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DEFRA Environment White Paper

Submission to DEFRA Consultation: An Invitation to Shape the Nature of England (Environment White Paper Discussion Document)

Submitted 29 October 2010

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-specialist audiences.
  2. We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to this consultation. We identify below some broad themes which we believe could usefully be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper, but have not explored these in great detail. The Society would be pleased to discuss any of these further, provide relevant information, and suggest suitable specialist contacts, should this be of interest.
  3. The discussion document rightly seeks to take a holistic view of the environment and of natural systems, thinking not only about their components, but also about how these interrelate and interact. It also highlights the competing demands we make on the environment, from obtaining resources and using ecosystem services, to deriving cultural and social benefits.
  4. With all this in mind, we believe that the White Paper would be greatly enhanced by paying more attention to geological components of the natural system. The environment does not stop at the surface of the Earth. Both the landforms constituting that surface and subsurface rocks, structures and processes are fundamental and dynamic elements of the natural system, which interact with the biosphere, the atmosphere, and our rivers and seas. Moreover, geological systems are essential in themselves for delivery of many of the benefits outlined in the discussion document. Just as our other natural assets need to be protected and enhanced, and their competing uses planned, so do those associated with the geosphere.
  5. To a first approximation, those natural resources which we cannot grow, we must extract from the ground. Understanding and exploiting the geology of Britain has been a vital driver of our nation’s economic development and prosperity, from the central role of coal, ironstone and limestone in the industrial revolution to the late 20th century era of North Sea oil and gas. We continue to depend on these hydrocarbon fields for a considerable part of our energy – and there is now an opportunity through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for these natural assets to deliver further value, both economic and environmental, in the coming decades.
  6. The construction industry depends on the supply of large quantities of aggregate, sourced both on and offshore, and availability of a huge range of minerals underpins both our economy and our everyday lives. (Considerable quantities of rocks and minerals are also sourced overseas. The environmental impacts of obtaining resources in this way include not only the direct effects of quarrying and mining in other countries, but also those due to the ‘rock miles’, analogous to ‘food miles’, incurred in transporting them to the UK.)
  7. Understanding surface and subsurface geology is also fundamental to securing our water supply, whether from groundwater or surface sources – a challenge which will become more difficult in future as our climate and population patterns change.
  8. As we move from exploitation of natural resources to sustainable management of the entire resource cycle, we are increasingly coming to rely on the Earth not only to deliver these resources, but also to manage the wastes which their use generates by putting them safely back into the geosphere – from delivery of CCS (carbon dioxide being a waste product) and radioactive waste disposal, through to reducing and managing the environmental impacts of landfill disposal of more conventional wastes.
  9. The geosphere also provides vital ecosystem services, including coastal and river flood buffering, and pollution buffering, through interaction with other elements of the natural system. The underlying geology also fundamentally shapes soil formation, our changing landscapes, and biodiversity distribution – all recognised in the consultation document as essential components of the environment.
  10. In considering future environmental challenges, those associated with the geosphere should not be neglected. Soil erosion is highlighted, but the effects of climate change will lead to increases in a number of natural hazards in the UK, notably shrinking or swelling clays (a major issue for the insurance industry), coastal erosion and coastal flooding, increased incidence of landslides due to wetter conditions, and ground subsidence from both karstic areas and old workings. Rehabilitation of ‘brownfield sites’ is also an important consideration in planning for protection and improvement of the environment, and the development of a more sustainable economy.
  11. Geodiversity is itself a valuable natural asset, complementary to biodiversity. It is essential to our understanding of ecosystems and the natural landscape, and constitutes a rich cultural resource for tourism, recreation and our enjoyment of the countryside. Sites such as the Jurassic Dorset Coast, a World Heritage Site, are globally important – they are not just the historical source of the archetypes which underpin our understanding of Earth processes and history, but continue to be essential to cutting edge research and to the training of the next generation of Earth scientists, so that in future we can find the resources we need while managing the environment sustainably. 1200 SSSIs in England are designated wholly, or in part, for their nationally important geodiversity. (Issues around geodiversity and geoconservation are addressed in greater detail in a separate submission to the consultation which has been made by the Geoconservation Commission, a body which operates under the aegis of the Geological Society, but which operates largely independently from it.)
  12. The Joint Nature Conservation Commission (JNCC), incorporating Natural England and its other national counterparts, does invaluable work in documenting geodiversity and promoting geoconservation. The Geological Conservation Review, which is nearing completion, is internationally respected as a model of geoconservation practice, and has resulted in Great Britain having the most comprehensive series of conserved geological sites in the world. It is vital that the published outputs of this major undertaking remain available, and are updated where necessary. Moreover, its completion presents an opportunity to move forward and develop more local conservation plans for the most important sites, to ensure that they are accessible to researchers, students and the general public now, and that they are safeguarded for the future.
  13. These centrally planned and led activities do not operate in isolation. There is a flourishing network of local voluntary geoconservation organisations, particularly those which look after the vast majority of the 3000 non-statutory Local Geological Sites (often known as RIGS) which complement the SSSIs. These groups look to national bodies such as Natural England for leadership and co-ordination, technical support and the sharing of best practice. Many work closely with Wildlife Trusts, local biodiversity groups and landowners, including the National Trust, to enhance the natural environment in their area.
  14. The Geological Society would be pleased to help facilitate further discussion with the Earth science community regarding any of these issues.