May, 2013

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • RSPB backs calls for greater EU ambition on climate change

    Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has this week called for the EU to stay ambitious on climate change. Critically, he put forward a proposal that the EU adopts a new climate target for 2030 that would see European emissions cut by half against 1990 levels.

    Climate change is increasingly putting pressure on wildlife here in the UK  - as you might have seen from last week’s ground-breaking State of Nature report – and abroad, so the RSPB has welcomed this important intervention.

    Until now the only number in play was the European Commission’s woefully unambitious suggestion of a 40% cut, so Davey’s proposal has raised the stakes. It’s a start, but the problem is that Europe needs even greater ambition still if its serious about avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.

    To be consistent with the internationally agreed global goal of keeping temperature rise below two degrees, beyond which we face increasingly serious risks of major extinction events and appalling impacts on people around the world, the EU needs to be on a pathway to reduce its emissions by at least 95% by 2050.  Assuming a roughly linear pathway, that means having a 2030 emission reduction target of at least 55%.  This target needs to be met at home, within Europe, without the use of ‘offsets’ from abroad.  In terms of combating climate change, there is not a lot of point in having a target which is met by other countries reducing emissions for us.

    What’s more, this week’s statement is confirmation that the UK has no intention of signing up to mandatory European-wide targets for energy efficiency and renewables. Davey argues that what counts is CO2 and that we shouldn’t prescribe what technologies are used to deliver this, leaving the door open as wide as possible for carbon capture and storage, nuclear and gas. Yet this ignores the significant benefits of such targets. They offer certainty, but, most importantly, they give our position on the international stage credibility by showing we’re serious about our climate targets and are committed to cutting our energy wastage and being a leader in developing and deploying genuine low-carbon technologies.

    That’s why the RSPB is calling for a mandatory energy efficiency target of at least 40% by 2030 from 2005 levels. Cutting our use of energy is, after all, the cheapest and most nature-friendly way of reducing our emissions. What’s more, we’re supporting calls for a renewables target of a 45% share in final energy demand by 2030. 

  • Greenhouse emissions and global biodiversity - an outlook

    Guest post from Rachel Warren, Reader in Integrated Assessment of Climate Change, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia

    We have just published the first global scale analysis of impacts of climate change on the climatic ranges of 50,000 widespread and common animal and plant species in Nature Climate Change. The main finding is that if no action is taken to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, over half the plants (57±6% ) and one third of the animals (34±7% ) that we studied would lose more than half their climatic range by the 2080s. 

    The climatic range is the area of land on the earth’s surface that has a climate suitable to live in. The area in which a species actually lives, its geographic range, isn’t necessarily the same because there will be many habitats within the climatically suitable range, some of which might not be suitable, and humans will have modified the landscape, making some other areas also unsuitable.  But if climatic ranges are reduced so much, many common and widespread species will disappear from many of the places where they are currently found.

    Many other species of plants and animals for which we had no data will also be affected.  These range losses are not offset by the small percentage of species projected to gain more than 50% of their climatic range (4% of the animals and none of the plants). 

    Proportion of species losing 50% or more of their range by the 2080s under different emissions scenarios:  Red = SRES A1B; Green = emissions peak 2030; Blue= emissions peak 2016

    If there’s no action to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, it’s quite likely that global temperatures could rise by 4°C, relative to pre-industrial times by 2100. If emissions were reduced rapidly and promptly, temperature rise by 2100 could be limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and would then stop rising.  This would reduce the range losses by 60% if emissions peak in 2016 or by 40% if emissions peak in 2030. 

    It’s harder to avoid so many of the range losses if emissions don’t peak until 2030.  The fastest rate that economists think emissions could be reduced is about 5% annually, and if emissions don’t peak until 2030, even if you reduce emissions at 5% annually, you can’t get that 60% avoidance of range loss that you can get if emissions peak in 2016. 

    Reducing emissions reduces the amount of climate change, so that species lose less of their ranges.  Also, it slows climate change down, so that biodiversity has up to four more decades of time to adapt to the same amount of change in  temperatures and rainfall patterns. 

    Without emission reductions, the climate becomes particularly unsuitable for  plants and animals in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Amazonia, Australia, North Africa, Central Asia, and south-eastern Europe.  Biodiversity losses are reduced worldwide if emissions are reduced, and the benefits are highest in these regions. 

    Our study takes in account the ability of species to adapt to climate change by moving, by using observed rates of movement of species that are already responding to climate change.  Plants, amphibians and reptiles are more sensitive to climate change than birds or mammals, due to their lower ability to move.  Amphibians are most at risk with 50±7% of species losing over 50% of their climatic range by the 2080s.  Examples of animals projected to lose more than half their range include lion, meerkat, harlequin frog and Tokay gecko; whilst examples of plants include cacao, coffee, teak and pineapple.  

    Many other studies have looked at the effects of climate change on species, but have tended to focus on species with small ranges that are likely to go extinct as a result of climate change, or have looked at single regions of the world.  Until now, little was known about how much  reducing greenhouse gas emissions could reduce the impacts of climate change on biodiversity, particularly for common and widespread species. 

