Human-made global warming is a well-established fact based on inescapable scientific evidence accumulated over many years. Denying it is equivalent to denying evolution. Thus, scientists in their immense majority agree with climate scientists that we are in the midst of a climate crisis that imperils the future of humanity on earth.
Yet, scientists, and academics in general, continue to jet off to conferences, review panels, and invited talks all over the world. For nearly 30 years in my work as an academic and a scientist, I have done the same, clocking in many thousands of air miles in the process, and, as a result, emitting many tonnes of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
My travelling, although excessive, was useful as a way to disseminate my results and find inspiration for new experiments, and also to promote the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, which I directed for 16 years before stepping down last October. However, travelling has a significant environmental cost. It is clear that we must reduce and minimise professional traveling. Yet, conferences will remain a feature of every scientist’s life: whilst scientists could and should cut down on their travel, some travel is unavoidable to maintain the flow of scientific discoveries.
Although governmental action is going to be crucial in solving the problem of climate change, I also believe that individual responsibility has a major part to play in tackling the issue: less air travel, less meat eating, using reusable water bottles and coffee cups are among many positive measures that can be adopted to lower our impact. So, if traveling to conferences is there to stay for the reasons outlined above, I wondered what would be the best and most gratifying way to offset for the carbon inevitably released.
Although there are many ways to offset carbon emissions, I was especially drawn to native afforestation as an approach: carbon needs to be withdrawn from the atmosphere and I like the idea of coupling carbon-fixing with reconnecting with a wonder of nature that is a native woodland.
I decided to set up the charity “All Things Small and Green” and created a website (allthingssmallandgreen.org.uk) where you can compute your carbon emissions in tonnes, convert the tonnage into native trees using a simple formula and have these trees added to groves that we have set up with Trees For Life, an environmental charity that aims to restore the famed Caledonian forest, a biodiverse and native habitat that used to cover vast expenses of land in the Scottish Highlands. Any tree added to a grove will be planted by Trees for Life on their Dundreggan estate, and other estates they manage, together with all other groves, to eventually grow into a very large forest.
The concept of “groves” is particularly attractive. We created a grove for scientists (“the Scientists’ Grove”) but we also created groves for other groupings or communities (a “Friends’” grove for the friends of our charity and an “Academics” one for colleagues who are not scientists). Once a grove is set up, anyone can simply add trees to it. Companies, universities, any institutions can ask us or Trees for Life directly, to create a grove for them, to which their members will be able to add trees. The “grove” idea provides a sense of ownership to anyone contributing and I hope will stimulate a healthy sense of tree-planting competition!
We have recently broadened the concept of dedicated groves by creating our first “conference grove”. Conference organisers can set up their own conference grove to help make their event carbon neutral. For example, we have created a grove for the Bacterial Protein Export (BPE) 2020 conference that will take place in Leuven at the end of September. The organisers have pledged one tree per PhD student attending. Through the “BPE 2020 Grove”, participants to this conference can offset their carbon emissions caused by travelling to the conference. We hope to create many more conference groves for those attracted by this concept of adding native trees to woodlands to reach carbon neutrality. We are optimistic that scientists and academics will soon be able to claim the costs of carbon offsetting on their grants. We have recently launched a campaign to encourage research funding organisations to agree to such costs and we are very encouraged by the recent announcement by Wellcome, a major researcher funder in the UK.
It was important to me, as a biologist, to ensure that the trees we worked with were native. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded eco-systems. In contrast, monoculture conifer plantations (wrongly favoured by some governments) destroy biodiversity and damage natural eco-systems through soil acidification, depletion and compaction, among other deleterious effects. Doing the tree-planting in the UK is also important to us: the UK has ample scope for reforestation, its forest cover being far below the European average. Reforestation efforts by UK-based partner organisations can also be easily verified: their tree-planting sites are easily accessible and myself and my family volunteer to plant trees with our partner organisations on a regular basis. Tree-planting in the UK also has none of the social costs and verifiability problems associated with afforestation in developing countries. We would like to expand this model to similar partners in other European countries so that our colleagues outside the UK can contribute to reforestation programmes that they can easily verify. For example, we will be soon launch a grove for French scientists in partnership with ForestAction, a French tree-planting organisation.
Personally, an incidental outcome of this initiative has been my increased involvement in tree-planting, from which I, my family and my friends have derived great joy. This is also one of the most selfless human activities I have experienced: a native woodland takes decades to come to maturity and the results of my tree-planting will thus be enjoyed by people much younger than me.
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