By Matt Williams and Melanie Coath
Climate change can pose real challenges to wildlife. Here we explore a bit about how birds are affected, what the RSPB is doing, and one simple thing you can do to help.
Seeing an osprey fly south over my garden a few days ago, I realised that autumn migration is well underway for many of our birds. I can’t help but wonder what difficulties that osprey and other birds will encounter on their travels in the next few weeks. For some of them, a changing climate poses risks that their avian ancestors may not have faced. Desertification may make tough stretches of the journey much longer, or their timing for finding food en route or at their destination may be out of sync.
Osprey, Matt Adam Williams (mattadamwilliams.co.uk)
Species don’t just face these threats on their travels but also at home in the UK too. The loss of suitable habitat, extreme weather events and predators and prey appearing at different times are all examples of these impacts. This is why climate change is the greatest long-term threat to wildlife.
Recent RSPB research shows that in the UK and Europe wildlife is already being negatively impacted. By the end of the century one in six species worldwide could go extinct due to climate change.
Kittiwakes leave our shores in the winter, and some individuals travel as far as Greenland or northern Africa. This species illustrates the problems climate change causes for our birds. Research shows that as warming seas cause plankton to move, sand-eels follow it. These sand-eels are fish that kittiwakes rely on to feed their chicks in the breeding season. As the sand-eels shift northwards, they move away from the cliffs where the kittiwakes make their homes: they have to forage much further out to sea to find food, can struggle to find enough and this is linked to lower chick survival. Their UK population has fallen by 70% since 1986.
Kittiwake, Ed Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Kittiwakes also feel the effects of climate change from another angle. Wildlife can be put at (unnecessary) risk from renewable energy developments if they’re not sited carefully. We urgently need renewable energy to help us cut greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. However energy developments need to be located in places where they will not pose significant harm to wildlife. Poorly sited offshore wind farms can harm kittiwakes and other marine wildlife. Therefore, wherever possible we work to foster good relationships with energy developers to foresee and avoid problems before development starts. An excellent example of this was achieved last month off the coast of East Anglia where we worked with the developer to alter the number of wind turbines and height of the blades to reduce likely harm to kittiwakes, gannets and lesser black-backed gulls.
While the need to deploy renewable energy is pressing, we will object to developments that we know could put wildlife at unacceptable risk. We do this because we also know that, done well, more than enough renewable energy to meet the UK’s needs can be delivered in harmony with nature.
You too can play a role in the move to renewable energy. A key partner we work with positively is Ecotricity and by switching your energy supply not only will you be reducing your carbon footprint and supporting the roll-out of renewable energy but for every switch for gas and electricity supply Ecotricity will provide up to a £50 annual donation to the work of the RSPB.
You can join Ecotricity online via www.ecotricity.co.uk/rspb or by calling on 0808 123 0 123 quoting RSPB1.
By Ananya Mukherjee and Matt Williams
Our colleagues Olly Watts and Melanie Coath recently wrote about the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) latest progress reports. These annual reports set out the Committee’s assessment of how the UK is doing in tackling emissions and preparing for the impacts of climate change.
This blog focuses on three specific areas covered in the reports: fracking, aviation and bioenergy. At first appearance there might not seem to be much that unites these topics. But the Committee on Climate Change report found that new policies will be needed to ensure that these three sectors do not break the UK’s carbon budgets.
One runway too far: why aviation could break the carbon budgets
In its new report the Committee highlights that a new strategy is needed for limiting aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050 (implying at most a 60% increase in demand). Buried in the report is a repeat of a warning the Committee has previously made: that if emissions from aviation exceed these levels – which would be caused by the construction of a new runway at Heathrow – then other sectors of the economy would have to bear even more of the brunt of emissions cuts. The CCC has previously warned that expecting other sectors to do even more is asking a lot, to say the least. The recently agreed international plan on aviation emissions does not go far enough, only requiring voluntary efforts to hold emissions at 2020 levels.
The Committee has previously written to the UK Government asking it to produce a plan for limiting aviation emissions, which would be critical in light of the plans to develop a new runway at Heathrow. The Committee is still waiting, although in recent days the UK Government has published a consultation on a new aviation strategy (although the draft document suggests the UK Government will continue to pass the buck to international negotiations rather than dealing with the problem at home). The RSPB’s own calculations showed that in order to limit flights to sustainable levels could cost up to £600 per tonne of CO2.
Fracking for oil and gas: a shaky foundation for the carbon budgets
Like aviation, the CCC is concerned that fracking could pose a threat to the UK’s ability to meet its carbon budgets. The Committee’s report concludes that new policy will be needed to deal with the emissions from fracking for shale gas. For example, the Committee has advocated a robust monitoring protocol to limit the impact of so-called ‘super-emitters’ (large and unnoticed or unchecked leaks of methane). In a report from 2016, the Committee warned that under current regulation, fracking for shale gas is not compatible with the UK’s carbon budgets.
Bioenergy: high carbon, not zero emissions
Bioenergy is automatically classified as zero carbon when it is used in the energy sector. The incorrect assumption is that the emissions will be properly accounted for in the land use sector. But flawed emissions accounting rules mean they are not.
Whereas many people perceive bioenergy generally to be low or even zero carbon, many types are in fact high-carbon, some of them even higher carbon than the fossil fuels that are replaced. For example, the use of whole trees to generate electricity can result in emissions several times greater than those of coal. So the fact that the emissions accounting rules don’t work properly really matters, because millions of tonnes of emissions could be going missing, completely unaccounted for (as the recent report published by Chatham House concluded).
We’re increasingly treated to newspaper headlines about the UK’s declining coal use, but conversion to biomass means that we may be replacing one high carbon fuel with another. While bioenergy’s negative effect on the climate is all too real it’s being brushed under the carpet. This further jeopardises the UK’s genuine progress in meeting its carbon budgets.
The Committee highlights the need to focus on sustainable bioenergy. It also calls for a review of the UK Government’s 2012 Bioenergy Strategy, which could help to address the policies driving the use of high-carbon biomass.
The sectors that could break the budgets
The UK has made good progress to date in cutting emissions, in large part through low hanging fruit like the closure of coal plants. But we are already off course for meeting our fourth and fifth carbon budgets, unless new policies are introduced. In this recent report, the Committee on Climate Change underlines three sectors that could make it even harder for the UK to meet future targets, placing even more pressure on other parts of the economy.
The UK’s imminent exit from the EU could leave us outside of EU law on climate and energy for the period after 2020. Therefore, an ambitious Clean Growth Plan will need to set out how the Government plans to get us back on track for meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. But this Plan will not be enough on its own, and new policies or strategies are needed to deal with the significant emissions risks from bioenergy, aviation and fracking.