Wetlands are home to a broad range of species from bitterns and swans to water voles and dragonflies, and managing them for wildlife results in large amounts of waste organic material. But a new project is looking at how the latest technology can be used to turn reeds and rushes cut from these areas into heat and electricity.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change is funding a competition, which is being trialed on nature reserves across the UK reserves and it is starting to show signs of success. Staff are watching material that has previously been cut to waste be used to produce energy. Natural England, Somerset Wildlife Trust and The Broads Authority are also partners in the project.
This week the RSPB showed how far the project has come with a demonstration at its Ham Wall National Nature Reserve in the Avalon Marshes of Somerset. Reeds were cut using a mechanical cutter – one of only two in the UK – and then turned into briquettes which can be burned in a boiler or log burner. The reeds were also added to an anaerobic digestion machine producing methane which can be converted into both heat and electricity.
Nature reserves are carefully managed to create the ideal habitat for wildlife, and part of this involves cutting back reeds and rushes. Wetland birds and insects need to have a patchwork of habitats from reeds, to shallow pools and short grass in order to nest and feed.
Across the UK conservation organizations produce thousands of tonnes of waste plant matter. In the past disposing of this waste has been a real issue – often we are forced to simply burn it on bonfires. But the Department for Energy and Climate Change want to find new ways to produce energy without releasing unnecessary carbon into the atmosphere and asked us to investigate how we can turn the waste vegetation off our reserves into heat and electricity.
Using some pretty impressive technology, including mechanical cutters, briquette makers, boilers, biochar kilns and anaerobic digesters, the project is producing some amazing results. We have shown that we can take cleared wetland vegetation and use it to heat nearby buildings and produce electricity which can be fed into the National Grid.
In the past the difficulty of disposing of organic waste from wetland habitats has made conservation efforts difficult, and sometimes impossible. As well as the need to find new ways to produce renewable energy this led DECC to launch the ‘Wetland Biomass to Bioenergy’ competition.
Ivan Scrase, Senior Climate Change Policy Officer - Renewable Energy
On Wednesday the European Commission released its proposals for a European policy framework for climate and energy in the period from 2020 to 2030. At first glance the proposals look quite ambitious. However NGOs have been unanimous in their alarm at what it will mean for people, the environment and nature - see these press releases from the RSPB, BirdLife, WWF, Greenpeace, and Climate Action Network.
According to Ariel Brunner, Head of EU Policy at BirdLife Europe, “The Commission is setting its ambition at a level that cannot safeguard us from damaging climate change and it even proposes to open Europe’s doors to the worst types of dirty fuels.” So, what was announced, and what are the implications?
ClimateEurope will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. This may sound like a substantial cut. However the 2020 goal (for a 20% cut) was achieved in 2012: 40% is in fact not ambitious at all. More importantly it is right at the bottom of the range of cuts that scientists say would be sufficient to stand a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. It puts us on course for a roughly 50:50 chance of experiencing less than two degrees of warming – the level scientists consider the upper limit of ‘safe’ warming. Hence the title of this blog article.The RSPB and other NGOs have argued that for cut of at least 55%. According to Dr Kevin Anderson at the UK Energy research Centre, a cut of 80% by 2030 is needed to stand a good chance of avoiding dangerous warming.
Europe will aim to produce 27% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, up only 7% on the 2020 target. The RSPB and other NGOs wanted to see 45% of Europe’s energy coming from renewable sources by 2030. Moreover the commitment to 2030 is not binding on national governments, unlike the 2020 target. This sends a much less assuring message to investors and hamper innovation and growth in this vital sector for the fight to combat climate change.
Other energy disappointments and dangers
Plans to make the emissions trading scheme effective by raising the price of carbon were announced, but with a delay that means it will not be fixed before 2020 if at all.
No new target or delivery mechanisms were set for energy saving in the announcement. The Commission missed an opportunity to introduce new regulations on shale gas drilling, and instead issued some non-binding recommendations. Alarmingly, the paper says no standards should be set for the carbon intensity of imported transport fuels, which would open the doors to dirty fuels, such as oil produced from Canadian tar sands.
Any silver linings?
There are a few sensible proposals in the white paper that could benefit birds and wildlife. The paper does not set a target for renewable transport fuels after 2020, which is good news as it means less pressure to convert land to intensive cropping for biofuel production. It also proposes measures that would make sure biomass used in power stations is sustainably produced and contributes to cutting carbon emissions. And there is a proposal to account for carbon emissions from land use changes, which could create a useful incentive to restore degraded peatlands.
All is not lost. The European Parliament (made up of MEPs) has taken a more positive and ambitious line on clean energy. And the Council (made up of national governments) could still improve the commitments when they meet in late March this year. We’ll be working hard in the UK and Brussels to ensure Europe regains its ambition and leadership position on clean energy.
Tomorrow we will find out how the EU sees its role in climate and energy policy after 2020. In the mean time, the UK Government is reviewing of each area of EU policy ‘competence’, from agriculture to taxation. This includes reviews of environmental, climate and energy policy making in Brussels. We see the EU as a positive force for environmental protection - take a look at our report here to see why.
Of course, the questions asked in the UK Government’s review are mainly about what Europe does for UK plc, rather than what is best for nature or to prevent climate chaos.
We’ve recently sent in our response on energy policy. While some EU energy initiatives are not working as they should yet, such as the emissions trading scheme, others are working well. The Renewable Energy Directive and the EU’s 2020 target for renewable energy have ensured all European countries are playing their part in developing cleaner energy technologies. This has driven down costs and led to innovation in renewables, bringing a sustainable energy system within reach – vital in the fight against climate change.
The EU’s nature protection laws have mostly worked well to ensure the right renewables are developed in the right places, without harming birds and wildlife. There have been some unfortunate exceptions in terms of technologies and locations, of course. For a balanced review of the evidence on impacts, and for both sides of that story, see our report on ‘Meeting Europe’s Renewable Energy targets in Harmony With Nature’.
Tomorrow the European Commission will release its long-awaited proposals on its climate and energy framework for the period from 2020 to 2030. Working with our BirdLife partners across Europe, we have called for the package to include ambitious and binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions, renewables and energy savings. The framework also needs strong safeguards to make sure renewables do not harm nature and that they really do cut emissions, which means less emphasis on biofuels and more on technologies like wind, wave and solar.
Wednesday’s announcement will be the start of a long process of sorting out how Europe will respond to the climate and energy challenge. We say the UK should get behind an ambitious renewables target for Europe. As this briefing shows, renewables are central to achieving the UK’s climate commitments. And EU renewables targets are also good for UK jobs and UK plc.
We’ll update you on what the EU announces in the next climate blog post. And if you’ve any comments or queries on the RSPB’s and BirdLife’s work on European energy and renewables policies, do use this blog’s comment box!