June, 2014

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.
  • Climate calls the curlews back?

    We’re calling for 200,000 hectares of upland peatlands in England to be restored.

    Perhaps not a surprising call for a nature conservation organisation to make. But why are two water companies among our partnership of 12 organisations seeking this – and why are you reading about this on the RSPB’s climate change blog?

    First of all, England upland peatlands are in a fairly terrible state. Only 4% are in good ecological condition and actively forming peat, according to a recent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report. Even our SSSIs there are in poor condition – only 10.5% of those above 300 metres are listed by Natural England as being in favourable condition. So clearly something needs to be done.

    Intensive burning and drainage measures on a Natura 2000 deep peatland site in the Pennines

    Our upland peatlands are not just wonderful wild places, with a special richness of wildlife. They also give a lot to people and society. They form the headwaters of much of our drinking water supply; and they can slow flood water. They store carbon - vast amounts of it, slowly accumulated over centuries and millennia. But they only do all these things properly if they are in good condition – and, mostly, they are not.

    So the drinking water they provide is coloured by peat soil getting into the water courses, because drainage and lack of vegetation makes the peat surface fragile. This adds millions of pounds to the water companies’ costs, to clean the water before it gets to our taps. Wildlife finds it hard to live in the too-dry soils and is disappearing – 45% of English upland bird species are declining, including curlews, red-listed and globally near-threatened, and around two-thirds of the upland species of butterflies, other invertebrates and flowering plants. And carbon is escaping from our uplands, instead of being captured – 350,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.

    Yet the situation isn’t as hopeless as it may sound. From Dartmoor and Exmoor, and right up through the Pennines, there are a handful of pioneering projects mending our upland peatlands, restoring the conditions that provide all the services and wildlife we should expect from these places. And whilst this costs money, more effective spending of existing public funding can go a long way to restoring a significant part of the 200,000 hectares we want back in good condition. We’ll need a bit more – something like the extra £15 million that the Scottish Government recently announced for peatland conservation. So we’ve written to the Defra minister asking for action, to get this done. And it’s a sizeable ‘we’ – the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Buglife, the Campaign for National Parks, CPRE the Campaign to Protect Rural England, both the Dartmoor and Exmoor Mires Projects, the John Muir Trust, the North Pennines AONB Partnership, South West Water and United Utilities are all with us on this.

    You can help us too. Write to your MP and tell them this is important to you, and that you’d like action from Defra to sort this. Make a noise, on social media, in the pub, and tell your friends and colleagues. Out of sight, out of mind, our fabulous English uplands are being wasted away. We can change that.


  • Arctic warming brings fewer cold weather extremes, new study shows

    The climate is warming, and so basic logic suggests we should expect fewer bouts of cold weather. Yet severe winter weather, such as the cold wave over the US this year, and the chilly winter of 2009/10 in the UK have left people questioning this assumption.

    Record minimum temperatures were set across North American in early January this year, including at Chicago O’Hare Airport (-26.7°C, January 6), New York Central Park, (-15.6°C/4°F, January 7) and Washington DC Dulles Airport (-17.2°C, January 7). Daily maximum snowfall records were also broken at several weather stations. The cold temperatures and heavy snowfall caused widespread disruption to transport and power supply, closure of work places and public services, and damage to crops.

    Unsurprisingly given the disruption, the national and global media extensively reported the cold wave, including debate on whether or not human-induced climate change was partly responsible. One particular hypothesis garnered a lot of attention: the suggestion that rapid Arctic warming and associated sea ice loss may be increasing the risk of cold extremes.

    The theory goes something like this: as the Arctic has warmed more rapidly than places further south, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification, the north-south temperature gradient has weakened. This temperature gradient powers the jetstream, a strong wind high in the atmosphere that marks the boundary between cold Arctic air and warmer air to the south. A weaker north-south temperature gradient may cause a weaker jetstream. It’s also argued that a weaker jetstream will meander more, a bit like a river meanders more when the current is slower. When large southward meanders develop, Arctic air pushes south leading to cold conditions. This hypothesis has led to recent claims that Arctic warming will lead to more cold weather.


