Today the Government has signalled its preference for a new runway at Heathrow. A vote in Parliament next year will result in a final decision. The RSPB has long had an interest in the issue of airport development, most recently and notably when there was a proposal for an airport in the Thames Estuary, one of the most wildlife rich areas of our islands. We and others campaigned against this idea and it was rejected by the Airports Commission.
The Government’s announcement today is disappointing, even if not the end of the story. The RSPB currently opposes expansion of the UK’s airports. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to wildlife, and aviation is one of the hardest sectors of the economy to decarbonise. While today's emissions from aviation make up around 6% of UK emissions, they would make up about 50% of emissions by 2050 if we meet our carbon reduction targets.
Heathrow Terminal 4 Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz (Mariordo), WikiCommons
However, the Government is pressing ahead without a solid plan for tackling the emissions that a new runway would result in. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that aviation emissions need to remain at 2005 levels by 2050 – this involves substantially restricting demand for flights. Even without a new runway the Department for Transport predicts that we will overshoot that demand.
Keeping aviation emissions at 2005 levels puts an extra burden on the rest of the economy to cut its emissions, and that’s with the UK aiming for no more than two degrees of global temperature rise. But the Paris Agreement, that the UK has signed up to, aims for 1.5 degrees of temperature rise at most. The Committee on Climate Change says this means emissions cuts will need to be even more ambitious than previously thought.
To meet these targets we will need a solid plan for dealing with the resulting emissions from increased flights. Technological improvements and the use of biofuels might make a small dent in these emissions but there are some big ifs there for small gains.
The international aviation emissions deal done in the last couple of weeks aims to hold emissions at 2020 levels, nowhere near ambitious enough for the UK which should be aiming for 2005 emissions levels or even less to hit 1.5 degrees.
So this leaves Government in a carbon quandary. There are strong voices calling for new runways in order to meet and spur economic growth. Yet analysis by CE Delft for the RSPB a couple of years ago showed that many of the claims about the importance of a new runway for economic growth are overblown. There will now be a long consultation. Expect to hear a great deal about air pollution, noise and climate change.
The official announcement claims that 'The government believes that a new runway at Heathrow can be delivered within the UK’s carbon obligations.' But other than a reference to the ICAO deal, which will not be sufficient, they do not state how they will achieve this. In addition the statement explains that 'The government will make meeting air quality legal requirements a condition of planning approval. Experts have so far indicated that they cannot see how this could be achieved. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-decides-on-new-runway-at-heathrow
At a time when the Committee on Climate Change concludes that the UK is already off course on our emissions and it says those targets are not ambitious enough, a huge new piece of carbon infrastructure is a wrong turn that would put the climate and wildlife at greater risk.
The UK has announced that it will ratify the United Nations Paris climate deal before the end of 2016, striving to maintain its international reputation on climate change. This is great news and will be vital to putting the UK and the world on a course that avoids some of the worst risks of climate change to wildlife. Just last week the Committee on Climate Change concluded that meeting the Paris ambition of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees will need renewed efforts from the UK Government that put us on course to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
If you too were pleased to see these announcements you might also be worried by the recent news that the Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Select Committee folded at the start of this week. Could this risk undermining this role of international leadership and how well the UK will do in terms of driving a net zero economy by 2050?
Cross-parliamentary committees such as ECC provide crucial scrutiny of the Westminster Government’s policies and decisions and provide important platforms for stakeholders such as NGOs to be heard through written or oral evidence.
They also challenge Government in areas where it could do better and provide useful recommendations on proactive or remedial action. Take the recent report from the ECC Committee explaining that the UK is on course to meet its renewable electricity targets but severely off course on renewable heat and transport.
At a time when the UK looks set to miss these targets, and when there are shortfalls in policies to deliver the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (according to the independent Committee on Climate Change) scrutiny of the Government’s energy and climate agenda is a critical role the new Committee can play.
The pressure is on for Government to take action but any lack of scrutiny could lead to perverse outcomes and decisions that are inefficient, cost more in the long term, put the natural environment at risk and fail to deliver sufficient emissions reductions.
The Committee will be merged with the existing Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to form a new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. This reflects the new Departmental Government structure in Westminster since the Department of Energy and Climate Change was abolished earlier this Summer and energy and climate policy merged with the pre-existing Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
A more general Committee could provide the opportunity for MPs to scrutinise where the Government could take more opportunities to dovetail low-carbon with wider industrial policies. But it could also lead to fewer inquiries on energy and climate change issues and reduce the expertise in Parliament on such issues. A sub-committee on energy and climate change would be a welcome element.
