It’s good to step out occasionally and gain a wider perspective on things, and the three-day Bonn meeting on climate change and nature conservation in Europe was a particularly good occasion. It mixed ecology, policy and economics – ambitious, but the three pillars needed to get things done!
Setting the scene, we had thoughtful challenges about future conservation objectives, about moving on from goals of ‘traditional’ notions of nature, as climate change brings novel climates and novel species and communities. A five-metre stride across the lecture hall demonstrated the average daily shift north for a wide range of wildlife. Nevertheless there was a strong theme of building resilience to the impacts of climate change as the priority action for now, with counterpoint insights into the role non-native species are already playing in some ‘novel’ ecosystems, stepping in to provide ecosystem functions and services previously performed by ‘traditional’ species now lost to these ecosystems. Certainly a sign of times to come, and opening up thinking on how we might consider the arrival of new species into once-familiar communities.
It was fascinating to see what others are doing to develop adaptation knowledge. We were treated to a hornbill’s eye view of what habitat fragmentation looks like, with GPS tracking and satellite mapping showing journeys between forest patterns and the importance of two farm’s garden trees – real-life stepping stones. A really exciting parallel to the fragmentation and connectivity modelling of imaginary species in hypothetical landscapes – smaller GPS units and more GPS studies please! Another virtual trip, this time to the mountains, opened eyes to the range of micro climate within just a few metres distance. The huge range of climatic conditions hidden behind the coarse-scale data opens up adaptation management opportunities for other habitats too, where climate projections hide a similar wide range of micro-climatic conditions.
A really important message, that Natura 2000 sites form the backbone of nature conservation in Europe. The suite of sites and the wider landscape activities are an impressive achievement of the EU. Their value is perhaps not widely recognised – yet they provide 200 to 300 billion Euros worth of ecosystems services and 5-9 billion Euros of real income, from just a tiny fraction of that investment. These and complementary EU mechanisms and funding that already provide many opportunities for developing nature adaptation. Much discussion of ecosystem based adaption and the value of ecosystem services opens up further opportunities for progressing adaptation and developing green infrastructure for multiple benefits – nature alongside health, recreation, flood control, water quality, climate mitigation and more.
From our own perspective, I gave a talk on the RSPB’s adaptation assessment process. We’re basing these straightforwardly on 2°C and 4°C global average temperature rise, freeing climate projections from the uncertainties of different emissions scenarios. We're also using the lens of vulnerability rather than risk – nature needs good conditions every year, and incremental adaptation is just as important as making the big step changes. We also shared a poster with Natural England on our forthcoming joint Adaptation Manual project, which will provide web-based practical management information for a wide range of conservation habitats.
Adaptation, indeed all conservaiton, needs to be underpinned by effective communications, talking in plain language and engaging partners, stakeholders and communities. Our wildlife and natural world is becoming increasingly distant to many people, and we need to re-connect. Citizen science can help to do this, and help find solutions to the ‘wicked problems’ we face. And wider engagement is crucial to build wider green infrastructure in our cities and towns, along our roads and rivers; helping nature to help us.
Underpinning too is the urgency required, despite uncertainties about the precise nature of what the future will bring. The future is a place we all will live and, as one speaker put it, we cannot wait until we know we will win, because by then we will have lost; making some mistakes will be part of the process. Despite the problems, the current low political interest, there is broad support for a better planet – we need to harness this, be more positive about our successes, and more aggressive in pursuing conservation and environmental improvement.
So thanks to the German conservation agency BfN for bringing us all together. Sharing cultures and experiences helps build our knowledge, building a stronger basis for adaptation and conservation. And this richness of experience parallels the diversity we’re working to encourage in the natural world, to put nature in strongest position possible for our shared future.
Post by John Lanchbery, Principal Climate Change Adviser
Yesterday, President Obama launched his climate action plan, which he said was both a moral and an economic imperative, needed to protect future generations – describing the plan as ‘taking action for our kids’. We’ve been waiting for action on the climate for the US for a long time, and the clear line in the sand Obama has drawn this week that firmly associates him with serious climate action gives us hope.
The content of the plan is of course far from perfect - he is hamstrung by two major difficulties: the refusal of the Congress to pass any new legislation on climate change and the fact that previous Presidents took no action. He must try to make up for two decades of climate inaction by the USA whilst at the same time being limited in his scope for new policies.
Most worringly, the US is sticking to its previous emission reduction target “in the range of” 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels. This translates as a goal of only a 3 or 4% reduction from 1990 levels, which is pitifully small compared with the targets of most other developed countries that have much larger, but still inadequate, targets. To stay below the internationally agreed goal of 2oC, countries like the USA, UK, Germany and Japan should be cutting 2020 emissions by 40% from 1990 levels.
Yet there are some serious measures in the plan. Obama has already set tough (in American eyes) fuel economy standards for road vehicles, such as an average of 54.5 mpg for cars by 2025. He now plans to do the same for power plant, via the Environmental Protection Agency. He also plans to double renewable energy generation by 2020 and double energy efficiency by 2030 from 2010 levels. There are schemes to cut HFCs and methane, and to promote forest conservation – US forests remove about 12% of all US emissions.
Sitting uncomfortably with the talk of emission reductions is the proud claim that “we have become the world’s leading producer of natural gas – the cleanest-burning fossil fuel”. This may be true and switching from coal to shale gas for electricity generation may cut emissions in the short term but it will not help much in cutting emissions to nearly zero by the middle of the century. In fact, it may delay decarbonisation if shale gas is as abundant and cheap as is claimed.
The abiding feeling is the USA is trying to do a lot but that the constraints on the President are stifling much of what he would like to do. Whilst understanding why the US 2020 target is as it is, it remains woefully short of what is needed. Perhaps the rest of the World will have to save itself with encouragement, but not much practical support, from the USA.
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer, Climate, RSPB Scotland
Nature is good for us. Watching birds in the countryside might be your thing and bring you joy and a sense of wellbeing. But what if it’s not?
Well, nature is still good for you – even if you don’t know it. Our natural environment provides us with food and drinking water; supplies building materials and energy sources; it holds floodwater and can regulate the climate; it can also improve our health. Great. But in a future with a changing climate won’t we have to rely more on our human ingenuity and high-tech solutions to solve our most pressing problems – including the extreme impacts of climate change? Well, did you know that nature can provide natural solutions which are flexible, sustainable and cost-effective?
Ptarmigan – Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Last week we published Helping Nature to Help Us – Natural solutions to living in a changing climate, an RSPB Scotland report which explains how nature can be our ally in response to climate change. Seven short chapters each look at a specific example of some of the goods and services we need as a society, and show how nature can be employed to provide them. Case studies show real-life examples in Scotland where these solutions are working, and each chapter is endorsed by at least one partner organisation.
The report explains that our urban and rural habitats, and natural ecosystems, can only do this properly if they are healthy and in good condition. At present, many are not in great shape and as a result we are seriously under-using this potential. What is more, our special wildlife in Scotland is not resilient to climate change trends and shocks and doesn’t have the capacity to adapt as the climate shifts.
We need to help nature now to make the best of these potential benefits, and in readiness for living with climate change and a range of impacts further down the line. We need to change the norms of how things are done in all aspects of our economy and society, to work with nature and employ natural ecosystems to provide natural solutions. We need vision, commitment and action to make them more commonplace throughout Scotland.
The forthcoming Scottish Climate Adaptation Programme can help us to achieve natural solutions, adapt to climate change and thrive in an uncertain future. We will be working, with many partners, to help make this happen. Will you join us?