Over the past couple of years the RSPB has been working with our colleagues in BirdLife Europe to get reform of Europe's regressive biofuels policy. We've also had our work cut our supporting partner organisations, such as Nature Kenya, fighting damaging biofuel developments that are coming forward in response to this policy - like the Dakatcha woodlands, which were threatened by a jatropha plantation (pictured).
This week, EU Ministers had the chance to put restrictions in place to limit the damage of biofuels. Sadly, they didn't take the opportunity. Here's some thoughts from Melanie Coath, the RSPB's biofuel expert, about the decision:
Today saw the collapse of efforts to prevent the use of biofuels which damage wildlife and harm the climate. EU Ministers failed to agree a deal that would have ruled out some of the worst biofuels. Instead, we have an outcome that panders to the most regressive voices: the vested interests of the biofuels industry and those European Governments that support them. The indirect impacts of biofuels can be just as damaging as the direct impacts. When biofuels production displaces food production, this can result in the destruction of natural habitats such as forests and grasslands to make way for new food production. It also results in significant carbon emissions, rendering those biofuels useless in the fight against climate change – which is what they are subsidised for in the first place. Ministers had the opportunity today to limit this damage by restricting the proportion of biofuels produced from food crops and taking account of any carbon released from the displacement of food crops by biofuels. Today's outcome was very disappointing to the RSPB and other environment and development NGOs who have been campaigning hard to get a solution to this problem. We urgently need a more ambitious deal which really addresses the issue. We will be calling on the next Presidency of the European Council to secure this as soon as possible.
Harry Huyton, Head of Climate Change
Some would have you believe that fracking is 100% guaranteed safe. The Prime Minister himself has assured us that the UK regulatory regime is one of the most stringent in the world and today Lord Deben, the Chair of the Committee on Climate Change and a respected champion for action on climate change, joined the chorus saying that fracking “poses no risk to the environment”.
Yet there is a growing number of reports of water pollution incidents in the USA (see here and here for example), where intensive fracking has been underway for several years. These incidents can have serious consequences for the local environment, both for people and wildlife, and carry a heavy price tag for clean up. The former Chief Scientist, David King, warned that concern over such incidents taking place in the UK was a rational concern that ‘has to be dealt with with very careful legislation’.
So the RSPB, the Angling Trust, the Salmon and Trout Association and the WWT agree with several MPs from both sides of the House, who have been asking Government to put clear rules in place to ensure that if an accident does happen then the fracker pays for the clean up rather than the public. This should help to ensure that proper safeguards are put in place from the outset, and a fairer approach to dealing with any damage.
As it stands, gas exploration companies have little obligation to demonstrate their ability to pay for any damage they cause to our environment, and if they go bust then any costs fall to the taxpayer. Yesterday, an amendment to the Water Bill tabled by Liberal Democrat MP, Roger Williams was debated in Parliament. The amendment would have ensured that fracking companies had finance in place from the outset for any accidents and that the liability for fixing any mistakes was firmly in their court. In the words of Conservative MP, Mark Spencer, the amendment would have prevented ‘cowboys’ entering the industry and would have made sure only the most competent companies drill for shale gas.
Roger Williams MP noted that shale gas companies will benefit from the most generous tax regime in the world for fracking. He argued it therefore stands to reason that the businesses who will benefit commit to pay for cleanup should an accident occur. He also noted that fracking companies have said that the risk of pollution to groundwater is extremely low, which would mean this amendment should pose minimal cost and would simply hold these companies to their assurances.
Unfortunately, the Environment Minister rejected the need for an amendment, assuring MPs that existing regulation is adequate and we do not therefore need additional measures to clarify liability.
We were deeply disappointed by this conclusion. The Prime Minister promised one of the most stringent regulatory regimes for fracking in the world but his Government appears more interested in tax cuts than managing risk.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you are pro or anti fracking – this proposal would simply ensure that when things do go wrong shareholders, not taxpayers bear the cost for cleanup if companies go bust or cease trading. If Government’s response boils down to concerns about the cost of insurance it sheds an interesting light on just how safe they really think the technology is.
Lotte Large, RSPB Futurescape Officer, East of England
In the aftermath of the highest storm surge since the Great Flood of 1953, communities are now taking stock of the damage to our eastern coastline. As people assess the damage to their homes and businesses, our staff have been doing the same with our nature reserves along the coast.
The news has been focussing on the success of sea walls, which in the conservation world are known as hard sea defences. These can be hugely effective, however what has been less forthcoming is how natural processes and what we term as ‘soft sea defences’ have played their part in protecting our coastline from further damage. Beaches, mudflats and salt marsh are all forms of natural sea defence where the power and force of waves are naturally diminished before reaching land. Soft sea defences are a cheap option compared to sea walls as they don’t need the same level of maintenance and are designed to work with natural processes rather than by restricting them. These natural sea defences work for wildlife and provide beautiful places for people to visit along the coast. There’s a great example of natural and man-made sea defences working well together at our Titchwell Marsh nature reserve on the North Norfolk Coast.
In 2011 we completed the Titchwell Coastal Change project which was specifically designed to provide a sustainable flood defence solution to cope with changing coastal processes and rising sea levels. The project included a new sea wall, which is what we normally think of when talking about sea defence. However, an opening was intentionally made in one end of the wall so that the seawater could find its way through and onto the brackish (a mix of fresh and sea water) marsh behind, which will eventually turn into salt marsh. The sea wall protects the freshwater habitats of the nature reserve and the salt marsh will in turn protect the wall itself by relieving the pressure it has to deal with from the sea. Sounds complicated but its actually a very simple natural process.
Titchwell was hit by the storm surge last night and the sea overtopped the wall due to the extraordinarily high waves. Sand dunes and paths have been damaged, however the staff are very relieved to report that the damage would have been catastrophic had the Coastal Change Project not been achieved a few years ago.
Titchwell after the storm / Steve Rowland
We can learn a lot from natural habitats and their relationship with the sea. By working with natural processes rather than attempting to restrict them we can find ways of protecting not only our homes but our natural environment in a sustainable way. The recent IPCC report on climate change served as a stark warning that the intensity of weather events will increase, and the seas will continue to rise.
Now is the time to start looking at how nature can benefit people and help us adapt to the effects of climate change into the future.