Don’t get us wrong. The
RSPB is absolutely behind efforts to revive the UN process and achieve a global
climate treaty for 2012 and beyond.
But there’s a scam at the
heart of the negotiations, a scam that needs to be exposed if these talks are
to produce anything worthwhile.
What would you say if a
country had impressive forest resources – large swathes of temperate forest –
that it described as a big green lung, locking up carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
If that country had the
odd emissions from industry or transport or domestic use, you might partly
forgive them, if that big green lung were doing so much work.
But what if you zoomed in
on those great forests and found that they weren’t really a pristine, living, breathing lung? That year after
year, commercial loggers were felling hundreds of thousands of trees – not
necessarily clear-cutting, but thinning forests so that they were weakened,
impoverished, and their carbon stores much depleted. (And, incidentally, what
if that intensive management was damaging wildlife habitat and putting
vulnerable species at risk, too?)
Now would it seem fair
that such a country were burnishing its shining climate credentials?
Well, take this
disingenous myth about the climate benefits of temperate forests, multiply it
by five or six or ten, and you have a dark reality that threatens to undermine
global progress on tackling climate change.
Canada, Russia, Australia
and several heavily forested nations in the EU such as Austria and Sweden want
to claim credit for holding large land areas under forestry. They say that
forest land offsets some of their more obvious sources of emissions – ie,
burning fossil fuels. But the ‘close up’ view is rather more as I’ve described above,
a far cry from the stable carbon stores you might imagine, and which they’re
And the dangerous part is
that these countries are trying to write the rules of international
negotiations to obscure the real situation and give them far more credit on the
climate front than they deserve.
We could end up with a
situation where the international rules on forest carbon accounting are
sufficiently vague or flexible that countries could present their forests as
resources that sequester carbon (take carbon out of the atmosphere) when, over
time, the reality is very different. Those forests could on balance be emitting
significant amounts of carbon dioxide because of the intensive way they’re
The RSPB is one of just a
few organisations in Europe lifting the lid on the blatant dodging and
obfuscation that characterise the
talks around ‘LULUC-F’ (land use, land use change and forestry).
We fear that if talks
proceed as they have to date, with countries making up their own rules on how
they account for forest carbon, nations such as Russia and Canada could end up
with carbon balance sheets that are a sheer fantasy. And that will be
disastrous for the planet.
On 31 March, the UK’s
Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released a report on the future
shape of international climate negotiations. DECC stated in the report,
and in the public presentation of it, that ‘LULUCF rules would have to be
The RSPB wants to see far
more resolve on the UK’s part in holding fellow rich nations to account on this
critical issue. The UN negotiations need to deliver a meaningful deal or deals to
address climate change, the greatest threat to life on earth.
Waving through forest carbon rules that not only hide the true emissions from that sector but potentially give participating nations the motive to keep polluting heavily from other sectors would be completely unacceptable. We need honesty and integrity on this issue, now.
Today the High Court ruled that the Government must go back and reconsider its decision to allow a third runway at Heathrow Airport, in line with its climate change policies. That's good news for wildlife, we say, because climate change is the greatest long-term threat to life on this planet.
Martin Harper, the RSPB’s Head of Sustainable Development, said:
“Right from the start, we have argued that building a third runway at a time when we are battling to reduce our carbon emissions made no sense.
“Climate change threatens many species with extinction and we are already seeing its impacts with catastrophic declines in seabird numbers in parts of the North Sea
“Concerns about climate change are at the heart of Friday’s judgement. The clear message from the High Court is that Government must now take those concerns into account.”
The RSPB's legal experts are still going through the finer details of the ruling but on face value, it clearly has implications for proposals to expand Lydd airport in Kent, which we are vociferously opposing, and for other proposed airport expansions.
Today’s press carried the alarming news that an island has disappeared from the Bay of Bengal, falling prey to rising sea levels. New Moore Island in the Sunderbans finally slipped under, thanks to sea level rises of 5 mm per year in the Bay.
The most alarming prospect, of course, is what rising sea levels will mean for human populations of this and other low-lying coastal areas. A one metre sea rise would displace some 20 million people in Bangladesh alone.
Here in the UK, of course we have greater resources to call on that the people of developing countries to adapt to climate change (and given our historic responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, we must make bigger commitments to finance adaptation in the global South – but that’s a topic for another day).
Although we have more resources to adapt, that still doesn’t mean adaptation will be easy.
I just spent a stimulating day with RSPB staff from around the country and speakers from the Soil Association and Natural England debating how the UK can rise to meet the challenge of managing its coastline and countryside in a climate changing world. We concluded – unsurprisingly - that the most critical thing we must all do is talk to each other. Take the challenge of sea level rise and its effects on the crumbling defences of England’s east coast.
There will be difficult decisions to be made about which productive farmlands and which human settlements we can afford to save from sea level rise and which we can’t, and how – in this changing landscape – space can still be found for wildlife to survive and even (we hope) thrive.
Answers to these taxing questions don't come easily but the first thing we can do is ensure that good processes exist for consulting with people and building community ownership for coastal management plans that affect their area. The RSPB has good recent experience of doing this at a managed realignment site at its Titchwell Marsh nature reserve.
We want to be involved in conversations about coastal futures at many other places along the coast in the years to come.