August, 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.
  • Biomass standards – a missed opportunity?

    Melanie Coath, Senior Climate Change Policy Officer

    UK sustainability standards for bioenergy, burning wood and other organic materials for heat and power, have finally been published today by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). These standards are intended to safeguard wildlife and the climate while ever greater amounts of bioenergy are brought on stream. However, we are concerned to see that significant gaps remain in the new proposals.

    The RSPB has been calling on the Government to ensure that all wood burned for bioenergy is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC standard provides robust environmental protection and is currently the only credible internationally recognised standard. However, instead the Government is proposing to rely on a weaker standard devised for timber procurement.

    On the climate side, there are some improvements in today’s new policy but substantial gaps remain. The rationale for using bioenergy is that it has the potential to be significantly better for the climate than fossil fuel alternatives. We are glad, therefore, to see that from 2020 onwards, the new proposals will require bioenergy to reduce emissions by 72% compared to fossil fuels and by 75% by 2025.  However, until 2020, this threshold is set at an unambitious 60%, much lower than bioenergy has the potential to achieve.

    That concern is, however, dwarfed by key omissions elsewhere in proposals for calculating bioenergy’s carbon emissions. We are very disappointed to see that carbon debt (the time taken for emissions from bioenergy to be recaptured by new trees) has been completely ignored. This means that substantial emissions from burning bioenergy in the short term have been wiped off the slate. Many authoritative sources have shown that this can even make biomass more polluting than fossil fuels. RSPB highlighted the importance of this issue in a report earlier this year.

    Emissions from indirect land use change also do not feature. These arise where energy crops displace food crops onto previously uncultivated land resulting in substantial emissions if forests are cleared or grasslands ploughed up. This issue is being ignored despite the fact that the UK is currently in negotiations with other Member States on proposals to deal with this for liquid biofuels for transport.

    Strangely, DECC’s own carbon calculator, which it has spent months working on, is not due to be published until the autumn. That Government has taken the decision to publish greenhouse gas standards before that research has been completed is surprising.

    If DECC is refusing to consider major emissions from carbon debt and robust safeguards for wildlife such as FSC, then it begs the question: is the Government effectively accepting that sufficiently robust sustainability and carbon standards are not possible? Such a suggestion would have serious implications for the overall role that forest biomass should play in our electricity system. It appears that Government are starting to recognise this in other recent proposals to introduce a 400MW limit on plants that are specifically built for burning biomass and to end all financial support for coal power stations converted to wood in 2027. However, they are skirting over the serious damage that large scale wood power, especially that based on wood imports from overseas, could cause to forests and the climate during the interim period.

    The RSPB believes it is possible for genuinely sustainable bioenergy to be an important part of the renewable energy mix. We want to see a fresh push behind measures such as anaerobic digestion from wastes and ultra-efficient combined heat and power generation from forestry and agricultural arisings. We will be looking for further limits on the role of unsustainable biomass power in the Energy Bill and in the legislation that will be needed to implement it.

  • Solar on a roll

    Two-thirds of all solar PV operating worldwide has been installed since January 2011. Perhaps perceived as the Cinderella renewable, a new dawn appears to be breaking for solar’s contribution to global power.

    Whilst It took almost four decades to install the first 50 gigawatts of solar generation worldwide, the second 50 gigawatts has been achieved in some 30 months. And alongside this, solar prices have tumbled 60% in the same period, since January 2011.  Furthermore, according to GTM Research the outlook is strong, with another 100 gigawatts on track to be installed by 2015 worldwide – that’s another doubling in a similar time period to the last one.

    Source: GTM Research

    The RSPB too is taking advantage of the solar revolution. Frampton Marsh is the latest of our nature reserve visitor centres to benefit from solar power and we now have solar panels helping to power around 20 of our sites, with more in the pipeline.

    Have you thought about solar power for your home or workplace?

  • No Estuary Airport? Not yet.

    Mel Coath - our Senior Climate Change Policy Officer has been looking at the long list of airport proposals published today - here's her initial thoughts.

    Today, the Airports Commission made public the fifty or so proposals on the future of airports in the UK that it has received.

    The Commission, set up to advise Government on how to tackle aviation expansion in the UK, now has the unenviable task of sifting through these and producing a short list for potential expansion – the list is due by December.

    With all the proposals for new or expanded airports flying about, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the climate impacts of aviation expansion were being forgotten. So it was refreshing to hear Sir Howard Davies (who heads the Commission) on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning taking a rational view.

    He highlighted that we can’t have limitless airport growth and at the same time carry on cutting the UK’s green house gas emissions; the two are just not compatible. If aviation growth is uncontrolled, the rest of the economy would have to reduce emissions to zero.

    Expansion of aviation capacity anywhere will have an impact on our climate – but the implication of each proposal will matter to the areas affected. Here at the RSPB we’ll be scrutinising them carefully in relation to their impact on the natural world. This isn’t new us – some of the proposals are re-workings of rejected options stretching back for decades. It’s astonishing, really, that proposals for an airport in the Thames estuary still surface, the combination of massive damage to our coastal environment and it’s wildlife, the hazards of birdstrike, the dislocation of local communities are extreme, yet the option is still on the long list.

    It’s time to call a halt to recognise that serial rejection of an Thames airport is telling us that it is time, finally to agree that there should be no estuary airport.