The Climate Coalition’s Show the Love campaign this year has made it clear that the public, including RSPB supporters, are concerned about the effects climate change could have on the things they love. If Government wants to address their concerns it needs to honour its Paris Agreement commitments (to pursue efforts to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees) by delivering action on climate change at home.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the wildlife we care about and the special places where it lives, including RSPB nature reserves and it is already affecting species across the UK and Europe.
To tackle climate change, the Governments of the UK urgently need to put us back on track to meet our emissions reduction and renewable energy targets. The Committee on Climate Change thinks that Government plans right now aren’t going to be enough to meet these targets in the coming decade.
But there are of course good ways and not-so-good ways to get us back on course. All renewable energy comes with risks for nature depending on where it is located and how it is operated. But these risks can be managed, as our Energy Vision report made clear last year.
Bioenergy is no exception. It can pose risks to both the climate and the environment. Bioenergy is the production of electricity, heat or fuels for transport from organic materials such as straw, wastes, residues or forest products, sometimes including wood pellets made from trees that have been newly cut down. Biomass already provides around one third of the renewable energy the UK produces.
Today two new independent reports (here and here) about biomass have been published by research institute Chatham House. The reports conclude that large quantities of emissions from biomass used for energy could be going missing, due to gaps in the international rules for accounting for land use emissions.
Furthermore, scientific evidence produced by the UK government shows that some types of biomass can result in emissions three times worse than those from coal, even forty years after combustion, when direct and indirect land use change like soil carbon changes are taken into account. So while the urgency of reducing emissions has never been greater, some supposedly low-carbon bioenergy could actually be causing increases in emissions.
The new reports shine a light on the way emissions from biomass are accounted for. Emissions from biomass are not counted in the energy sector because under international carbon accounting rules they are meant to be counted in the land use sector. Therefore, the UK assumes that biomass is zero carbon when used for energy. But Canada and the US aren’t signed up to these international rules, so when biomass from those countries is burned in the UK, the emissions don’t get counted anywhere. The UK currently imports over 5.5 million tonnes of wood biomass from the US and Canada every year to be burned for electricity, as I saw first hand last year. Here is a photo of a pile of logs at one of the wood pellet mills in the southeastern US, waiting to be pelletised and shipped to the UK to be burned for energy. These trees have spent years, if not decades, locking up carbon. They will now have been pelletised and burned, releasing that carbon to the atmosphere.
Credit: Matt Adam Williams
As a result very large emissions from burning this wood are going missing from the UK’s accounts meaning that a so-called ‘renewable’ energy source could actually be resulting in emissions increases. The report calls for urgent improvements to address these accounting gaps, in order to avoid the emissions ‘going missing’.
Bioenergy can clearly cause harm to the climate by resulting in emissions increases instead of savings. And we know from past experience and evidence that it can harm wildlife too. But, done sensitively and with the right safeguards in place, bioenergy can help wildlife and the climate. For example, on our own reserves we’ve successfully experimented with using the waste material from conservation management to produce energy, such as material from some of our reedbed habitats. And the careful use of biomass from currently undermanaged UK broadleaf woodlands could help woodland birds, butterflies and plants.
In order to limit the use of unsustainable bioenergy and ensure that all emissions are properly accounted for, there are some clear actions the Governments of the UK could take:
- Work with other countries to address the gaps in international land use emissions accounting rules.
- Limit the role that bioenergy will play in the UK Government’s forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan.
- Review the UK’s bioenergy Strategy and whether the policies in place to deliver it are driving the use of sustainable bioenergy that is delivering genuine emissions reductions.
- Channel support towards the most sustainable kinds of biomass, such as genuine wastes and residues or material produced during the management of nature reserves.
Two new reports, one for England and one for Europe, remind us of the seriousness of climate change’s impacts, and the position of the natural environment at the centre of much of this. Yet both are also a rallying call for action – indeed, Defra’s report heralds the development of the second National Adaptation Programme.
Announcing the second Climate Change Risk Assessment, Defra Minister Lord Gardiner recognised that ‘Our changing climate is one of the most serious environmental challenges that we face as a nation’. Of six headline risks, flooding and coastal change, and risks to health, wellbeing and productivity are given the highest ratings. Water shortages, risks to natural capital, and risks to food production (both here and abroad) all get the top urgency score, requiring more action. Pests, diseases and invasive species form the sixth headline risk, a research priority.
That’s a pretty comprehensive sweep of impacts across nature and the environment. Delving into the detail, there’s top priority for risks to species and habitats from their inability to respond to changing climatic conditions. Various other aspects, from farming and soils to water bodies and the marine environment, are all checked as needing action. Along with the rest of the world, our own known wildlife and familiar places are changing, and facing greater changes.
So it’s good that Lord Gardiner is also clear about developing a long-term programme to tackle these risks to protect the nation better today and for future generations. Work now starts on the next National Adaptation Programme and I’ll be working to ensure that wildlife and habitats get the recognition and action they need. Alongside this, Defra’s much-anticipated 25 year environment plan is committed to taking climate change into account – and if it doesn’t, it will fail.
Adaptation at RSPB Wallasea Island, creating new coastal marshes for wildlife and water management
Following Defra’s account, the European Environment Agency also has a major new report, of climate change’s observed and projected impacts and vulnerability across Europe. Different regions across Europe are affected differently, making it hard to summarise concisely. Yet the report is clear that climate change has wide ranging impacts on ecosystems, economies and human health; that humans have significantly changed the climate and increased the magnitude of many extreme weather events; and that climate change will continue for many decades to come. As for the UK, most of the effects are adverse.
Is it all doom and gloom? Well, yes and no. Things are definitely serious: yet we also know what we need to do. The EEA’s call that ‘better and more flexible adaptation strategies, policies and measures will be crucial’ is now widely recognised – and our new National Adaptation Programme can take this on board. We know much more about using nature based solutions to adapt - planting trees for shade, re-meandering rivers to slow flood waters, creating coastal marshes to cope with rising and more energetic seas. As climate change moves into most areas of our lives, there’s wider recognition of the need to take action – it’s not just about wildlife, or flooding, but our health and our economies are increasingly affected. What transpires in America is of course important yet, either way, should encourage us all to work harder to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and real progress is being made across the world.
And for me, some of our most encouraging responses are seen in the RSPB’s own adaptation work. Many of our nature reserves are not just affected by, but also responding to, the impacts of climate change. Many are responding in magnificent ways - bigger wetlands to welcome species new to our shores, innovative ways to manage for water shortages, improving coastlines, making peatbogs resilient, planting for the future: there is so much going on.
So - visit an RSPB nature reserve, learn about what's happening with climate change there, and feel inspired by action!