Climate change: mitigate, adapt or suffer - reaction to the latest report from the Climate Change Committee

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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

Climate change: mitigate, adapt or suffer - reaction to the latest report from the Climate Change Committee

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A fortnight ago I was one of 9,000 people at Westminster talking to my MP about climate change.  

So today’s report from the Government’s Climate Change Committee is particularly timely. It reminds us quite how many of the things we love could be put at risk by climate change and outlines what action government needs to take.

It's warning that storms and high seas will put 40,000 more homes at risk of flooding, and that many thousands of people could be hospitalised because of over-heating, is another urgent call to action.

As a charity, our primary focus is on nature.  So, we pay attention to see how vulnerable England’s nature is to climate change. The report makes it very clear that far too many of our most important wildlife populations and natural places are in poor condition, even at risk from disappearing – and it highlights our various wetlands, including peatbogs, and farmland wildlife that are those most in need of action.

Restoring our uplands: good for carbon, good for water and good for wildlife (Ben Hall, RSPB-images.com)

It’s good to see recognition of Biodiversity 2020, the Government’s plan to restore nature in England, and the need for concerted drive and resources to deliver its commitments to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet the reports raises serious questions about the progress we’re making on this, noting the serious lack of actual delivery towards the targets of three of the four Outcomes of the strategy.

However, I think the report falls a little short of what’s required in the longer term. Yes, we need to stop the rot of our wildlife and thereby build resilience against climate change, yet we also need to plan ahead and help wildlife to adapt to climate change. We are already seeing the movement north of the natural ranges of a wide variety of animals and plants – at an average of around 17 kilometres a decade, which works out at a rather startling five metres every day. As I wrote recently (see here), we need to plan for this, to make sure wildlife finds suitable habitat in the new places where it will find favourable climate.

The report recognises the contribution Countryside Stewardship, the new agri-environment scheme, could make to deliver coherent ecological networks help our wildlife move around the countryside. Yet we need a wider strategic approach to help wildlife cope with climate change and I hope we can build on this, in the development of the Government’s promised 25 year plan for biodiversity.

I’ve written before (see here) about the damage being done to our uplands. So it’s good to see the Adaptation Sub-Committee recommend that Natural England takes action towards the widespread restoration of upland peat habitats, and investigate the knotty issue of burning in the uplands. I’ll have more to say on this a few days time. Other types of wetlands too are vulnerable to climate change. The ASC picks up that we are not on course for no net loss of coastal habitat, with losses from sea level rise and coastal squeeze, and the Environment Agency is charged to report on progress towards this for the next statutory report in 2017. By then we’ll have Wallasea Island established as a coastal wetland, another of the RSPB’s contributions to restoring coastal habitat alongside other benefits to people, in this case flood protection and recreation.

So for wildlife, just as for flood protection and over-heating, the key message from the report is that we should fix the roof while the sun is shining – otherwise, the most vulnerable will suffer.

We at the RSPB – and many of our partners – are already working on many of the answers.  Our work with United Utilities (here) shows how we can restore upland management to benefit water water quality, restore peatlands and help wildlife populations; working with the Enviornment Agency at Medmerry (here) on the south coast, we have shown how a new coastal defence scheme can also provide new intertidal habitat for wildlife; at Hope Farm (here) we continue to show that it is possible farm profitably while restoring populations of farmland birds and in Europe, we are working with electricity grid operators to show how to upgrade energy infrastructure without needless harm to the environment (see here).  Just as importantly, we are campaigning to defend the EU Nature Directives (see here) that allow wildlife to move with a changing climate - and more than a quarter of a million people have now supported this campaign.

All of these are needed to make England’s wildlife and people resilient to climate change.  It’s clear from the report that sensible planning and investment now can protect us from the worst of climate change, but that we can’t wait any longer.   Now’s the time to get started.

I congratulate all those involved in producing the report and I commend it to you...

  • Martin

    Big stuff that affects all of us  - not just nature. How we adapt to (I fear the time for mitigation has passed) is the key. Be careful not to use large hammers to crack small nuts - aka controlled heather burning when done well is more beneficial than destruction from massive uncontrolled wildfires.

    The 2020 biodiversity and renewable objectives do trade-off against each other - bats mashed in Germany's more wind turbines as they switch off nuclear and possibly raptors being released too close to wind farms in the name of reaching wildlife targets.

    The most important is food production (govts fall on food riots) - an area closely related to climate - from impact on food prices, drought resistant GM crops and precision use of oil based fertilisers to 'intensify' land use to make more space for wildlife. There's no need to use the sustainable word - it's taken as implied.

    Perhaps now is a time for the RSPB to be more realistic that it can't all be win:win situations - ambition should be with us as individuals in the way we   all reduce our own 'footprint' robyorke.co.uk/.../dead-poets

    Best