    New research by Exeter University's James Screen analyses thousands of weather records and suggest a more important – and remarkably simple – connection between Arctic warming and our weather. This link implies the opposite, that rapid Arctic warming will lead to fewer, not more, cold extremes.

    Generally speaking (in the northern hemisphere), when the wind blows from the north temperatures tend to be colder than average. Conversely, when the wind blows from the south temperatures tend to be warmer than average. Cold extremes, those really cold days, occur most frequently when the wind is from the north. This is no real surprise, as the poles are cold and the tropics and equator to our south are warm.

    What the data shows, however, is that days in autumn and winter with northerly winds (blowing from the north) have warmed significantly more than days with southerly winds. The result is a levelling off of temperatures at a new, warmer average as cold days' temperatures rise towards the temperatures of warm days faster than the warm days themselves increase in temperature. Scientists call this a decrease in temperature variance, and it implies fewer temperature extremes, in this case notably fewer cold extremes.

    Again, this makes perfect sense if you consider that the Arctic has warmed more rapidly than places further south. Cold northerly winds are not as cold as they were in the past, because the Arctic air they bring is, like the rest of the Arctic, considerably warmer than it once was.

    The latest climate models suggest that these changes will continue and become more widespread in the future. I examined simulations from 34 different climate models, each run with projected increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. The models all agree that temperatures will warm in all seasons. Towards the pole beyond 40 degrees north, which includes large parts of US, Europe and Asia, temperatures are anticipated to become less variable in all seasons except summer. A warmer and less variable climate has fewer cold extremes.

    There is still a lot to understand about how the dramatic changes occurring in the Arctic will affect weather patterns further south – in particular, if and how the jetstream might be affected will be vital. But there is strong evidence that Arctic warming is taking the edge off those cold northerly winds, meaning the risk of extreme cold waves like that experienced in the US becomes rarer still.

  • Third time unlucky and yet...


    Jim Densham  RSPB Senior Land Use Policy Officer, Climate

    Last week the Scottish Government announced that Scotland had once again missed an annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction target – as set out in Scotland’s Climate Act. scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2014/06/5527/0 

    If that wasn’t bad enough, the nations emissions actually went up in 2012 from 52.5m tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2011 to 52.9m tCO2e. Worse still, this is the third annual target in a row to have been missed and what’s more, all targets have been missed in the years since the Climate Change Act was introduced, ie in the years Scotland had control of setting its own climate policies.

    Not good for a Government which prides itself on the world’s most ambitious climate change target in legislation – a 42% reduction in emission by 2020 (based on 1990 levels). Not good for a Government which prides itself on Climate Justice – helping people in developing countries to adapt to the impacts caused by us in developed nations.

    Dear, oh dear, what a sorry mess. So what to do? Accuse Government of complacency and hubris, and give it a good old kicking in the form of overt criticism? Not this time.

    With our partners in Stop Climate Chaos Scotland (SCCS) we had been lobbying hard for Government to introduce a package of new measures if this third target was missed. SCCS developed five asks and now, Government has announced that it will introduce these new measures and provide £15m of new money http://news.scotland.gov.uk/News/Scotland-on-track-for-2020-climate-target-d63.aspx. The package covers energy efficiency in housing, green transport, district heating, a new cabinet sub-committee on climate change and fertiliser planning for farmers. In response SCCS focussed on Scotland ‘getting back on track’ and on the positive things Government has agreed to http://www.stopclimatechaos.org/news/scottish-climate-change-efforts-step-gear

    So, it is disappointing to have missed yet another target but on the upside, it is excellent that this has prompted Government to do something about it and introduce the policies sought by SCCS. Now, everyone is aiming for fourth time lucky!