Climate change

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Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • Two missed opportunities to protect the world's forests

    Sadly, 17 Jan 2018 will go down in my memory as a series of missed opportunities to protect the world’s forests.
    The UK and the EU currently rely heavily on burning wood to generate ‘renewable’ energy. But burning millions of tonnes of trees every year is actually bad news for the climate. It sends carbon dioxide straight up into the atmosphere at around the same rate as coal, sometimes at an even higher rate. And it can take years, decades or even longer for this carbon dioxide to be recaptured by regrowing trees. Such a strategy makes little sense when we urgently need to bring emissions down in order to tackle climate change. Hundreds of scientists expressed this to European politicians in the days running up to the vote and urged them to act to protect forests.
    It’s also putting precious forests at risk in Europe and the US at a time when other pressures on them are growing too. From illegal logging in old-growth forests in Poland to climate change increasing the risks of forest fires in the southeast US (forests from which the UK imports millions of tonnes of wood every year to burn in its power stations).
    But back to yesterday: first came a crucial vote in the European Parliament on the role of bioenergy from 2021-2030. Politicians in Brussels had a critical opportunity to ban the use of stumps and roundwood (whole trees) from being used for energy. Unfortunately, they missed the chance to do so, ignoring very clear scientific evidence that these types of biomass can increase (instead of reducing) emissions.
    These scientists know that burning millions of tonnes of trees for energy every year makes little sense if your objective is to reduce emissions in the short term (which we urgently need to do) or to protect biodiversity. Europe’s and the US’s forests, and their wildlife, are suffering as a result.
    Later that day came an announcement from the UK Government on the renewable subsidies they provide to power plants that convert from coal to using woody biomass. This decision is important as the UK plans to phase out coal altogether by 2025, and plant may be examining the possibility of converting to biomass.
    The UK Government’s decision regarding changes to subsidies was clearly not enough to put the brakes on the harmful use of wood for energy. Later that day, Drax power plant (in Yorkshire, and Europe's largest wood-burning power station), which has already converted three of its six units to biomass, announced that it will continue with the conversion of a fourth unit. In 2016 Drax burned 1.2 million tonnes of roundwood (whole trees), with 850,000 tonnes of this imported from the US. This industry is having a huge effect on forests and wildlife in the southeast US.
    In the consultation on these proposed subsidy changes the Government acknowledge that compared to other renewables biomass co-firing or conversion from coal provides little or no carbon savings. This begs the question of why they didn’t opt for much more stringent changes that would deter further use of woody biomass. Instead changes that were designed to restrict this type of biomass have put the wind in the sails of a further conversion at Drax.
    If politicians continue on such a course, then they’re putting the world’s forests and biodiversity at further risk. And the emissions released by burning these trees are undermining the strides made in reducing emissions by booming technologies like solar power
    Unfortunately all of this bad news has overshadowed some small but important steps forward that the European Parliament made yesterday to improve coherence between European energy and nature protection policy and objectives. Stay tuned for more on this slight glimmer of a silver lining tomorrow.
  • Reflections on the UN's climate change conference from NatureFiji-MaregetiViti

    By Siteri Tikoca MSc, Conservation Officer, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti

    Towards the end of September, 2017 I was offered an opportunity to be part of the UNFCCC COP23 meeting as the Pacific representative representing NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV) as part of the Birdlife International partnership. With support from our Birdlife International UK partner, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), I was able to be present throughout the two weeks of the conference from the 6th – 17th November. It was the World’s 23rd Conference of Parties and it was special as it was the first time a small island developing state (Fiji) played the leading presidency role.

    I was quite excited as this would be a number of “firsts” for me. First time to step foot in Europe, first time being involved in an international conference of this scale where important representatives from almost 200 countries meet to discuss the world’s most present and pressing issue and threat; climate change. This is only my 2nd year working in the area of conservation, as the Conservation Officer with Fiji’s only local membership-based conservation NGO, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti hence this was going to be my first COP!

    I didn’t know what to expect from the conference, I wasn’t aware of the processes, I was quite nervous but at the same time excited by the huge learning opportunity this trip could provide to me personally and what I could bring back to benefit NFMV. I saw it as an opportunity to bring our native voices to that international platform and try our best to be heard for the sake of saving our home and the species that makes them special. On my first day, I was in awe of it all, the huge venues, the meeting spaces, the multicultural people and expertise present, everything!

