May, 2016

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
  • The RSPB and grouse shooting

    Over the past week I have been contacted by many people through a variety of media about the RSPB’s position on grouse shooting.

    It’s fair to say that I have had a mixed response – some offering full support (which is much appreciated), while others wishing we would back the call for a ban (these are also appreciated, especially the polite ones). A flavour of the critique is captured in the comments on Friday's blog but some of the criticisms that we have received (usually via twitter) have been, let’s say, more blunt.

    So, I thought that it would be useful to share a few insights into our position.

    The RSPB is an evidence-based organisation but also one with values. Our values reflect our charitable objectives to undertake conservation for the public good.

    For example, we are supportive of renewable energy in the fight against climate change, but we oppose developments that will impact on wildlife populations and important habitats. On the other hand, we are against airport expansion unless or until it can be demonstrated that a growth in capacity will be consistent with obligations to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

    Equally, we are neither for or against organic or farming that uses pesticides or even GM crops. We care about the impact that those farming practices have on the natural environment and we work with any farming system to help recover farmland wildlife populations.

    We are also neutral on the ethics of shooting but we do care about the environmental consequences of that activity.

    And the growing evidence of the environmental impact of ever intensive driven grouse shooting led us in 2012 to conclude that self-regulation of this industry had failed and so we would advocate a licensing system designed to reduce the negative impacts.

    Others, including two of the RSPB’s Vice-Presidents and my predecessor, Mark Avery, would like us to go further and are calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting.

    I have doubts as to the viability of such a proposition but I respect their position, even though I disagree with it. What I do not respect, is the drip-drip of scorn that is levelled at the RSPB about our position and our wider work to protect birds of prey.

    On this issue and in this job, I have learnt not to get riled by comments but when people have implied over the past week that we do not have the courage to support a ban on grouse shooting, I take exception.

    To me, courage is staying up all night protect a hen harrier nest. Courage is managing a nature reserve next to an intensively managed grouse shoot, where the gamekeepers of the neighbouring estate patrol the borders, yes with guns. Courage is installing cameras on estates where bird of prey crime is thought to happen in the hope of catching the criminals in the act. Courage is appearing in a witness stand in the face of a defence lawyer who attacks both the evidence and the character of the person providing it.

    This is the courage that RSPB staff and volunteers demonstrate again and again. And I will go further and suggest that courage is looking your friends at Natural England in the eye and telling them that they were wrong to enter into an ill-conceived management agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate and that this would trigger a legal challenge.

    It also takes courage when members of the shooting community speak out against others who need to improve the way their shooting estates are managed.

    I think that change is coming. In Scotland, the Government is seriously considering whether to introduce a licensing system for driven grouse shooting. This is long overdue but would be a welcome step.

    Given our neutrality on the ethics of shooting, we do not make a judgement about the rights or wrongs of people driving red grouse across a moor to be shot (provided it does not affect the conservation status of red grouse).  We focus our efforts on the environmental damage caused by grouse shooting: the peatlands that are damaged by burning, the water that is polluted, the predators that are illegal killed. We believe that a licensing system, a reformed approach to consenting burning on peatlands, restoration of these special sites coupled with better enforcement and tougher penalties for wildlife crime can address these issues. And we will work with anyone to make this happen and give credit when and where it is due.

    As I have written previously, if the economics of any business – including grouse shooting – was dependent on environmentally unsustainable practices, then I would argue that it was time for that business to change.

    I do not expect that this blog will change the minds of those that support a ban – indeed, that is not my motivation. To those that do not like our position because you want us to support a ban, I at least ask you to respect our position. To those that do not like it because it challenges your sport, I ask that you look at the growing public concern associated with your sport and encourage you to seek reform from within the shooting community.

    If you have any comments on this blog, as ever, it would be great to hear your views.

  • Choices for nature: the RSPB’s vision for energy

    Tonight, I am helping to launch The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision - a new report showing how the UK could transform its energy system and meet its 2050 climate targets in harmony with nature whilst remaining affordable and secure. 

    I’m excited by this research as it helps us work out if we can have our cake and eat it ie a low carbon future that avoids harming the natural environment. 

    We were motivated to do this research for three reasons.

    First, climate change poses the greatest long term threat to wildlife: one in six species worldwide could go extinct by the end of the century if we carry on business as usual. This is why the RSPB has campaigned with others both domestically and internationally for high targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and wean our economies off fossil fuels.

