Guest post by Matt Williams, Climate Change Policy Officer
While I haven’t been to the Lib Dem Party Conference this week (or indeed to any party conference ever before, but here’s hoping) I did note one outcome from the Lib Dem Conference with interest.
1. Staying grounded
As the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, Martin Harper, recounted in one of his recent posts, the Lib Dems deserve a bit of a pat on the back for a vote at Conference to rule out a Thames Estuary airport or new runways at other UK airports including Heathrow, Stanstead and Gatwick.
The motion that was passed (see here) - tabled by Julian Huppert MP, Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Party Committee on Transport - puts climate change limits at the heart of the UK’s approach to aviation. While Huppert’s reported opening quip was right - that ‘even the RSPB are, in principle, not against flying’ - we do believe that our climate change commitments should come first and that demand for flights should be limited accordingly.
I’ve met Mr Huppert and he’s extremely switched on to climate change, a credit to his party. His motion called for a sector-specific emissions cap and for ensuring we meet our climate change commitments by restricting aviation demand. His motion is great on the environmental specifics: calling for demand to be limited exactly in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations. These are much-needed, welcome suggestions.
2. To hub, or not to hub?
But there’s also one area where this motion falls short. It states that an independent study should look for a suitable location for a new hub airport. The most important question, which the Lib Dems have failed to ask, is: do we actually need new hub capacity?
Simply presuming that we need new hub capacity in point 8 of their recommendations undermines point 6 of their recommendations on using existing capacity better.
There are a number of reasons why calls for new hub capacity look shaky:
- Projections of long-term passenger numbers are always speculative and often prone to what’s termed an “optimism bias”. There is, however, a chance greater than zero that demand projections could be wrong and that by building a new hub airport we could end up with an underused white elephant.
- Those who argue that Britain is losing out to European competitors for business flights are ignoring the facts: Heathrow has more weekly flights to the key business destinations than Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle combined.
- Some believe we have plenty of spare capacity in the system which could last until 2030, perhaps even 2050 – with some innovative policies, for example by shifting leisure flights shifted to the regional airports, space could be freed at Heathrow.
This call for new hub capacity, but also arguing for no net increase in UK runways seems a little confused to me. The Lib Dems seem to be yellow-lighting new capacity – hoping to identify where new hub capacity could go but also recognising important environmental limits on absolute aviation demand.
There are still two party conferences to go. What would you like to hear them say on aviation and on the environment in general?
South Georgia, ice-bound and tucked within the edge of the Southern Ocean, might not be everyone’s idea of a paradise island. Yet it’s waters are biologically richer than those around the Galapagos Islands, and it’s home to over 100 million seabirds. For six species of them, and over 30 million pairs of birds, it’s the most important place in the world.
All that may be hard to believe for an island the size of Wales, ice bound and mountainous, with 150 glaciers and over 300 peaks between 2,000 feet and the highest point, Mount Paget, at 9,269 feet. But it is true, and it is a paradise – I’ve been there, helping to survey giant petrels and wandering albatrosses.
Nor is it quite an isolated paradise. It has a history of astonishing biological exploitation and devastation, from whaling and sealing. The fur seals have recovered, but whales there are still a rarity. And with people come rats.
So what’s the link with climate change, you may ask? Well, being ice bound has advantages – it provides an effective barrier that rats cannot cross. But today, South Georgia’s glaciers are shrinking, in common with many across the world. When I was there, we saw bare rock around the island’s edges where 10 years previously, there was ice.
There are already rats in a few pockets around the island, and where there are rats, ground nesting birds – and there’s no option on South Georgia! – are devasted. There are no South Georgia pipits, if there are rats; and the hundreds of thousands of burrows of prions and petrels are a free, defenceless feast for rodents.
Rat eradication is already underway, led by Dr Tony Martin and the South Georgia Heritage Trust. It’s a daunting prospect, with 80,000 hectares to cover, and requires a 100% success rate. First indications of the early work are encouraging – no signs of rats in the treated areas. But it’s a race against time. Satellite images show further recession of ice, including at areas near key pinch-points which, if ice-less, would open large new areas of South Georgia to rat invasion. If rat eradication is not effective whilst the ice is still holding back rodent hordes, the future for this wildlife paradise looks bleak.
Nature conservation is going to have a hard time working against, and sometimes with, the impacts of climate change. We’re already gaining quite a bit of experience at the RSPB, learning to cope with different conditions at our nature reserves, trying to gaze into the future and assess the ongoing requirements of our priority species, undertaking projects in some far-flung places across the globe.
I wish Dr Tony Martin and his merry band well in South Georgia, working against the clock, often in difficult conditions, to keep the birds flying in one of the wondrous places on the planet. The consequences of failure are too awful to contemplate – a bit like climate change itself, really.
What are the things that you hold most dear, that are put at risk by climate change? Do contribute, it will fascinating to share some personal thoughts about this global problem.
The proposal for a new high speed train line between London and Birmingham is one of Government’s new infrastructure projects that will supposedly help dig us out of recession and deliver a green economy.
But will it really be green?
There are two tests it will have to pass to make this claim. Firstly, the route must be planned so that impacts on protected wildlife sites are avoided as far as possible, and any impacts that are unavoidable should be mitigated, and any residual impacts then compensated for through the creation of new wildlife habitat. You can read more about our position and work on this here.
The second is the carbon test - Will HS2 save any carbon?
That’s what a new report published today and written by consultants Greengauge 21 for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Campaign for Better Transport, and the RSPB seks to answer.
As is always the way with these things, the answer is not black and white.
Instead, we found that HS2 could be a vital component of a green transport system, but only if it’s part of a wider package of policies that make sure HS2 is used to its full, that the extra capacity freed on conventional lines is used to take freight off the roads, and that the electricity used to power the trains is low carbon. If all of these policies in place, then HS2 will save 3.5 million tonnes of CO2 over its 60 year lifetime, comfortably offsetting the 1.2Mt released as a result of building and running it. These savings could then be increased greatly if HS2 is part of a wider HS rail network across the country as that would mean even more flights displaced by rail.
Strip these policies away though, and HS2 is a different story. In our worst case scenario, HS2 results in an increase in emissions.
Our view is that this highlights the critical importance of Government getting its act together on transport policy, and delivering an overarching strategy that will give us a green transport system that is fit for purpose.
Sadly, Government’s tendency instead is to look for quick fixes that give the appearance of progress - more roads, runways and forest-destroying biofuels – that are brought forward as ad-hoc whims rather than part of a grand and green strategy.
You can read the new report here if you want all the detail (including some very attractive graphs), and let us know your thoughts-
What do you think of HS2 and this Government’s approach to transport?