December, 2015

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
  • After the Paris Agreement, the real work begins

    For much of Saturday afternoon, I was fearful that there would be a last minute hitch and that the climate deal would be scuppered.  The failure of Copenhagen lives long in the memory and we have all suffered from false expectations.  Yet, the only surprise on Saturday was that there were no eleventh hour surprises.  The Paris Agreement was supported by 196 countries and it promises a future free from catastrophic climate change.

    The work leading up to the conference and the agreement itself is a triumph of multi-lateral diplomacy and should give everyone confidence that together we can act to solve the world's problems.

    As our man in Paris, John Lanchbery reported (see here), there are, of course, some weaknesses - most notably that existing greenhouse gas reduction commitments would result in global temperature rises of 2.7 degree Centigrade above pre-industrial levels (see graphic below).  But there are five year review clauses in place with a promise of ratcheting up commitments so that global temperature rises are within safe limits "well below 2 degrees". This is light years away from the appalling symbolism of the Copenhagen Accord in 2009 where an annex of country commitments was published and it was entirely blank.

    World leaders have said they want economic development decoupled from climate pollution and have issued the clearest signal to everyone (especially businesses and investors) that our future prosperity will not rely on fossil fuels.  But they have gone further "ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity" and agreeing...... 

    ...Article 5 the Agreement which stresses the need for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation and sustainable management of forests (REDD+). This should help to ensure that more money is available to conserve forests, especially tropical forests. This is very positive, because that’s where wildlife is.

    This chimes with commitments in other UN Conventions (for Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development), which sets targets for the restoration of wildlife on land and at sea.  

    So now, the fine words need to be translated into action.  Action which not only decarbonises the economy but also helps us adapt to the changing climate.  At home, the first signs are good.  I was delighted to read today that in her proposed review of flood resilience "to better protect the country from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events", Environment Secretary, Liz Truss will not only look at existing models and defence schemes, but also at upstream catchment options to reduce future flooding (here).   

    Other tests of the UK Government's commitment will come thick and fast...

    ...this week at the EU Environment Council meeting, our Minister, Rory Stewart, has the opportunity to offer his support for the EU Nature Directives - it is difficult to see how "ecosystem integrity" let alone the manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity in a generation can be secured without these laws 

    ...responding to the Committee on Climate Change recommendation for its fifth carbon budget to ensure greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 57% by 2032.  The Government must legislate the level of the fifth carbon budget by June 2016.

    ...being clear how to invest in renewables with least ecological impact.  We shall offer our thoughts on positive planning for renewables when we publish our new report on "Energy Futures" in the new year.

    Rising to these challenges is what the international commitments require and what civil society, including RSPB supporters, demands.

  • Reaction to global climate change deal from RSPB man in Paris, John Lanchbery

    At 18.27 GMT, a global climate change deal was agreed.  It appears that world leaders have pulled us back from the abyss by striking a good deal to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Here, in his final postcard from Paris, the RSPB's Principal Climate Change Advisor, John Lanchbery, offers his verdict on the deal.

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    Au revoir Paris by John Lanchbery

    This afternoon in Paris, 196 nations concluded a new global climate change agreement (here). It will come into effect in 2020.

    There is much to welcome in the agreement, especially its target which is to hold the global average temperature “well below 2 degrees C” and to try to limit the increase to less than 1.5 degres C above pre-industrial levels.  It also aims to increase the ability to adapt to the adverse climate change and make financial flows “consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development”.  All good stuff especially when you remember that with every degree rise in temperature 10% of world's species could be committed to extinction.

    The deal recognises the importance of the conservation and enhancement of sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, or forests and peatlands to you and me.  Especially welcome in the climate agreement is that it stresses the importance of “ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity”.

    As with all agreements, however, the devil is in the detail.  It is not clear, for example, that the provisions laid down in the agreement are strong enough to ensure that the world really will stay below the temperature targets that it sets.  Neither is it clear that enough money will flow to help poorer nations to both reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.

    As always, the RSPB and BirdLife have been focussed obtaining sound provisions on land use and forests - because that it where the wildlife is (74% of the world's threatened birds are found in tropical forests).  The agreement has a good section on the need for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, etc., so-called REDD+.  This should help to ensure that more money is available to conserve forests, especially tropical forests.

    Another outcome from Paris is that negotiations will begin on new (and hopefully better) rules for accounting for emissions and removals from land use and forests.  We have been banging on about this for several years now and things are going to happen, at last.

    So, the agreement is far from perfect but there is some good stuff in it.  Importantly, it sets up processes that can make it better over time, such as the work on land use rules.

    Whilst the agreement was being concluded, all of the theatre that makes major climate change meetings so spectacular has closed down.  Everyone is tired and many of the 20,000 or so people who filled the place for two weeks have already left.

    The huge and spectacular country pavilions, such as the US, French, Indonesian and Moroccan ones have been taken down like stage sets, together with BirdLife’s slightly less spectacular stand and the traditional catering booth selling raclette and mulled wine.  

