Science champions honoured for advancing planetary health

The role of science in planetary sustainability was emphasised when the four winners – three of them working in developing contexts – were named in the International Champions of the Frontiers Planet competition.

The competition focuses on the planetary boundary, or PB, concept, introduced in 2009, that aims to define the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate.

The focus of the nine planetary boundaries includes stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss and extinctions, chemical pollution and release of novel entities, climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle and land system change. It also includes atmospheric aerosol loading and nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and the oceans.

A total of 233 universities across six continents participated with 13 national academies of science, and a jury of 100 sustainability experts also engaged in the competition which was officially launched in April 2022.

The four scientists, named in Montreux, Switzerland, earlier in May, together with 14 National Champions, are Professor Mark New of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, Professor Carlos Peres from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Professor Baojing Gu from Zhejiang University in China and Dr Paul Behrens from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

New and Peres were each awarded US$1.122 million. With the financial reward, New aims to further his research, which focuses on supporting sustainable ecosystems and livelihoods through nature-based solutions such as the restoration of wetlands, riverbanks and catchment headwaters.

Nature-based solutions, which are at the core of New and his team’s research, therefore include the sustainable management and use of natural features and processes to tackle socio-environmental challenges such as climate change and strive to provide strategies for both mitigation and adaptation.

Restoring wetlands and adapting to restorative agricultural practices not only reduce the impacts of climate change by capturing carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions from the air and sequestering them in plants, soils and sediments, but, by extension, provide benefits such as flood protection, biodiversity protection, green space and human well-being. There are also benefits towards air, soil and water quality.

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), as the representative body for the Frontiers Planet Prize, nominated New for a paper he co-authored, ‘Nature-based solutions in mountain catchments reduce impact of anthropogenic climate change on drought streamflow’.

The study conducted by New and his group aims to attribute the impacts of climate on society and, more importantly, how different adaptation responses can offset societal impact.

The research notes that, while nature-based solutions are the key to addressing sustainability issues in these areas, there is very little quantitative evidence of their effect in controlling biophysical impacts and also insufficient relevant research that considers the importance of such options in the Global South.

The study provides crucial information for decision-makers and investors about climate adaptation, which includes information on losses and damages from climate change. It also raises public awareness of climate risk and its impact on human security, thereby making natural and human systems more resilient to the climate risks that cannot be avoided through mitigation.

Relevant research from Africa

New applauded the Frontiers Planet Prize for acknowledging scientists from developing countries.

He told University World News: “Three of the four winners were from developing countries. Our work was recognised for its local and regional-scale focus, and the potential for landscape management and restoration, if applied at scale, to help solve the stresses on planetary boundaries that the prize is focused on.”

New, who is the AXA Research Chair in African Climate Risk, is based at the African Climate and Development Initiative at UCT.

He said the substantial donation that comes with the prize will help to provide greater job security for some of the research team, who are usually dependent on research grant income for their salaries, and also allows the researchers to undertake more risky research that would be hard to fund through traditional routes.

New was appointed pro vice-chancellor for climate change and the director of the African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) in July 2011. He sits on the SA Global Change Science Committee, the Africa Future Earth Science Committee, is on the editorial board of Environmental Research Letters, and has served on various other science committees and reference groups.

Dr Melusi Thwala, the manager of science advisory and strategic partnerships at the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) also welcomed the win by New and his team.

“In the instance of the Frontiers Planet Prize, the win by Professor Mark New and team affirms the global relevance and excellence of scientific research from the African continent. It is noteworthy that the work was a collaboration between South African and Kenyan scientists.

“As a national academy of science, we hope that the win of a paper originating in the continent will catalyse research collaboration within the continent and encourage African multilateral government organisations (such as the African Union) and national governments to increase investment in research and development,” he said.

Impactful researchers and their teams honoured

Professor Peres from the University of East Anglia seeks to find new pathways to reconcile socio-economic well-being and nature sustainability within the context of tropical developing countries where sustaining local livelihoods often conflicts with biodiversity conservation.

The study notes that decelerating biodiversity loss and increasing protected areas coverage has been identified by the global society as crucial to reducing rural poverty, addressing social inequalities and achieving sustainable development.

Peres, who leads the Amazon Ecology and Conservation Research Group, conducted his research with a non-profit conservation organisation called Instituto Juruá.

The study highlighted some of the best ways to protect tropical floodplain and forest ecosystems in poorly governed tropical regions, while rewarding the local stakeholders and improving different aspects of their lives which include education, healthcare and access to markets, sustainable income and information technology.

The research article is called, ‘Sustainable-use protected areas catalyse enhanced livelihoods in rural Amazonia’.

From China, Professor Gu from Zhejiang University and, from the Netherlands, Dr Behrens of the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Leiden University, were each awarded about US$561,000 to support their work.

In his study, Gu, who represents the International Nitrogen Management research group, emphasised the importance of reducing fine particulate matter such as ammonia emissions which have detrimental effects on human health and air quality.

Air pollution not only hampers sustainable development, but has been identified as a global environmental health risk and a major cause of human mortality.

Of importance, is that the research explored how to mitigate global PM (particle matter) 2.5 pollution (which refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two-and-one-half microns or less in width) by lessening nitrogen emissions through integrative analysis of nitrogen budget, atmospheric chemistry, human health, cost-benefit and policy implications.

The study, therefore, underpins the need to increase the efficiency of global PM2.5 pollution control to the safe planetary boundary and highlights the importance of ammonia abatement for the synergy of food security and environmental protection.

The study is called, ‘Abating ammonia is more cost-effective than nitrogen oxides for mitigating particular matter 2.5 air pollution’.

On the other hand, Behrens focused his research on the importance of sustainable dietary shifts, (from animal-based to plant-based foods), as a way to mitigate against climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by restoring freed-up land to its natural vegetation.

The study also goes to show how these changes could reduce environmental impacts, promote sustainability within the food chain and also lead to improvements in biodiversity, water quality, air quality and more.

The research article is titled, ‘Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend’.

Mobilising science for the future

Endorsed by the International Science Council and chaired by Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the competition seeks to recognise and reward scientists for the most impactful research breakthroughs, whose contributions also keep the world within the boundaries of the planet’s ecosystem.

The competition also strives to increase the participation of scientists, research institutions and national academies, while mobilising the scientific community to provide research that falls within the framework of the nine planetary boundaries.

The Frontiers Forum live event was engineered by the Frontiers Research Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Lausanne, Switzerland, whose mission is to “mobilise science for a green renaissance”.

Director of the Frontiers Planet Prize Jean-Claude Burgelman, who is also a professor of Open Science Policy at the Free University of Brussels, emphasised the importance of science in tackling urgent planetary problems the world faces.

He added that the Frontiers Planet Prize was crucial as it was awarded by top scientists in the field and was open to researchers, regardless of their positions, across all regions and institutions.

“Science, alone, will not solve the challenges of planetary health but, without science, it won’t happen either. Therefore, the prize hopes to mobilise and inspire scientists, and funders of science, to scale up their efforts so that we speed up the ‘(gre)engineering’ of our societies,” he said.