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Alasdair Neilson

PhD Candidate

Alasdair’s main interest lies in political ecology and political economy. His current research focuses on the political ecology of international and national afforestation targets, analysing the origin of these targets and how they ‘hit the ground’ in East Africa



  • Policy Consultant, freelance (June 2021 – present). Work has included working with Cambridge Zero, Deloitte and BEIS to help prepare country-specific reports for COP26. I worked on the country profiles of Kenya and India to help identify climate change risks as well as opportunities for mitigation and adaption to enable a transition to a net zero pathway.
  • Policy Placement, Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge (April – September 2020)
  • Project Officer, Fidra (October 2017 – July 2018)
  • Researcher (Energy, Society and Sustainable Development), University of Edinburgh (February 2017 – October 2017)
  • Development Officer (Energy and Society), University of Edinburgh (February 2017 – October 2017)
  • Lead Researcher and Grant Writer, the Turing Trust (September 2016 – August 2017)
  • Policy Intern, Environment America, (January 2013 – August 2013)


  • MSc Global Environment, Politics and Society, University of Edinburgh (Distinction)
  • MA Sociology (First Class Honours)

Awards and scholarships

  • Pembroke College, Cambridge, Graduate Research Grant (2019)
  • Department of Geography, Cambridge, Overseas Fieldwork Grant (2019)
  • ESRC DTP Overseas Fieldwork Grant (2019)
  • ESRC DTP Difficult Language Training Grant (2019)
  • ESRC DTP Studentship (2018)
  • Pembroke College, Cambridge, Hogwood Scholarship (2018)
  • Prize for MSc Excellence in Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Principle Fund, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Global Environment & Society Academy Award, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Global Development Academy Award, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Graduate Grant, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Domestic Dissertation Grant, University of Edinburgh (2016)
  • Award for Most Outstanding Sociology Student, University of Aberdeen (2016)


From the Bonn Challenge to Great Green Wall and AFR100, the last decade has witnessed the creation of multiple international tree planting pledges. Indeed, trees are increasingly seen as a ‘silver bullet’ for a wide array of environmental and social issues. Sub-Saharan Africa has been a particular focus for these initiatives, where efforts have primarily focused on restoring ‘degraded landscapes’ and tree planting in agroforestry systems. However, a lack of specificity and reliable data as well as the conflation of terms such as ‘tree cover’ and ‘forest cover’ means that these targets often take on a life of their own, being interpreted and enacted at both a national and local level in different complex ways. Research has also shown that a large proportion of these pledges are made up of fast-growing tree species, which are often preferred to slower growing indigenous species. Indeed, trees like Eucalyptus and Cypress have become entangled in increasingly complex webs of value, their fast-growing nature becoming central to meeting often competing environmental aims (afforestation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, etc.) and national and local economic needs (wood fuel, timber, etc.). This can cause friction between actors at different scales, creating new sites of contestation and new hybrid landscapes.

My research focuses on unpacking how these targets are created and how they are delivered on the ground in the political and ecological context of Kenya.


Peer reviewed

  • Neilson, A. (2019). ‘Disenchanted Natures: A Critical Analysis of the Contested Plan to Reintroduce the Eurasian Lynx into the Lake District National Park’. CNS, 1 – 19
  • Neilson, A. (2018). ‘Considering the importance of metaphors for marine conservation’. Marine Policy, 97 (Special Issue), 239-243.
  • Neilson, A. (2017). ‘The Socio-political Importance of Blackouts in South Africa’. SocialSpace, 12 (3) 45 – 67.

Policy reports

  • Aines, E., Clulow, Z., Neilson, A., Shuckburgh, E., & Evans, S. (2021). COP26 Futures We Want – UK Country Profile. Cambridge Open Engage. doi:10.33774/coe-2021-hq3c7
  • Shuckburgh, E., Zenghelis, D., Agarwala, M., Diaz Anadon, L., Howard-Grenville, J., Peñasco, C., . . . Neilson, A., Hayes, J. (2020). ‘A Blueprint for a Green Future – Multidisciplinary report on a green recovery from COVID-19 by the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum’. Cambridge Open Engage. doi:10.33774/coe-2020-2831


Editorial positions

  • University of Aberdeen, (2015). The Elphinstone Review. Volume 1
  • University of Glasgow’s Dialectic Society, (2014). Groundings Ancients. Volume 2


  • Tutor, Sustainable Development 1a: Introducing Sustainable Development. University of Edinburgh (2016 -2017)
  • Tutor, Sustainable Development 2a: Perspectives on Sustainable Development, University of Edinburgh (2016 – 2017)
  • Guest Lecturer, Research Methodologies and Dissertation Management, University of Edinburgh (2016 – 2017)

External activities

  • Research Affiliate, British Institute in Eastern Africa (2019 – present)
  • Lead for ESRC DTP Sustainability, Prosperity and Well-being Thematic Cluster (2019 – present)