    Second, we support the transition to a renewable energy future yet our experience is that poorly planned renewable projects can cause needless harm to wildlife.  In debates about wind farms, barrages and bioenergy, we have over the past twenty years had to fight hard to ensure wildlife impacts are taken into account in both design and deployment of schemes.

    As a consequence, we have huge experience of how to do things well and what to avoid.  For example, between 2010-2015, we responded to c1,000 wind farm applications and sustained objections 5% of these (recent examples include Strathy South, Forth and Tay, and Hornsea).  Yet, through dialogue with developers we can reduce impacts and even enhance the natural environment (for example at Blacklaw wind farm in Scotland where we’ve worked with the developer to restore habitat to benefit breeding waders and farmland birds). 

    Third, alongside individual site conversations, we have long argued for a more strategic approach for planning the renewables revolution.  As well as keeping energy supplies secure and affordable with fewer greenhouse gas emissions (the so-called energy trilemma) we want natural environment considerations to be respected and taken into account earlier in the decision-making process.

    Using data provided by a range of organisations including the Crown Estate, the BTO and Ecotricity, we’ve been able to map parts of the UK where technologies which harness the power of the wind, sun, wave and tides could be located with low levels of risk for sensitive species and habitats.  We’ve mapped these alongside physical constraints (such as housing, roads, railways, shipping lanes and other important infrastructure) and policy restrictions (for example protected landscapes or Ministry of Defence land). An example, for solar, is shown in the maps below.

    We then worked out the potential generating capacity of this ‘low ecological risk’ package of renewables, taken other land use needs (such as for food production) into account and, using the DECC energy calculator, constructed three scenarios about what our energy mix could look like in the future.

    The good news is that the UK has the potential to generate up to four times the UK’s current energy consumption through low ecological risk renewables: up to 6,277 TWh/yr* (the total final energy consumption in 2014 was 1661 TWh/yr).  In particular, our results show key opportunities further out to sea, where ecological sensitivities are likely to be lower.  This would require the commercialisation of deep-water technologies such as floating wind turbines.  We also found that there is significant scope for the continued deployment of onshore wind and solar farms with low risk for wildlife – which together could produce a quarter of the UK’s current total energy consumption with low ecological risk.

    The three different scenarios (shown on pages 18-22 of the report and shown below) for the UK’s energy future we developed were: 

    • A mixed renewables scenario, which includes a diverse mix of onshore and offshore technologies. This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 21% of energy supply.
    • A high marine renewables scenario, which assumes that there is strong progress with offshore technologies such as wind (including floating wind turbines), wave and tidal power, but one where carbon capture and storage is not successfully commercialised
    • A high onshore scenario which assumes that floating wind is not available, and instead includes high levels of onshore wind and solar.  This scenario assumes that carbon capture and storage is available to provide 33% of energy supply.

    The scenarios forecast 56-88% of energy supply in the UK would come from renewable sources compared to 7% today (well, when the the latest annual figures were made available), which means that we'd be providing 89-91% low carbon energy by 2050 when energy using CCS technology is taken into account.  Moreover, a common feature across the three scenarios is the strong focus on energy efficiency and reducing overall energy demand, which reduces the overall need for new energy infrastructure which can pose risks to wildlife.

    But how much will this all cost?  The good news is that the cost estimates are similar to other pathways which are designed to tackle climate change.  The Decc calculator estimates that an energy system that doesn’t tackle climate change would cost £4,615 per person per year in 2050.  Other pathways that seeks to meet climate change targets would increase costs by an average of 9.3%.  Our scenarios have costs of 8.2%-9.5% above the scenario that doesn’t tackle climate change.  It’s worth remembering of course that there is a severe cost to climate inaction and a cost to damaging the natural environment.  The figures we’ve used ignore both these hidden costs.

    Knot flock by Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

    The maps are not meant to be prescriptive and the scenarios are certainly not meant to provide a certain picture of the future.  We want, instead, to initiate a debate about what we need to do now to put us on the right path towards a low carbon future which avoids trading away the natural environment. 

    With this in mind, we have offered ten recommendations for governments across the UK to adopt including better use of spatial planning to avoid conflicts with nature conservation, major progress in key areas such as energy efficiency and low carbon innovation, and investment in better ecological data to guide decisions about where renewable energy developments can safely be deployed.

