While the UK government reports on the success of its natural environment policy, scientists have found that top-down environmental protection strategies can be counter-productive. It's a complex jungle of policies and plans out there, and we need to be wary of unintended ecological consequences, writes Melanie Thompson of Get Sust.

Chaos theory reminds us that actions in one place may have unforeseen consequences miles away or years ahead, and the world outside our buildings is nothing if not chaotic. In this section you will find many articles about the design and management of buildings – not surprising, given that in the UK we spend around 20 hours a day in buildings. But all our buildings are part of the wider ecosystem and interact with ecology both during construction and throughout their lifespans. So every now and then we need to don our metaphorical waterproofs, grab our binoculars and step outside to find out what's happening in the great outdoors.

In July 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra externallink) published a status update which reviewed progress on the 92 environmental commitments – yes, you did read that correctly – set out twelve months earlier under the auspices of a white paper titled The natural choice: securing the value of nature externallink.

The white paper was based on the research gathered for the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and on the independent review led by Sir John Lawton, titled Making space for nature externallink.

All creatures great and small

According to an article in the Defra staff magazine, Landscape, the white paper "has been mainstreamed across Government" – which roughly translates to mean that the burden of delivering the various commitments is spread around other departments and subsumed into policy areas as diverse as "growing a green economy" (under the purview of Business, Innovation and Skills), "guidance on school fieldtrips" (issued by the Health & Safety Executive) and Defra's own Love where you live campaign. In addition, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, confirmed that the UK has joined the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) externallink and will give £1.6 million over the next three years to ensure that decisions on protecting global biodiversity are based on the best available scientific knowledge.

However, in another part of the field Ms Spelman's colleague and her replacement as Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, told a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting in October that he is concerned about the "unintended consequences" of renewable energy subsidies and climate change initiatives. At the same event (reported by the online newsletter BusinessGreen externallink [Subscription required]) Paterson also clarified media reports that he is sceptical about the causes of climate change, arguing that he is a "realist" and saying that some of the steps being taken to counter climate change might actually cause more damage than the original problem itself.

Although there are several climate sceptics in the Conservative party (former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson being the best known), in this instance Owen Paterson is probably right to be "concerned" – albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons.

Paterson's rebuttal was, for the most part, referring to his role in a successful 2009 campaign in his North Shropshire constituency against a proposed wind farm. During the campaign he had written to the local authority giving the reasons why the wind farm should not be built, putting "wildlife" second on a 13-point list, just behind "environmental impact" (i.e. spoilt views and the possible knock-on effects for tourism).

As Sir John Lawton (not to be confused with the former Chancellor) reminded us in his review of the state of England's wildlife:

... our natural world is not a luxury: it is fundamental to our well-being, health and economy. The natural environment provides us with a range of benefits – ecosystem services including food, water, materials, flood defences and carbon sequestration – and biodiversity underpins most, if not all, of them.

The potential impact of wind turbines on birds and bats is frequently cited by opponents of the technology but, as with everything in the great outdoors, the truth is considerably more complicated.

For instance, a new study by a team of scientists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) investigated the bird populations at 18 on-shore wind farms both during construction and beyond into the operational phase, and concluded that although there are significant short-term effects on bird species during the construction phase, many species (though not all) return or become accustomed to the presence of turbines once they are up and running. These findings, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in April 2012 (vol. 49, pp. 386–394 externallink), suggest that impact assessments should consider the effects of the construction process on wildlife, and that mitigation measures during construction, such as restricting construction activity to non-breeding periods, may help to reduce these negative effects.

A further – and more dramatic – case in point was highlighted in the same journal around the time when Defra was discussing the progress of its 92 commitments ("The biodiversity audit approach challenges regional priorities and identifies a mismatch in conservation", Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 49, pp. 986–997 externallink).

