June, 2012

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Ambitions for Rio+20: a guest blog from the Deputy Prime Minister

    The countdown to the Rio+20 conference continues and I hope that you (like me!) have been enjoying reading Mark’s short essays reflecting on the state of the planet and the challenges facing nature.  Today, I am delighted to welcome a contribution from the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP.  He will be leading the UK Government’s delegation to Rio next week and his ambitions are outlined below.  At the end of his blog I have outlined how you can ask the DPM a question and I have also shared with you the ambitions that the RSPB has for the conference.


    From the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP

    Next week I’m leading the UK delegation to the Rio+20 Summit, two decades after the original Earth Summit. Back then world leaders agreed – for the first time ever – that development must not come at any cost. They recognised the dangers of making a dash for growth by hoovering up or destroying precious resources: you’ll only find yourself poorer in the end. 

    But the legacy of that momentous meeting is seriously under threat. Despite the progress that has been made, the vision set out in 1992 remains a long way off. And, now, as turmoil continues in the Eurozone, there is a real risk that in many major economies we’ll see sustainability sacrificed in the name of growth.

    That would be a huge mistake. Our economic and environmental agendas go hand in hand (a point the RSPB has been making for years). We will only deliver lasting prosperity by conserving resources and learning to live within our means. And it’s more important than ever that we respect the natural environment on which future wealth depends.

    So Rio must – once again – deliver a show of solidarity from the international community: there can be no more living only for today if we are to deliver a better tomorrow. I want to pay tribute to the work Birdlife International has been doing to encourage governments around the world to be bold when we meet next week. I’ll be pushing – with the help of Caroline Spelman – for three big things:

    First, national governments must move beyond a narrow understanding of wealth. Right now we judge how well a country is doing by looking almost exclusively at the money it makes. But to fully judge success we need a kind of ‘GDP+’, which takes into account the state of assets like forests or coastal areas – vital natural capital. We’re reforming the UK’s national accounts so that, by 2020, they also reflect our natural wealth. In Brazil I’ll be pressing our international partners to follow suit.

    Second, Rio must set out a plan for the future. That’s why I want us to kickstart a package of Sustainable Development Goals to help meet the fundamental challenges we now face. Like feeding growing populations; ensuring everyone has clean water; giving people access to green energy too. Agreeing these goals will be no mean feat – it will take an enormous diplomatic effort. But now is the moment to get them off the ground.

    Finally, Rio must get business on board. Many firms still have no idea how they impact on our environment. That isn’t just bad for the planet. It makes companies inefficient and depletes the resources they themselves depend on. Plus their customers and investors have a right to this information too. So it’s time for governments to give ‘sustainability reporting’ a much-needed global push, getting more companies to green their books.

    1992 was a triumph and next week governments from across the globe must revive the spirit and ambition of our predecessors. It’s time to set the agenda for the next twenty years. 


    What would you like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister about Rio+20?

    You can ask your question by commenting on this blog (if you are not already registered on RSPB Communities you will need to do so - see here for find out how) – alternatively we will be taking questions via Twitter and Facebook.  We’ll pick the best 20 questions for the Deputy Prime Minister to answer on his return from Rio+20.

    Finally, today two of my colleagues (Tim Stowe and Sacha Cleminson) will be flying out to the conference to join our BirfdLife International Partners in Rio. You will be able to recieve updates on their experiences by reading their blogs which will apear hereIn preparation for this conference, we have worked with Green Alliance to produce a series of essays entitled ‘Rio+20 Where It Should Lead’ from business, political and NGO leaders to stimulate fresh debate about how we rise to the sustainable development challenge set twenty years ago. You can read a copy of this report hereAs BirdLife International, we shall at Rio be making the case for the following:

    1. A green economy in the context of sustainable development: We want governments to demonstrate global leadership to re-direct the global economy towards a sustainable pathway.  The resilience of the global economy is intimately linked to the state of the environment . Will want governments to mainstream consideration of nature across policy formulation and decision-making processes, and reflect it clearly in indicators of socio-economic development and growth. We want governments to recognise that healthy ecosystems underpin our lives and that the poorest and most vulnerable are frequently the most dependent on them. Governments must provide the investment needed to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems.  We also want governments to phase out and redirect harmful and perverse incentives that act to undermine sustainable development.

