Ecosystem engineering holds key to reversing climate catastrophe

Remodelling engineering degrees to include rewilding and ecological restoration would benefit students, society and the planet, says Paul Jepson

August 28, 2023
Source: istock

A seismic shift in international environmental policy is under way. The defensive focus on biodiversity protection is giving way to a proactive agenda of ecosystem recovery. This change demands a new type of engineer – one who specialises in restoring and managing ecosystems as infrastructure that benefits human societies and the natural world.

The impetus for this shift comes from advances in climate modelling and earth system science that are revealing the intertwined nature of the climate and biodiversity crises. Headline-grabbing extreme climate events and chronic declines in environmental and life quality for many are the result.

Ecosystem restoration has risen to the top of the political agenda. This is the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and in 2021 G7 leaders pledged “to create a world that is both carbon neutral and nature positive”. A year later, the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – the “Paris Agreement for Nature” – headlined the goal of protecting, maintaining and restoring ecosystem integrity and resilience.

These commitments have catalysed interest in nature-based solutions, a form of engineering that involves designing and steering systems to achieve desired outcomes. These could range from the “capture” of atmospheric carbon to reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, reversing rural depopulation and improving the resilience of both urban and rural landscapes.

However, to advance nature-based solutions and turn political commitments into action, we need professionals with a specific skill set. We need ecosystem engineers – individuals with a holistic understanding of topics including ecosystem science, restoration techniques, assessment and monitoring technologies, decision theory, emerging nature markets and project management.

Presently, universities offer programmes in environmental science, ecology, conservation biology and geography, with a focus on understanding and mitigating the drivers of nature loss. These programmes, although valuable, lead to careers that are often low-paid and predominantly centred around the protection of nature or fulfilling standardised functions such as impact assessments, habitat management planning and licensing applications.

The Global Biodiversity Framework set a target to mobilise $200 billion (£158 billion) a year by 2030 to implement nature-based solutions and biodiversity protection. To facilitate the large-scale ecosystem recovery this calls for, we need to look beyond traditional conservation careers and equip students with the ability to plan, implement and manage ecosystem engineering projects. Civil engineering companies such as AECOM, Jacobs and Stantec are already pioneering in this domain. However, they and a raft of start-ups need a workforce that is trained specifically in ecosystem engineering.

Universities could respond to this opportunity by offering high-quality degree programmes in ecosystem engineering. An ecosystem engineering course will need to marry the holistic approaches of ecosystem science and systems engineering, integrating the practical elements of civil engineering. Further, this new discipline will need to embrace the reality that ecosystem properties and functions are dynamic and emergent, which holds design implications for civic ecosystem infrastructure.

In the UK, Imperial College London and the University of Reading are taking steps in the right direction by developing a proposal for a doctoral training programme in ecosystem engineering for the living planet. This initiative will help to develop the research “edge” for the new discipline.

The burgeoning field of “rewilding” provides ample inspiration, case studies and design principles to inform the curriculum for ecosystem engineering. For example, the Gelderse Poort and Kempen-Broek “living river” projects in the Netherlands demonstrate the technical, governance and financial innovations needed to create ecosystem infrastructure capable of preventing catastrophic floods, such as those that occurred in Germany in July 2021.

Around the world, civil society and community groups are launching small-scale ecological restoration projects. One example is Restore Forth, which aims to restore seagrass meadows and oyster beds in an area the size of Edinburgh. Restoring this marine ecosystem would create infrastructure for carbon sequestration, sediment management, ecotourism and a sustainable seafood supply.

Armed with comprehensive university degree programmes and backed by engineering companies with close ties to governments and financial institutions, ecosystem engineers have the potential to elevate these projects to audacious public infrastructure initiatives. They could help societies navigate climate change, unlock new enterprise opportunities and restore our hope for a sustainable future. Now is the time to foster the rise of ecosystem engineering as a discipline – our societies and our planet cannot afford to wait.

Paul Jepson is head of innovation and science at Credit Nature, an Oxford-based fintech company focused on encouraging investment in ecosystem recovery.

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