Described by the journal's editor as "a game-changer of a paper", a report by Paul Dolman, Christopher Panter and Hannah Mossman of the University of East Anglia (UEA), warns that the top-down emphasis on protecting nationally "important" species is detrimental to local common-or-garden flora and fauna. Indeed, the problem is potentially so serious that, according to Des Thompson of SNH, it could result in a:

... plodding shift towards the homogenization of wildlife – with only those species featuring in 'national lists' ultimately faring well – or less badly...

The UEA team's wide-ranging study assessed millions of individual ecological records of local species that were routinely ignored by conventional biodiversity audits – the very audits that underpin much national and regional policy, including the UK Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs) externallink which were replaced in July 2012 by the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework externallink.

What are sustainable construction practitioners and enthusiasts to make of this? Should national targets be abandoned and BREEAM "ecology" points be sacrificed in favour of other, more clear-cut and controllable factors? Can we go back to the "every species for itself" attitude to development?

Of course not. But what the UEA team have identified sounds horribly like the wildlife equivalent of the monoculture that has taken over our high streets – where local shops and specialisms are being driven out or to the verge of extinction by national and international chains and brands. In environmental terms, we need to accept that we should protect the big-name "brands" but not at the expense of ordinary local plants and wildlife.

To revisit the advice of Making space for nature:

"We are not proposing a heavy, top-down set of solutions. It is a long-term vision, out to 2050, and defines a direction of travel, not an end-point. This vision will only be realised if, within the overall aims, we work at local scales, in partnership with local people, local authorities, the voluntary sector, farmers, other land-managers, statutory agencies, and other stakeholders."

What does this mean in practice?

Of course, there are certain legal safeguards that must be adhered to – statutory protection for certain species including bats, badgers and newts, restrictions on invasive plants, protected trees, sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and so on. Beyond that, it is generally a question of balance based on Lawton's "direction of travel". That means there is no clear-cut answer and each project needs to be assessed within its specific context and circumstances. Expert guidance in the form of a consultant ecologist may be necessary, but a general awareness and understanding of the issues and requirements is always useful too.

Although the Environment Agency externallinkand Defra externallink websites tend to be the first port-of-call for the latest guidance on specific issues, a useful general overview has been produced by the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) Compliance+ project externallink, which is an online summary of ecological issues pertaining to construction (although some of the examples and regulations may now have been superseded).

Other useful sources include:

At the more strategic level, the international initiative known as TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) has produced a suite of guidance documents to help public bodies support biodiversity in their design decisions, including a methodology for calculating the economic value of "ecosystem services".

Meanwhile, new approaches for protecting biodiversity and for ecological assessment, planning and implementation are emerging all the time – it is a huge area of interest among scientists. For example, a team at Staffordshire University have recently reported externallink on the development and testing of the Neighbourhood Green Space Tool (NGST) which enables project developers and local planners to gauge public interest in and concern for their local environment. The tool is an ecology-specific survey that gathers opinions on the ecology of the area and helps to pinpoint local issues of concern. This means that planners and developers, and their ecological consultants, can ensure that local needs are not buried under a raft of nationally driven targets on priority species.

Protecting the unprioritized species is every bit as important as protecting their "listed" fellows simply because we don't know where the next dramatic nature-inspired innovation may be found – whether it's medicines from the rain forest, toxic-waste-eating bacteria, or insect-inspired labyrinthine office cooling systems.

All things bright and beautiful

Who would have thought, for instance, that humble algae could become the next big thing in temperature control and energy generation?

At next year's International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Hamburg, engineering innovator Arup and its partners will showcase the world's first "bio-adaptive facade" externallink, which uses micro-algae to both shade a building and generate renewable energy.

Trapped within the façade's glass louvres, the green algae "smart material" grows faster in bright sunlight to provide more internal shading. The system also captures solar thermal heat. Once completed in March 2013, this demonstration project will allow scientists and engineers to assess the full potential of the bio-adaptive system.

So next time you're on a muddy, slimy site visit, don't curse the uncontrollability and chaos of the great outdoors – think about the great potential and opportunities of working in harmony with nature. Oh, and don't forget to decontaminate before you leave (i.e. clean your boots) – those unintended ecological consequences are lurking everywhere!