    2. Securing our oceans: We strongly support efforts to protect and restore marine ecosystems and in particular we a) support the call for negotiation of an implementing agreement to the United Nations Law of the Sea that would address the sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including effective safeguard for ecologically and biologically significant areas and b) calls on states to reduce fish harvest to levels that allow stocks to rebuild, in order to restore, by 2015, and maintain depleted fish stocks above levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield. For stocks which, despite targeted measures, fail to achieve this target, science-based management plans should be implemented in order to restore and maintain populations to these levels within the shortest timeframe biologically possible

    3. Biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): we support the development of a set of universally agreed Sustainable Development Goals that will accelerate and help measure progress towards sustainable development. However, it is essential that Governments ensure that a) the underpinning role of nature and biodiversity is clearly reflected in the SDGs b) the SDGs and their indicators link explicitly to the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 (agreed in Nagoya in 2010) and its associated indicators c) a process is established to follow from Rio+20 that will agree the themes of the SDGs.and d) Any indicative list of themes to be decided upon at Rio+20 should not restrict the choice of SDGs by this future process.

    4. Framework for action: To ensure coherent progress towards sustainable development, priority cross-cutting issues (e.g. forests and biodiversity, oceans, food security and agriculture, energy and water) identified in the Rio+20 outcomes require urgent action. They must link and refer to the delivery of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

    Good luck to all those (politicians, business leaders and NGOs) that are going to Rio.  Please do come back with concrete commitments.  Mark’s final essays will appear over the next few days after which I shall reflect on the successes (we hope) of the Rio conference. 


  • The coming ‘cold rush’

    I've handed the reins of my blog over to Mark Avery for most of June. Mark's sharing the successes and challenges of saving nature around the world in the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

    It is unclear when the first person got to the North Pole, but it may well have been Roald Amundsen, 14 years after he beat Scott to the South Pole, as other previous claims of success are now doubted. 

    The Arctic is equally deserving of Scott’s description of Antarctica; ‘Great god! This is an awful place…’ but as the planet warms, and the Arctic has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the world, and with technological advances, the Arctic will become more accessible to development. 

    Arctic sea ice has reduced in extent by about 2.7% each decade since 1978 and this will open up the Arctic Ocean to more shipping and to fisheries but there may also be a mixing of marine species between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which hasn’t occurred in the last 800,000 years and ice-dependent polar bears and seals will suffer from loss of habitat.

    Unlike the Antarctic where there is a global convention banning exploitation, the Arctic is up for grabs and it seems more and more likely that there will be a ‘cold rush’ in future to exploit its oil, gas and fish.

    Thinking of the Arctic challenges our view of our planet – quite literally. Get a globe and look down at the North Pole and you will see that Canada, the USA and Russia are all near neighbours in this area and the prospect of a ‘gold rush’ style ‘cold rush’ is worrying. Gold rushes have not been polite, orderly or very safe affairs and it is to be hoped that with nuclear powers involved, Arctic exploitation, which seems inevitable, might be managed better.

    The Arctic accounts for about 13% of the undiscovered oil, 30% of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world. As oil prices rise these resources may become too tempting to resist, and I suppose, that if they are exploited in the best possible way then they should be tapped.

    Scientists are calling for nations to agree a plan for harvesting Arctic fisheries sustainably. The warming of the Arctic Ocean may be good news for the cod, herring and pollock fisheries as all species have increased in numbers in previous short periods of warmer climate. The opening of a new fishing frontier surely calls for our species to show that, given the hard-won experience we have had of exploiting fisheries unsustainably over a long period of time we do much better in this instance. I wonder, will we?

