My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
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:
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.