    As a society we have choices, we can either take action today to reduce the risk of climate change or wait to deal with the consequences.  By establishing the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has chosen to take action to deliver a low carbon economy.  There is then a choice as to whether this low carbon pathway takes nature into account or not. 

    We think it is possible to have a UK energy system that is affordable, secure, low carbon and respects nature. We want and need governments across the UK to share this ambition.  The first opportunity to take this forward will be the plan that the UK Government will develop to deliver the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget due next month.

    I think that the team behind this report have done a great job and I congratulate them.  Its success, however, will be judged by the conversations it triggers and ultimately the responses by governments. 

    Please do have a read and let me know what you think.

    It would be great to hear your views.

    *TWHr/yr refers to terawatt hours (1012 watt-hours) of electrical energy per year. 

  • More European shenanigans

    While the debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union continues, it appears that another European debate has yet to be settled. 

    Information obtained this week by BirdLife International’s German partner, NABU, suggests that some continue to fight hard to weaken the EU Birds and Habitats and Species Directives – legislation that is currently subject to a ‘Fitness Check’ by the European Commission.

    It appears that the Federation for German Industry (BDI) is continuing to try to influence the Fitness Check findings long after the evidence-gathering phase of the process was concluded.

    A Freedom of Information request has revealed that the BDI wrote to the European Commission in December 2015, and in January and February this year, disputing the consultants findings, proposing significant changes, and claiming the report, “gives a misrepresentation of the position of the German Industry.”  The timings are significant as it implies that the BDI managed to comment on a draft report before it was shared with anyone else. 

    Part of the South Dartmoor Woods Special Area of Conservation protected by the EU Habitats and Species Directive and a wonderful site which I visited last week

    BDI’s intervention at this late stage in the process might have been understandable if they had not been given the opportunity to state their case. However a quick search of the evidence submitted to the Fitness Check confirms not only that BDI submitted a response to the consultation, but also that their submission, at 30 pages, is the longest submission received from any private sector respondent from an individual Member State. Indeed the Commission went to great lengths to ensure that businesses across the EU were given the opportunity to provide input to the Fitness Check.

    So why such a late intervention from an organisation that has already provided significant evidence to the Fitness Check?

    It may be that they don’t like the initial findings of the Fitness Check. 

    If you remember, the consultants tasked with undertaking the evidence-based review said that, “Where fully and properly implemented the Directives have effectively reduced pressures on biodiversity, slowed declines and, with time, led to some recoveries of habitats and species.

    The Council of Environment Ministers (including our own - Rory Stewart) does not want to open up the Directives nor does the European Parliament.  In addition, more than half a million people that responded to the consultation were clear that the laws were good for wildlife, good for people, and good for business and that the focus should be on implementation to help restore wildlife populations across Europe.

    Perhaps the BDI’s intervention is an ill-conceived and last ditch attempt to interfere with the findings of the Fitness Check, outside the consultation process, in order to get the outcome they want, i.e. weakening the Nature Directives, regardless of the evidence or the views of others.

    An industry group continuing to lobby when they don't get what they want?  Shocking, I know.

    With a process as politically charged as the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives, it is unsurprising that some vested interests will want the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to see through his commitment to merge the directives “into a more modern piece of legislation”.  I understand from German colleagues that there are other attacks from those wishing to reduce protection for various bird species.  

    The Commission must hold firm.  It has a duty to ensure that the process is open and transparent, and that the findings are evidence-based, in line with the Commission’s commitment to better regulation. Whatever their true intention, this intervention from German industry comes at a particularly sensitive time.

    Ten days ago, the RSPB wrote to the two official campaign groups – “Britain Stronger in Europe” and “Vote Leave” – asking them to set out clearly what their proposition will mean for the natural world.  We have asked them to explain how remaining in, or withdrawing from, the EU will address the crucial issues of restoring nature, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, and climate change.  Voters need to know the political intentions of both sides which is why we will present whatever we get back from either camp.

    So we have uncertainty at home and uncertainty across Europe.

    The half a million citizens that participated in the consultation will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Fitness Check, including over 100,000 from the UK who provided a consultation response. The ongoing uncertainties about the future of the directives risk undermining nature conservation action and eroding public confidence in the process. It is high time the Commission explained its future plans for the nature directives, and what this means for Europe’s wildlife.

    If you'd like to urge them to do so, you can join Birdlife's campaign calling on the Commission to move their review into action.