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New report warns against failure to recognize the complexity of environmental risks
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New report warns against failure to recognize the complexity of environmental risks

Governments and NGOs have failed to recognize the complexity of environmental risk to human health and well-being, warns a new report.

The report, led by environmental experts at the University of Reading, funded by the UKRI Natural Environment Research Council and involving collaborators from Universities of Surrey and York and Defra, suggests that a more comprehensive system of risk management should be introduced to deal with environmental risks – considered by the UN and World Economic Forum to be among the greatest threats to human life and livelihoods.

Complex risks, also known collectively as’systemic’ risk, include air pollution, food shortages, and animal-borne diseases. They are of environmental nature but are influenced and influenced by multiple legal, political, economic and technological factors.

These systemic risks are growing more serious in an increasingly interconnected world. This is especially true as the global environment becomes more degraded. They are often overlooked due to their complexity, and the vast expertise required to understand them.

Professor Tom Oliver, a University of Reading project leader, stated that “The air we breathe, our ability to withstand diseases, and the food we eat are fundamental human necessities, but we are failing in protecting these from multiple known as well as unforeseen threats.”

“Standard risk management techniques are not effective in showing where we have weaknesses in our resilience to complex risks.”

The project gathered experts from a wide range of academic disciplines and sectors – 50 experts in total from over 35 different organisations across sectors – in order to maximise ‘cognitive diversity’ to analyse complex risks. They used participatory systems mapping to identify the key sources of data that could track risks and make interventions to reduce them.

Three case studies were included in the project: biosecurity, food security, and air quality.

  1. Air quality: The study of air quality focused on aspects such as the unexpected emergence of chemical pollutants, climate change and altered work patterns because of the pandemic.

    Dr Sarah Moller from the University of York is a co-investigator. She says, “The method used was a novel approach that really captured our participants’ interest. It was interesting to see how different perspectives on the issue of air pollution influenced the perceptions of the identified risk pathways. We had people from many disciplines. These discussions led to some very insightful discussions about the pathways and possible interventions.

  2. Biosecurity: This case study examined the emergence of animal-borne diseases. It covered aspects such as bioterrorism, climate change, and how melting permafrosts could release anthrax.

    University of Reading co-investigators were Professor Ian Jones, and Dr Matt Greenwell. Professor Jones said that while a pandemic index is valuable in preventing emerging disease, it has proven difficult to produce with any certainty. Our studies show that we need to refocus our attention and look at a network of factors that contribute towards crisis.

  3. Food security: The case study on food security examined the root causes of inaccessible nutritious food. Not only did the issue of labour shortages feature, but deeper causes like climate change and land conversion were also addressed.

    Bob Doherty from the University of York was a co-investigator. He said that the participatory approach, which involved people working across all aspects of the food system, allowed us identify a series of interconnected threats from trade, food banks, soil health, and the impact on food security. COVID-19 for example has demonstrated the vulnerability to our increasing dependence on food banks, which are largely staffed with elderly volunteers. This allowed the team identify interventions to address systemic poverty and related dietary ill-health.

These risks interact with one another. The COVID-19 epidemic has demonstrated that long term air pollution can exacerbate the effects of an infectious disease. This has led to lower respiratory health and disrupted global food supply chains.

Professor Nigel Gilbert, a coinvestigator from the University of Surrey, and Director of the ESRC Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus(CECAN), said that “The pandemic showed how one threat can spread across many spheres of life and how policies need to mitigate them must consider their side effects as well as unintended consequences.”

Professor Oliver said that this project, which involved more than 50 experts from academia and business, was a positive outcome. It identified interventions that could reduce multiple types risk, killing several birds with one stone, as the saying goes.

The report shows how better ventilation can reduce indoor toxic chemicals and airborne pathogens such as COVID-19. Another example is the impact of unsustainable consumption. For example, a reduction in red meat consumption can reduce emissions to the air and ecosystem. This can improve food security and reduce the risk of new animal-borne diseases such as COVID-19.

Professor Oliver stated that “These types of intervention to reduce multiple risk are often overlooked due to the siloed nature our government and university department.” “It is essential to encourage more integrated thinking between academia and government.”

One example is The Defra Systems Research Programme. It involved investigators Oliver Doherty, Moller, and Doherty. It was a 2.5-year-long investment to understand how environmental policy interactions can lead to multiple outcomes. It was instrumental in setting targets in the Environment Bill and Defra’s agriculture strategy towards Net Zero. It has been expanded to the Systems Innovation and Futures Team within Defra. Similar approaches in other departments like BEIS are being developed for net zero planning.

Professor Oliver said, “This type system thinking in government would now be benefitted from being applied to reduce the vulnerability of our exposure and vulnerability to complicated environmental risks.”

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