    In the second week I gave presentations at two side events based on challengers to natural heritage brought about by climate change and what NFMV was doing about it. I talked about the link between the iTaukei’s (native Fijians and its communities) to the “vanua” (the land, the diverse ecosystems and species within it, and its culture). My talk focused on current studies and conservation actions currently being conducted by NFMV on the ground to save some of Fiji’s endangered and endemic species which are also important totem species for a number of communities.  

    Most side events and panel discussions attended by the Birdlife International representatives (including myself) were focused on natural based solutions and ecosystem based adaptations. Attending these side events made me realise that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of natural adaptation and mitigation measures for climate change and helped me identify opportunities where NFMV can sort funding and help do our part in this fight against climate change.

    I made a lot of new friends and built network that I thought was important for NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, moving forward. I had high hopes for the outcome of the conference as we (Fiji) were given a rare opportunity to guide negotiations, talks and commitment in the direction needed on behalf of all the small island developing states in the Pacific that do not have time for politics as our survival depended on it. I was quite disappointed at the outcome as no concrete commitments or agreements were reached about reduction of carbon emissions and an agenda was set for further discussions next year meaning that we’ll just have to wait another year, wasting time that, quite frankly, we don’t have!

    I have learnt a lot of useful lessons from my participation in COP23. I have learnt that there are processes that have to be followed when trying to impact change at a global scale and change, irrespective of how important and necessary it is, takes a lot of time! I have learnt that sometimes people will not see things the way you see it because they are either ignorant or simply unaware of the realities in other parts of the world. I have learnt the power of speaking out in large numbers with one voice, and one loud message, I was able to see things from my Pacific neighbour’s point of view and learnt of the urgency and the need for everyone to work together and not think of themselves only. Also, that we can’t keep waiting for other nations to agree to do something. There are little things that we can start working on, and we should see how we can mobilise funds and resources on the ground to kick start these initiatives while waiting for the whole world to do their part! But that it is also important that we never lose hope!

  • Swamp farming comes to Britain?

    The situation with climate change is so tight that, if we want to achieve the Paris target of 1.5 Celsius average global temperature (and we must), we need to bring land management into the frame of action, and do so urgently.

    Peatlands in the UK leak huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – 16 million tonnes of CO2e every year, the same as half the national GHG savings we make. This is because, overall, they’re in really poor condition, with bare peat eroding and losing carbon to both streams and sky.  On blanket bogs, this is relatively easy to fix, by restoring habitat.

    But the biggest carbon loss from peatlands in England comes from our agricultural peat soils, and this presents a much trickier problem.   Perhaps because agriculture began on the arid soils of the Middle East, we’ve come to believe that the only route to productive land is to drain it.  So we’ve drained peatlands for farming, across eastern England, in the south west, in the north west.  With an even more pronounced impact than in the uplands – four metres of soil gone in East Anglia, clearly shown by the Holme Fen post.  


    The Holme Fen post - the top was level with the ground in 1851

    Which is where swamp farming comes in. We need to keep productive, economic use on much of our farmed peatlands, but we need to do this in more appropriate ways. Grow useful crops on wet soils, keeping the carbon locked up in the soil, and indeed keeping the very soil in its place, halting the long-running erosion. Such agriculture is widespread globally, and known as paludiculture – from the Latin palus meaning swamp.

    I’ve been at a conference looking at the different things we might grow on re-wetted soils in the UK, and thinking about how we might make this shift. Practical research, trials and economic assessments  are well advanced in Germany. We heard of 75 potential crop species, with products ranging from food to medicines, insulation and biomass, fodder and construction materials.  Horticulture is in the mix too, a popular activity on peat soils.  And peat extraction companies were also present, interested in growing Sphagnum moss as a replacement for peat in composts.

    A lot of opportunity, yet no-one is pretending this is going to be easy. Establishing new markets is just as important as establishing new crops. So the promising signals from the Committee on Climate Change recommending sustainable soil use by 2030, and from early stakeholder discussions on Defra’s England Peat Strategy, need to be matched with similar interest from the business and market development sectors of Government.  With this, we could be well on the way to the greener post-Brexit Britain our politicians are talking up - and adding a crucial piece of the jigsaw towards the UK meeting our global climate change responsibilities.

    Many thanks to Natural England and Cumbria Wildlife Trust for an inspiring event, hopefully a truly ground breaking one: paludiculture, swamp farming in Britain, just might have been started here.