    I have to admit to feeling uneasy about Arctic exploitation but maybe I shouldn’t. I think the root of my unease is a concern over whether we will do it well or badly – the best scenario is great, the worst scenario is awful. But another part of my unease is that there are few wildernesses left. We never give up any of the planet and turn it back to wilderness; instead it’s a one way street of development and industrialisation. How do you feel about it?

    There are lots of ways you can Step Up for Nature at home here are some green living tips to get you started.

    Dr Mark Avery is a former Conservation Director of the RSPB and now is a writer on environmental matters. We’ve asked Mark to write these 20 essays on the run up to the Rio+20 conference.  His views are not necessarily those of the RSPB.  Mark writes a daily blog about UK nature conservation issues. 

  • Wildlife tourism – killing with kindness (or not?)?

    I've handed the reins of my blog over to Mark Avery for most of June. Mark's sharing the successes and challenges of saving nature around the world in the run up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

    I am, unashamedly, an enthusiast for wildlife, for wild places and for the natural world. Although personal relationships, music and sport have all produced moments of ecstasy and sadness in my life, many of the most memorable moments have been with nature. 

    I’ll never forget moments spent with humpback whales in Australia, a grizzly bear mother and her two cubs in the USA or wildebeest, zebra and antelope herds in Kenya.  There are many others, but those three stick in the mind and all involved mammals not birds, all were in beautiful locations where the wildlife added to the experience and all were on other continents. And there’s the rub!

    Getting on a plane whose carbon emissions will harm wildlife in order to enjoy wildlife is a moral conundrum that every nature lover with cash to spare faces. And we face it at a smaller scale every time we drive to an RSPB nature reserve or drive down the road to do a bit of bird watching. 

    One of the ways to square the circle (although I am afraid it will still have lots of curves on it) and reduce your feelings of guilt is to make sure you reduce your overall carbon emissions in as many ways as possible, and another is to make sure your money does some good.

    Costa Rica has made the decision to protect and market its natural environment and beauty. Ecotourism is a bigger earner than bananas and coffee combined and comprises 85% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. There are taxes on businesses that pollute water and Costa Rica already produces 89% of its energy from renewable sources and aims to be a carbon neutral country by 2021. Landowners are given incentives to protect the country’s natural resources, particularly its forests (those forests where the golden toad once lived – see essay of 2 June). Costa Rica means Rich Coast in Spanish, and it feel as if the country has seriously committed itself to protecting its natural riches.

     Bhutan runs its affairs by different rules from those of most countries, based on its Buddhist religion. Instead of concentrating on increasing a complicated index of economic wealth (GDP) it tries to maximise GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness), and this has been the case for decades.  Visitors to Bhutan tell me that the ordinary Bhutanese in the street is quite likely to mention that environmentalism is an important part of how they and their country measures progress. 

    Both Costa Rica and Bhutan are middle-ranking countries in terms of per capita GDP. Their people aren’t very rich and they are looking for ways to improve their lot, but it is striking that they are both taking a very different route from most other countries and they are deliberately choosing to protect natural wealth as part of their economic strategy.

    Costa Rica is 3rd and Bhutan 13th in a ranking of 178 countries by the New Economics Foundation on a ‘Happy Planet’ index which attempts to take people’s happiness and the environmental impact into account. It’s certainly a different and a stimulating way of looking at things and the highest-ranking EU country is Austria (but that is still at a fairly lowly 61st position);  the UK is 108th.

    I wonder how much of a voice Costa Rica and Bhutan will have at the Rio+20 conference next week. It seems to me that they could teach the rest of the world a thing or two.

    Wondering how you can step up? Why not take a minute to consider greener travel next time you plan a visit to an RSPB nature reserve? Many of our sites have cycle routes and can advise on the best way to reach us by bike.

    Dr Mark Avery is a former Conservation Director of the RSPB and now is a writer on environmental matters. We’ve asked Mark to write these 20 essays on the run up to the Rio+20 conference.  His views are not necessarily those of the RSPB.  Mark writes a daily blog about UK nature conservation issues.