We hope that we can continue to work positively with Select Committees and that the amount of time and scrutiny spent on examining Government’s track record on energy and climate change will remain the same or even increase.
One of the first orders of business for a new Committee or sub-Committee could be looking at how Government could better align industrial and low-carbon strategy to meet future carbon budgets in harmony with nature. They may find our recent Energy Vision report on this very topic interesting reading.
So my boss Martin Harper has written to the Chair of the new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Iain Wright MP, to welcome him to his new role and to set out what we think some of the key challenges and questions for the new Committee could be.
To begin with, what is bioenergy?
Bioenergy involves the use of organic (very often plant-based) materials to generate energy for heat, electricity and transport. In some cases, bioenergy provides emissions reductions compared to fossil fuels, thereby helping to tackle climate change. In other cases it doesn’t result in these savings, or even increases emissions, and it can also pose risks to wildlife.
That’s why RSPB is joining other environmental organisations across the world today in calling for bioenergy that protects wildlife, forests and the climate, and for risky practices to be brought to an end.
But what role does bioenergy play in our energy system, why does it pose risks, and which kinds of bioenergy can help wildlife?
1. In the UK, in terms of renewable energy (heat and electricity) input bioenergy contributes 71%, compared to 29% from solar and wind. This includes types of materials such as ‘plant biomass’, ‘domestic wood’, ‘sewage gas’ and ‘transport biofuels’. It’s important to note that this is the input of energy. When it comes to the energy used by consumers (the energy output), bioenergy was responsible for just over one third of renewable electricity.
2. Bioenergy is made from all sorts of materials, from maize crops to animal sludge, to hardwood trees cut down abroad and turned into wood pellets. It is used for heat, electricity and transport in the form of a gas, a solid or a liquid. In 2015 the UK imported 2.7 million oven dried tonnes of wood from North America, which is used predominantly in power plants, and used 370 million litres of biofuels for vehicles (made mostly from used cooking oil and sugar beet), just under 3% of all the fuels used for vehicles in the UK.
3. Bioenergy can help wildlife. In the UK, many of our broadleaf woodlands have fallen out of management which can affect woodland wildlife like fritillary butterflies. While carbon risks of using trees for energy would need to be carefully managed, brining these woodlands back into management could provide a useful way of helping declining woodland species. The RSPB has successfully trialled the use of material from its own nature reserves, such as our reedbeds, as a bioenergy material.
4. But some kinds of bioenergy can pose risks to wildlife. The use of trees or crops to generate energy relies in many cases on the availability of land. In April this year I travelled to the southeastern United States. Millions of tonnes of wood pellets are produced there every year and shipped to Europe, including the UK, to be used for energy. I saw the impacts this is having on some of the incredible forests there, which are being logged to produce pellets. I saw with my own eyes the bald eagles, turtles, great blue herons and egrets that live in some of these magnificent wetland forests.
A clearcut in a wetland hardwood forest in the southeastern USA, that has been cut down and turned into wood pellets to be used for energy in the UK; credit: Matt Adam Williams
5. It can be worse for the climate to use bioenergy than to use fossil fuels. Burning trees for energy releases carbon dioxide straight into the atmosphere. Because wood is less energy dense than coal, more carbon dioxide is released than by fossil fuels. This carbon dioxide might eventually be recaptured by new trees, but this can take years, decades or even longer, and we should be reducing emissions right now. The Department of Energy and Climate Change science team produced a detailed analysis of this a couple of years ago reaching this conclusion, and we also produced our own report. In fact, evidence suggests that using whole trees can be up to three times worse for the climate than coal even forty years later. We have long been asking decision-makers to introduce new regulations to reduce these risks, and to stop counting bioenergy as 'zero carbon' when it so clearly isn't.
If you would like to find out even more about bioenergy, this recent piece by New Scientist may be of interest. And prominent climate change campaigner Bill McKibben also recently wrote this piece.
Our friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council have published a report this week on why other kinds of renewable energy can be more cost effective than bioenergy too.
Calling for support for sustainable bioenergy was one of the ten recommendations in our recent Energy Vision report, setting out how the UK could meet its carbon reduction targets using renewable energy in harmony with nature. You can read the report here.