    Le Bourget has returned to being a normal Paris suburb on the RER line to Charles de Gaulle airport – although the Christmas lights have gone up now.

    John returns from Paris tomorrow, and I want to take this moment to thank him and the Birdlife International community for ensuring the voices of nature were heard in these negotiations.  

    For now, félicitations et au revoir.

  • Lessons from Wales: a spotlight on the Well-being of Future Generations Act

    On Wednesday, at the Sustainable Severn Event,  an excellent talk by Martyn Evans from Natural Resources Wales reminded me of the fundamental shift that is taking place across the border.  I think we, in England, have a lot to learn from how the Welsh Government is shaking up the policy and regulatory framework.  As the Westminster Government continues to scope its 25 year plan for nature, I would encourage those involved to be curious about what their counterparts in Wales are up to. They are executing a major change in the culture of government in Wales and this might be exactly what we need in England if we are to mainstream thinking about the environment in decision-making.  Below, my colleagues, Peter Jones and Annie Smith who work in our Cardiff office, give their perspective on one part of the package of reforms: the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

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    The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

    Peter Jones, Policy Officer and Annie Smith, Sustainable Development Manager

    Earlier this year, the National Assembly for Wales passed legislation for sustainable development – the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act – which will come into legal force in the country from April 2016.  This legal enactment builds upon the previous policy commitment to sustainable development in the Government of Wales Acts, and makes the ‘sustainable development principle’ the basis for all actions by a list of Welsh public bodies, including the Welsh Government itself, local authorities, health boards, various public services and Natural Resources Wales.  This legislation for SD is believed to be the first of its kind anywhere on the planet and was welcomed in Cardiff by a senior representative of the UN Environmental Development Programme. 

    The Act defines the SD principle to mean that public bodies are required to ’act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, ie, in effect the Brundtland definition of SD.  The core of the Act comprises seven well-being goals that Welsh public bodies are required to deliver through their strategic and policy objectives and actions. They cover a prosperous, low carbon society and economy; a resilient natural environment; human health and well-being; equality of opportunity for all; cohesive and safe communities; a thriving Welsh language and culture, and giving full regard to global impacts.

    The suite of goals must be treated as just that – a suite – to be integrated in delivery, and they represent a major achievement for the Assembly and the ‘Sustainable Development Alliance’ of NGOs who worked with AMs and the Government to greatly improve the Bill as it was laid. The second well-being goal, which the RSPB worked particularly hard for, calls for ‘A Resilient Wales - A nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change).’

    This is the message that we have been trying to impress on policy makers and decision takers for decades – that delivering for biodiversity is part of delivering sustainable development. And now, in Wales, it is the law.  How will it work?

    All of the public bodies named in the Act – including the Welsh Ministers - are to publish well-being objectives and annual reports on their delivery. In addition, the Welsh Ministers are to create a framework of national indicators and milestones, to be reported on annually, to measure the nation’s progress towards the well-being goals. A Future Generations Commissioner, supported by a specialist advisory panel, will support, advise and encourage public bodies to think long term, and will, monitor their performance and make recommendations, as necessary. The Auditor General for Wales is required to examine the extent to which public bodies have acted in accordance with the SD principle when setting, and seeking to deliver, their objectives – considering each public body at least once during a term of Government. At the beginning of a Government term, the Welsh ministers must take a forward look considering the wider context, in a Future Trends report, and before the end of the term the Commissioner must publish a Future Generations report on how delivery can be improved.

    One key role of the Commissioner will be to encourage public bodies to work together, and another provision of the Act – on the creation of local Public Services Boards, which will include local authorities, health boards, fire services and Natural Resources Wales with other non-statutory invitees - seeks to secure join-up at the local level.

    What the Assembly has really done, in effect, is try to legislate for a cultural shift. Sustainable development is an elusive and revolutionary new way of thinking and living, and clearly the Act is but a further step along a challenging road. It will need continued commitment from Government, the Assembly and civil society, but the framework of planning, measuring progress, reporting, support and scrutiny provided by the Act should represent a real advance as long as it is recognised that it needs to spell change. The Welsh Government’s current commitment to a M4 Relief Road that would cut across nationally important protected sites on the Gwent Levels, for example, seems fairly indefensible for a Government seeking praise for its bold and progressive approach.

    ‘Resilience’ is an ongoing subject of debate in the Assembly, this time in the context of the Welsh Government’s Environment Bill. Part 1 of the Bill seeks to underpin the delivery of sustainable development by establishing a new framework for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources which enshrines the principles of the Ecosystem Approach adopted by the CBD. Another ‘first’ from the Welsh Government, and a Bill that – with some important improvements – will represent a major opportunity for Wales’ natural environment, its wildlife and its people. We have been arguing that the new framework needs to make more explicit provision for biodiversity – to ensure the new approach helps to drive delivery of our international commitment to stop and reverse species’ declines. After all, the Resilient Wales goal, calling as it does for a biodiverse natural environment with healthy, functioning ecosystems, demands it!