Q&A with Sophus zu Ermgassen

PhD candidate
Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE)
University of Kent

What are you currently doing in your career?

After three years of consultancy and doing research on ecosystem services and restoration in Scotland and Germany, I recently started my PhD at DICE focusing on evaluating the outcomes of No Net Loss / biodiversity offsetting policies across the world, with a phenomenal supervisory team led by Joe Bull (DICE). The biodiversity offsetting space is just so interesting – I’m an ecological economist by training, so I’ve always been attracted to studying complex socio-ecological systems, and especially those with global implications. So many factors shape No Net Loss outcomes – primarily, of course, there are ecological considerations like fundamental limitations to the efficacy of ecosystem restoration which have received a fair bit of attention. But alongside those, you also have a wealth of often under-addressed economic, political and philosophical influences, so there’s just a whole set of interesting problems that have no easy answers. With regards to the PhD, I’ve just completed a review of the outcomes of No Net Loss policies from around the world, and now the next couple of questions are going to be focusing on evaluating the causal impact of No Net Loss policies on metrics of biodiversity using a set of case studies from around the world.

If you could meet one scientist past or present who would it be and why?

I think it would be Alexander von Humboldt, but it was a close call between him and Daniel Kahnemann. von Humboldt just had an unbelievably interesting life. He’s most famous for founding the field of biogeography following the analysis of the data he collected from his 5 year journey through the Americas, but some of the other stuff he did on the side was ludicrous: he is widely considered one of the first people to communicate data using graphs and figures, he revolutionised climatology, revolutionised our understanding of the Earth’s magnetism, and was also such a well-regarded expert in the economics of Northern South America that the US President used him as a key economic advisor. Just imagine the dinner-time chat.

If you could tell them one thing about your work what would it be?

Whatever it is, I reckon he’d have thought of it already.

What would be your ultimate next career move?

Too early to say! I’m loving academia for now, but I haven’t yet decided which avenue I think is the one that enables me to have the most positive impact alongside a great quality of life. I’ve always been told I’d make a good Cookie Monster if Sesame Street gets a vacancy.

If you had one wish, what environmental issue would you solve and why?

My hunch is that the single action that would most rapidly deliver the most positive change would be internalising negative externalities into commodity prices through a carbon tax (coupled with tax cuts for low-income groups). It never fails to amaze me that, even after decades of knowing about the issue, prices still in no way reflect the environmental impact of commodities, and in fact sustainably sourced commodities tend to be considered as high-price ‘luxury’ goods. An example close to my heart – at least in the UK, flights are VAT exempt, but trains are not, and partly as a result the train journey from London-Edinburgh that I used to make frequently was about twice as expensive as if I had flown. On the brink of ecological collapse, how can our governments not correct these market failures and direct our economies in the direction they need to go if we are to solve these global challenges?