    Even small declines in common and widespread species can significantly disrupt functions that ecosystems perform for humans.  These are things like nutrient cycling, air and water purification, flood prevention and control, conservation of soil and erosion prevention, provisioning of food and fuel, pollination, recreation, and ecotourism. The large range losses in many species that we found in the study imply a substantial loss of these ecosystem services, which are important to agriculture and to human health and wellbeing by the end of this century.  Prompt and stringent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would substantially reduce range losses and preserve these services that the biodiversity provides.

    Actual species declines might be larger due to  habitat loss due to land use change, man-made barriers to species movement (eg roads, intensively farmed areas), and complex scientific issues which could not be included in our study, such as interactions between species, and the effects of floods, droughts, pests and diseases, all of which are themselves affected by climate change.    

    In this study I enjoyed collaborating with a great team of people, including Dr. Jeff Price at the Tyndall Centre, UEA where I also work, and with Dr. Jeremy Vanderwal at James Cook University, in Australia. We used data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) for the 50000 species.


  • State of Nature and climate change

    State of Nature, a scientific collaboration of 25 UK conservation organisations, saying that our species are  in already trouble, my thoughts  turned to consider how climate change might be part of that.  Especially when this UK report follows a recent global study, suggesting that more than half of common plants and one third of animals could see a dramatic decline this century due to climate change.

    State of Nature is a stock take of our native species – the first of its kind in the UK. It reveals that 60% of the species studied have declined over recent decades. More than one in ten of all the species assessed are under threat of disappearing from our shores altogether. We are losing wildlife at an alarming rate, a continuing historical pattern of loss in the UK going back much further than the 50 years for which we have good information for many species.  Sweeping habitat loss, changes to the ways we manage our countryside, and the more recent impact of climate change, have had a major impact on our wildlife, and they are not going away.

    Leafing through the report,  it’s clear that climate change is already affecting UK wildlife in a number of ways, particularly in marine and upland environments.  So it echoes the recent UK Report Card on wildlife and climate change, although of State of Nature presents a much more rounded picture of UK biodiversity, and of the problems it faces.  Changing climate is expected to become an ever more dominant driver of change in the future. Although some species will benefit, the overall impact is likely to be negative. Just how negative depends on how successful we are at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.  And also upon how well we are able to help nature by adapting to changing conditions. 

    First, some good news from the report.  Recent changes to the climate may be benefiting some farmland butterflies such as the ringlet and speckled wood, and southern species in some other taxonomic groups (such as flies) show similar range increases.  Some heathland species, such as Dartford warblers, have been able to move north, despite some of the impacts of habitat loss, fragmentation and deterioration. In woodlands too, species such as speckled wood and silver-washed fritillary butterflies are responding positively to increases in average temperatures. And among our wetlands, dragonflies are expanding northwards and colonising from the continent.

    This suggests that those species which find the northern limits of their range within the UK may be able to expand their populations and distributions with a generally warmer climate that we may expect in the future.  Of course, being able to benefit in these ways depends on several other factors - having the right habitat, suitable food and breeding places, and being able to move to expand range.  These essentials may not necessarily be in place, so we’ll often need pro-active nature conservation to be able to reap many of the potential wildlife gains from climate change.

    Snippets from the report suggest, however, that the down side  appears to be rather larger.  Already, Arctic char is contracting range in the UK as a result of increasing water temperatures.  Many freshwater habitats are beset by a barrage of threats, and it’s reasonable to expect that these may  be exacerbated by water shortages from drier summers.  

    At the coast, sea level rise squeezes habitat into smaller areas in front of fixed coastal defences, and wintering and foraging habitat is often destroyed by static developments.  One in six coastal plant species are declining strongly, including sea barley and slender hare’s-ear; plant communities also deteriorated or been lost completely, particularly those found on coastal dunes and shingle, upper saltmarsh and soft rock cliffs.  Innovative coastal habitat creation and enhancement schemes can use ‘soft’ defences of intertidal habitat to replace uneconomic hard sea walls. These are important, yet small steps in the big picture of our changing coastline.

    Of nearly 900 upland species assessed, 65% are declining, with 35% declining strongly.  Birds, butterflies and other invertebrates, and upland plants are all affected.  In the uplands, climate change is nibbling away at both southern and low altitude edges of some species’ ranges.  It’s hard not to conclude that continued warming is likely to corral  upland wildlife into ever smaller areas, of often greatly deteriorated habitat.

    Yet it is perhaps in our seas that we’ve seen the greatest impacts of climate change.  Increasing evidence points to climate change affecting the success of UK breeding seabirds, particularly in Scotland.  Changes in the temperature, circulation and salinity of oceans have a marked  impact on the function and structure of marine ecosystems, and the habitats and species within them.  Sea-surface temperatures around the UK have increased in the last 25 years, bringing marked changes to the distribution, abundance and seasonal timing of plankton and fish stocks.  These in turn have brought serious knock-on effects to seabirds, to the extent that some, like the Arctic skua, are on track to be lost as UK breeding species within the next 25 years.

    Our urban wildlife cannot escape climate change, either.  Cities and larger towns typically act as urban heat islands, and most UK cities are 1or 2°C warmer than the surrounding countryside.

    A groundbreaking report on the worrying status of much British wildlife, State of Nature also contains a timely reminder of what climate change is already starting to bring to the natural world across the UK.  This may not be the main threat today, but with the ongoing escalation of greenhouse gas pollution, it’ll be interesting to see how this affects the findings of future State of Nature reports. You might like to comment with a gaze into the crystal ball!