Bringing water to the heart of decision making

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Professor Andrew Tyler
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Professor Andrew Tyler FRSE, the University of Stirling and Scotland’s Hydro Nation Chair

We are living in a time of unprecedented climate change. We see the effects most clearly through the element of water; be it drought, fire or flooding. These extremes impact water quality, cause biodiversity decline and create carbon losses, with wider threats to food security, human health, society and the economy.

Yet, water also holds solutions. How we manage water can increase our resilience to extreme events, reverse biodiversity declines and increase our carbon storage, propelling us to net-zero more quickly. Equally, water offers opportunities to drive sustainable resource use and energy recovery within a new green economy.

Take our peatlands for example. Peaty soils cover around 20 per cent of Scotland, holding the equivalent of 140 years of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, an estimated 80 per cent of these peatlands are damaged; once this happens, peatland loses more carbon than it captures. Damaged peat gets into rivers and must be filtered out, contributing significantly to the cost of water treatment. However, restored peatland retains water which, as well as trapping carbon, improves water quality and mitigates against flooding and drought.

Restored peatland will play a vital role in mitigating against these extremes, whilst boosting the habitat for rare plants, insects and other wildlife.

Even in Scotland, drought frequency is anticipated to increase, separated by periods of increased rainfall resulting in flooding. Restored peatland will play a vital role in mitigating against these extremes, whilst boosting the habitat for rare plants, insects and other wildlife.

Peatland is just one example of how enhancing natural capital, alongside decarbonising our economy, can mitigate the effects of climate extremes and delivering wider environmental, social and economic benefits. By erasing traditional siloes and connecting industry with government, regulators, universities, and communities, we can deliver solutions that support a just transition to net-zero and position the environment as an enabler for the economy.

Critical to success is bringing the environment to the heart of decision making. This mission is central to Scotland’s International Environment Centre, at the University of Stirling, where we are building a living laboratory across the Firth of Forth catchment – the Forth Valley Environmental Resilience Array (Forth-ERA). With the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Deal and partnerships with BT, Scottish Water, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and others, Forth-ERA combines state-of-the-art sensors with satellite observation and real-time analytics to model the effects and quantify the benefits of different interventions. The resulting intelligence will help to de-risk pro-environmental decision-making for businesses, supporting the creation of greener infrastructures and enabling more efficient use of resources.

For a braver, greener world, we must collaborate. My mission as Scotland’s Hydro Nation chair is to bring the Scottish water sector together to drive us to net-zero and beyond. A unified Hydro Nation can enable a digital revolution in environmental monitoring to cut emissions, improve health and wellbeing and catalyse new business, research, and innovation. After all, the race to net zero is not only an environmental imperative, but a social and economic one too.

Professor Andrew Tyler FRSE is Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Stirling, and Scotland’s Hydro Nation Chair.

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman’s Inside Science column on Monday 11 October 2021.

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