges in developing environmental policies at a local level, and how those policies scale to higher levels. Dr. Gardner’s research indicates that ‘limiting deforestation,’ ‘expanding protected areas,’ and ‘expanding responsibly managed agricultural land’ are several among many aims that must be accomplished for sustainable development to occur in the Brazilian Amazon (Gardner 2015). Forum participants noted local consequences can be persuasive for local action, but often, policy decisions are made at a higher level, making some policies difficult to implement. While the national scale is often the default decision-making level, decision-making on a local level is often innovative and agile. An example of local innovation occurred in the Paragominas region of the Amazon when a local farmers union decided to register their land and commit to zero deforestation (Gardner 2015). Dr. Gardner and the Forum also noted the importance of developing local approaches that are not “one-size-fits-all” and regional scale policies that could work to link local policies (Gardner 2013).

The Forum also explored complex interactions between stakeholders. The Forum noted that there is a dearth of research documenting and highlighting the positive interactions and environmental efforts of stakeholders. Social network analysis was mentioned as an emerging field used to research such interactions. The Forum also discussed the implications of the lack of connectedness many consumers have to the food and nutritional resources they consume. While the global market has made it simple to access certain items at any time of year, consumers typically have little awareness of the effects of agricultural production such as in the palm oil, or soy industries.

Finally, the Forum discussed the issue of urgency related to environmental policymaking. Forum participants noted that the timescales for academic research and policy are vastly different – while extensive research on a given topic may develop over years or even decades, political systems often demand solutions on a much shorter time scale. Dr. Gardner and the Forum discussed the importance of making research findings known to both the general public and policymakers, and continued funding for interdisciplinary research initiatives that focus on the connections between food, energy, and water, such as the ESRC funded NEXUS NETWORK.

Interviewing Tim Wheeler

Professor Tim Wheeler is the Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for International Development and was interviewed by the Forum. Forum participants reviewed Professor Wheeler’s recent publication “Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security” and developed several questions asked on behalf of the Forum.

What are some of the current limitations to climate change models and global vegetation models, and how could they be enhanced to better project regions suitable for agricultural development?

Professor Wheeler first discussed the importance of communicating where model uncertainties exist. For example, some uncertainties exist due to a lack of past and current data on the regions of interest. While some regions have a plethora of existing weather data, and well-studied seasonal characteristics, regions in Western Africa have experienced a decline in the amount of weather stations monitoring this data, and the Western African monsoon is poorly studied. Next, Professor Wheeler discussed the development of programmes that combine climate and crop models with economic and trade models. He explained that there are currently the largest uncertainties in the economic and trade models. Professor Wheeler’s research indicates, “climate variability and change will exacerbate food insecurity in areas currently vulnerable to hunger and undernutrition” (Wheeler and von Braun 2013).

What current agricultural subsidies do you think should continue, and which do you think should be phased out?

Professor Wheeler discussed the implications of subsidies for biofuel crops. Many of the biofuel policies have failed to achieve the objectives they aimed to achieve. Some of the biofuels produced fail to satisfy the lifecycle analysis approach. Professor Wheeler discussed the implications such policies have had on food security. According to Professor Wheeler and his co-author von Braun, future research on food security should explore “gathering evidence on the effects of climate change impacts on the food access… understanding the indirect impacts of climate change on food security… improving projections of regional climate change effects at country level… and better integrating of human dimensions of climate change impacts into food security planning” (Wheeler and von Braun 2013).