Ellie Crane, RSPB Agriculture Policy Officer
Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU) has gone on record as saying that climate change is the biggest threat facing UK farming. He points out that though farmers may be able to adapt to gradual changes in temperature, extreme weather events can be devastating. The floods, droughts and heatwaves we’ve experienced in recent years have had a severe impact on the harvest, and we can expect more of this erratic weather in the years and decades to come.
Although we don’t agree with everything Mr Kendall said in his interview (see the RSPB response here), it’s certainly welcome that such an influential figure in the farming community is speaking up about climate change. We’ve discussed the impacts of climate change on farming in a previous blog post and we agree with Mr Kendall about the seriousness of the challenges farmers are facing.
What is still lacking, however, is recognition of the challenges facing the natural world and the vital role that farmers will play in tackling them. The recent State of Nature report, a joint effort by 25 UK wildlife organisations, showed just how serious the situation is. 60% of the species studied have declined in recent decades as a result of multiple pressures, including climate change and changes in farming practices.
Recent research on farmland birds shows that, perhaps surprisingly, changes to farming are still affecting populations more than changes to climate. Although the effects of the weather can be clearly seen in year-to-year fluctuations in bird numbers, the long term populations trends closely match changes in agriculture. Farmland bird numbers fell steeply during the 1980s under the intensive farming regimes of that period, and started to level off during the 1990s as agricultural production stabilised and agri-environment schemes were introduced. We are still losing farmland birds now, but at a slower rate than in the past. There is growing evidence that climate change is affecting bird populations, but for farmland birds agricultural practices remain by far the most important factor.
So the challenge for farmers and for society is even greater than Mr Kendall makes out. Not only must we continue to grow enough food while the climate goes haywire: we must do it in ways that don’t destroy the amazing life-support system known as the natural world. In recent years, farmers and conservationists working together have made some progress in reconciling food production with protecting our environment (though there’s still a long way to go).
Let’s not throw away all this good work in a misguided attempt to grow more food at all costs.
Government have today published new planning guidance for local authorities in England on renewable energy, following similar guidance for oil and gas earlier this month.
These are part of a suite of guidance aimed at Local Authorities and other users of the planning system, but their publication has been brought forward to help deliver the Coalition’s increasingly damaging pursuit of shale gas and to give communities “more say against poorly sited or inadequately justified turbines”. Both were published without public consultation.
Officially, guidance is not ‘new’ policy, but Local Authorities are expected to abide by it unless they have good reason not to. This means that these guidance notes will be influential in town halls across England, and will therefore help determine what is and isn’t built over the coming years.
Whilst the guidance on oil and gas development take a facilitative tone, explaining how fracking will work and its regulatory process, the renewables guidance focuses heavily on landscape and visual impacts. Indeed, ‘landscape’ is mentioned three times in the oil and gas note, compared to 33 times in the renewable guidance. My guess is that this is unlikely to be as a result of an objective assessment that found that the visual impact of wind turbines is 11 times greater than shale drill pads!
Language aside, most worrying is the statement in the renewables guidance that “protecting local amenity is an important consideration which should be given proper weight in planning decisions”. This sounds innocuous enough, but in reality ‘local amenity’ is so general that any windfarm could be argued to negatively affect it. It goes without saying that no such statement is made in relation to fracking.
The one redeeming feature of the guidance is its endorsement of a spatial approach to renewables. It recommends that Local Authorities proactively seek to identify where renewables are most appropriate given local environmental conditions. This is an approach we have long advocated as we believe it gives clarity to developers and the public alike, although we believe that the priority should be minimising the risk of irreversible impacts on wildlife.
This small hint of progress does little, however, to change the fact that these Guidance notes are just another part of the Government’s attempt to stack the odds against clean energy and in favor of dirty fossil fuels.
In the end, the planning system has a job to do. It needs to weigh up the pros and cons of proposed development to local communities and to the country alike, and make fair and balanced decisions. The political meddling that is behind the tone and balance of these guidance notes helps no one, and will only lead to more conflict in communities affected by energy developments. Maybe it’s time the Coalition took a step back and let planners get on with their job.
Mitigation or adaptation? Carbon conservation or nature conservation? A recent paper by Chris Thomas and others looks at whether these two things can be balanced effectively.
The approach is based on mapping, for carbon and for nature. The maps for conservation importance are produced using ‘zonation’, whereby map grid squares are ranked for their importance in their species distributions. Separately, each map square is assessed for its carbon stock. The two maps are then brought together to find the areas of overlap.
Chris and his team have carried this out for Britain, and for the Americas. Looking at the carbon maps first, focusing on carbon in Britain could protect about 60% of carbon, but only a quarter of our biodiversity; for the Americas, 30% of the land could protect almost half the carbon, but only around of third of the biodiversity.
Priority areas for carbon storage in the Americas and in Britain Thomas et al 2013.
Focusing just on biodiversity has a similar imbalance. Here, we could protect over 90% of our carbon but only a quarter of our biodiversity; in the Americas, this approach could safeguard just over 70% of the biodiversity, but less than a third of the carbon.
Priority areas for biodiversity in the Americas and in Britain. Thomas et al 2013.
So, taking each objective separately clearly doesn’t give much of a benefit for whatever is not the primary focus. But can these be reconciled?
It appears that they can. Combining priority areas for both carbon and nature into a single map produces the startling result that it is possible to get around a 90% protection for both interests
Priority areas combining carbon and biodiversity conservation in the Americas and in Britain Thomas et al 2013.
So it seems that with, a carefully planned strategic approach, it’s possible to get the ultimate win-win. That’s a really encouraging result – now we just strategic leadership to take us there. And perhaps, a similar look at other ecosystem services.