This post was written by Pip Roddis, Policy Officer in the RSPB's Sustainable Development Team
Last week the RSPB published its latest report on energy and climate change – ‘The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision: Meeting the UK’s climate targets in harmony with nature’. It has been two years in the making, and has involved more than 40 people from across the RSPB. It was launched to a positive reception at twin launch events in London and Edinburgh on Tuesday 24th May, and has initiated a debate about how the UK can decarbonise its energy supply and meet its climate targets whilst protecting wildlife at the same time.
The key finding of the report is that it is possible to meet the 2050 targets, using high levels of renewable energy, with low risk for sensitive species and habitats. These findings are underpinned by rigorous scientific analysis, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal this week to coincide with the launch of the report. It’s a great example of the RSPB’s collaborative, evidence-based approach to policy. See Martin Harper’s blog for more detail on our findings and our key recommendations on how to ensure nature is safeguarded in the UK’s low carbon transition, including better use of spatial planning, investment in new innovative technologies and further research in order to close ecological data gaps.
The launch event in London kicked off with Martin Harper (pictured below) presenting the report to an audience of MPs, civil servants, representatives from the energy industry, academics and the NGO community. As the chair of the event, Sue Armstrong-Brown (Policy Director at Green Alliance) commented: this report is well timed as political attention is now focused on domestic UK energy and climate policy, following the international climate negotiations in Paris last year. For instance, the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget (one of the stepping stones towards the overall 2050 target) will soon be announced. It is important that the plan to deliver this carbon budget includes considerations of the potential impacts on nature right from the beginning, as well as demonstrating strong climate ambition.
Next, our expert panel responded to the report from each of their perspectives. Rebecca Pow MP (pictured below) spoke from her experience as a member of the Environmental Audit and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committees – and as a Species Champion for the snipe, one of the UK’s threatened bird species. She highlighted that nature is inextricably linked to how we produce energy, and the crucial need for a holistic approach to planning the UK’s energy future that brings together different government departments working on these crosscutting issues.
Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change (pictured below), concurred with the need to incorporate environmental considerations into energy planning right from the beginning. However, he called on the audience to be alert to the fact that many technologies in the RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision – such as onshore wind, solar power and CCS technologies – have had economic support removed by the Government, and the urgent need to invest in these technologies to secure a sustainable, low carbon future for the UK.
Barry Gardiner MP was followed by Leonie Greene, Head of External Affairs at the Solar Trade Association (pictured above), who highlighted the opportunities that solar farms offer to boost biodiversity and deliver renewable energy in harmony with nature. She also pointed to the challenges currently facing the UK’s solar industry. The panel concluded with Stephen Wilkinson, Vice President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (pictured below), who emphasised the need for strong spatial planning to avoid conflicts between nature and renewable energy development, as well as the inclusion of local communities and a comprehensive sustainable energy strategy for the UK.
The panel was followed by questions from the audience, which initiated a lively and thoughtful debate – including the political barriers to overcoming sustainable energy challenges, the need for greater certainty for the renewable energy industry, and the urgent need for better spatial planning using robust ecological data. The wide-ranging questions indicated just how comprehensive the sustainable energy challenge really is, and the need for multiple stakeholders to work together to come towards a solution.
The debate prompted the start of many important conversations about how the UK can meet its climate targets in harmony with nature, and we hope to keep these conversations going as the UK makes critical decisions about its role in the global low carbon transition. You can continue to join the debate online at #power4nature, or if you have any thoughts or comments contact email@example.com. We all need to be part of this vital conversation; we look forward to hearing from you.
By Pip Roddis, Policy Officer.
If any of you have been following RSPB’s blogs over the past few months (for example, see here and here), you will know that we’ve been undertaking a major piece of research on renewable energy and the potential risks for wildlife in the UK’s low carbon transition. We’re very pleased to say that we will be publishing our research next week in a report called ‘The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision: Meeting the UK’s climate targets in harmony with nature’.
We don’t want to give too much away before the big day (Tuesday 24th May), but look out for the report on Twitter using #power4nature. We will be putting forward a positive vision for the UK’s energy future, and we hope that this will act as a catalyst for a debate about how the UK can deliver its important 2050 climate change targets securely, affordably and in harmony with nature.
We look forward to sharing more with you next week.
I returned yesterday from a meeting at the European Commission on bioenergy. The discussion was about new sustainability criteria that would apply to all bioenergy across the EU from 2020 onwards. Bioenergy currently makes up around 2/3 of all the renewable energy used in the EU, and in the UK it's even higher at 72%.
Only a few member states have sustainability criteria right now, including the UK. But the new criteria would apply to all member states. These criteria are badly needed, since the existing use of biomass for transport, heat and energy has led to severe impacts on biodiversity, has sometimes failed to deliver emissions reductions, in some cases potentially even resulted in increases in emissions.
These problems have arisen because many policy makers have assumed that bioenergy is carbon neutral. They have based this assumption on the misconception that the emissions will be fully accounted for in the land sector and therefore don't need to be accounted for in the energy sector. This is flawed because the rules for accounting emissions in the land use sector contain numerous loopholes. In effect this results in many emissions 'going missing', and never being counted.
Yesterday's stakeholder conference brought together over 100 representatives, mostly from the bioenergy industry. The meeting was opened with the news that in the recent consultation on this issue 57,000 US citizens had submitted messages asking for European policies to stop the destruction of US forests for bioenergy. A few NGOs were present in the room as well as some policy makers. There was a clear divide between many of the industry and policy makers' views and the concerns expressed by NGOs, including myself.
Many feel that we can deal with the risks posed by bioenergy through weak sustainability criteria and through the land use emissions accounting rules. These accounting rules, in their current form, will do little to deal with the emissions generated when biomass is burned. It's also important to note that in many cases burning biomass, particularly whole trees, can be more polluting than the fossil fuels it replaces, simply because wood is less energy dense per unit weight than coal. And this effect can last many decades or longer as the trees slowly regrow.
Instead of the proposals put forward yesterday, many NGOs, including RSPB, are calling for:
- Full carbon accounting in the energy sector, including biogenic emissions
- Robust safeguards for the natural environment
- The optimum use of limited bioenergy resources
- A cap on the overall amount of bioenergy used in line with available, sustainable supply.
We consider that there are some sustainable kinds of biomass that are genuinely sustainable and truly deliver emissions reductions. In particular the use of combined heat and power or heat only power plants that are very efficient, and the use of genuine wastes and residues, very limited use of energy crops and arisings from nature conservation such as of UK woodlands.
We hope that, when it proposes its new legislation on biomass later this year, the European Commission will take these views from NGOs clearly into account.