• Letter from the Editor-in-Chief

    Letter from the Editor-in-Chief

    Posted by Prof Dan Osborn, Editor-in-Chief, UCL Open: Environment on 2024-02-06

Since launching in 2019, UCL Open Environment has come a long way. Having established ourselves in the academic literature (e.g. receiving indexing in the DOAJ, CABI, PMC, and many others), we now look to the future and reminded ourselves of our firm commitment to open science, open peer review, and to reducing the barriers to equitable publishing. It is our aim that this unique combination of characteristics will help both researchers and those that use research, access accountable and trusted, transparently peer-reviewed science relevant to the world’s major problems (see how the journal works, here https://journals.uclpress.co.uk/ucloe/site/how-it-works). Now in our 5th year it is appropriate to reflect on where we are, where we came from, and where we now head towards.


Our core values

All of us at UCL Open: Environment remain committed to publishing new multi-disciplinary knowledge relevant to making the world a better place and to tackling the planetary problems brought about by human activity. UCL Open Environment was first and foremost established to engage with the research community based on knowledge and evidence, transparently, and we strive to be a source of respected information and a forum for open and fair discourse.

Being a broad scope multi-disciplinary journal, our aim is to not solely publish academic research papers, but also proactively engage in the dialogue about what we as a species do next based on the latest research and evidence, by, for example, publishing material relevant to people’s lives as they live them in their communities and by inviting input from decision-makers and policy analysts (for example, see our Covid-19 and Mental Health series here). We also remain open to and welcome contributions that evaluate the progress measured against original aims and objectives of research plans or research programmes, as we believe we need some way of accounting for and moving multi-disciplinary efforts forward (for example, see https://doi.org/10.14324/111.444/ucloe.000002).


Looking back

When we launched UCL Open: Environment and opened for submissions in early 2019, I wrote three short statements that there was ample evidence for:

1.       “Very shortly humanity needs to begin solving the planetary problems caused by humanity’s activities and moving towards making the world a better place for all its citizens. 10 billion people can’t be provided with the energy, water and food they need without such an effort.”

2.       “…by 2020 or soon thereafter, emissions of greenhouse gases must peak if the impacts of climate change are to be kept in reasonable check. Failure to successfully tackle problems like climate change or to deal with inequalities that mean that there is plenty, or even over-supply, in one place and scarcity in another could lead to social, economic and environmental problems that will put sustainable development out of reach.”

3.       “In all likelihood it will need to invent new financial and economic approaches to help those communities and nations that find themselves cast in the role of climate victims (e.g. those living in vulnerable communities in coastal areas).”

Since writing this the world has seen several international meetings and new agreements on both climate change and biodiversity, however, we have not yet had a specific new agreement on water (which we need to address soon as even the world’s largest economies face multiple issues with water that won’t be solved by technological means alone). Although, overall, these international agreements represent progress, they are just agreements and are limited in terms of the practical actions that are needed to make a difference to people’ lives. In reality, there is still a great deal to do technologically, societally, and economically as in the real world things are always too finely balanced for much comfort.


Where next?

Since the COP28 meeting in Dubai, much of the discussion has centred on peak emissions by 2025, which can be seen, perhaps, as an omission of failure after previous COP meeting discussions to commit to peak emissions of greenhouse gases in 2020. Currently, there is not much sign that that will happen despite the substantial growth in renewable energy installations. Too much of the growing demand for energy is still coming from fossil fuels and there are too few examples of inspirational actions led not just by governments but by leading politicians setting examples in their own lives of the sustainable decisions they have made as individuals. Surely the time for pushing action back into the future is past: every time deadlines slip future problems will get worse and more expensive to fix.

These problems are very neatly summed up by the fact that 2023 was the hottest year on record and that a vague commitment to move away from fossil fuels is backed by a hope – nothing more tangible than that – that technologies that are still in their infancy, such as carbon capture and storage, will be deployed in time to allow fossil fuel use to continue with “abated” emissions.

Tackling issues like climate change is a fundamentally multidisciplinary exercise. To succeed it will need long-term observation and understanding of planetary processes, modelling and projections into the future, risk assessment and engineering solutions (including biological engineering) and of course long-term monitoring that will tell us whether we are on track or not. The public acceptability of new technologies and new approaches will need to be built in right from the start because there is no time to deal with the delay that the normal cycles involved in innovative technologies lead.

As I wrote in 2019 and which I must still write today, especially given how easily people can be fed misinformation,  if we must resort to geoengineering the planet or engineering plants to enhance the rate of photosynthesis, we will be forced to ask what the right level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere really is. That would pose legal and ethical and moral questions that there would not be easy agreement on.

It is now even more clear that no one discipline is going to tackle this kind of problem and neither is any one discipline going to make the world a better place – and making the world a better place is an aim that it is too easy to lose sight of when all around there are problems that are so pressing. It is an aim that the academic community must not forget or, by default, leave solely in the hands of the global economy or global and national politics.


Our future

The knowledge and evidential material produced by the endeavour of academic institutions worldwide has a vital role to play in this process of ensuring humanity has a healthy planet to live on. Academic endeavour alone will not find the solutions that are needed but it can provide the knowledge and evidence that people need in order to make decisions and choices that will affect everybody. These decisions and choices cannot be based solely on what people believe to be the case; neither can they be based on false. Neither are they likely to be achieved in the current global political and economic climate if academia stands back from the dialogue. Of course, once people have the trusted knowledge they need to know how they can best act, they then need to feel empowered to do so and understand what benefits will result.

As Ruskin, the Victorian, and many others have indicated, all our wealth and health is derived from nature, from the one planet humanity can call home. The health of that planet is thus critical for all of us and we cannot afford to live on a “sick” planet. So, here, now at the beginning of the journal’s second five years we will make a focus of the journal ‘planetary health’: what it is, how we should measure it, what are the best diagnostic indicators and monitoring systems we need to spot and fix problems with before they become costly, and so forth. We openly invite the research community to please join in this effort, in short, to help to make the world a better place, by:

  1. Openly publishing the knowledge and evidence needed to tackle the planetary problems caused by human activity;
  2. Encouraging the use of trusted evidence in making decisions at every level;
  3. Facilitating open, fair, and constructive dialogue that engages with people in their communities, in what kind of world they would like to see.

Finally, I must thank all our author’s and reviewers, who without the journal would not exist, and the many members of our Editorial and Advisory Board whose work and advice has been much appreciated. Launching a new and open way of publishing in the middle of a global pandemic was challenging but was managed thanks to the joint efforts of all involved.

Professor Dan Osborn
Editor-in-Chief, UCL Open: Environment
Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences, UCL, UK



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