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.
I've been out and about a bit over the past week or so and have only now had the chance to reflect on the UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which emerged last week. While it doesn’t deliver everything we want, I am feeling cautiously optimistic about the potential for this Strategy to deliver some wins for the climate and for nature. The big question, of course, is whether the UK Government can turn the words into action.
Wind turbine at RSPB UK Headquarters (credit Sarah Niemann)
The Strategy sets a new direction in government policy on the path to tackling climate change, the greatest threat to humans and wildlife. It doesn’t close all the gaps to meeting our longer term carbon targets and we still need to see concrete and more ambitious plans to deliver the carbon cuts needed.
However, given where we’ve come from over the last two years, I was particularly heartened to see two things:
As readers of this blog will know, the RSPB’s engagement in the climate change debate focuses on the impacts of climate change on the natural world and how we can ensure that actions to tackle climate change do not exacerbate wildlife loss. In this context, it was pleasing to see that the Strategy acknowledges the cost to nature of climate change and of poor infrastructure planning. The Strategy also picked up on the climate benefits and other public benefits that nature can provide.
If the Clean Growth Strategy is to sit alongside the much anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan as a sister document, as is suggested, we have a real chance to get this right. Here I set out three priority areas where we will be working with government to ensure good outcomes for wildlife and the climate: land use, bioenergy and wind energy.
Climate and land use
One of the RSPB’s priorities is to grasp the opportunity that Brexit offers to create a post-CAP approach to farming and land management that has the natural environment at its core – for the benefit of people, farming and wildlife. It was therefore encouraging to see the Strategy’s pledge that the Government will design a new system of future agricultural support to focus on delivering better environmental outcomes, including addressing climate change more directly. This is the first time I have seen written down the words that Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has been using since he was appointed earlier thisyear.
There are important opportunities in the land sector to do much more to mitigate climate change and a number of these (such as peatland restoration, efficient chemical fertiliser use and soil management) can help nature conservation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and secure financial savings for a farm business too.
The Strategy’s focus on tree planting seems intuitive and the right trees planted in the right places (which like most things is easier said than done), including through new community woodlands, could offer a lifeline to declining woodland wildlife as well as considerable carbon abatement. However, we have to be careful. As always, we must ensure that the measures we take to tackle the climate crisis do not contribute to our biodiversity crisis and there are also opportunities for getting this very wrong. In fact, we have a pretty bad track record of planting trees in stupid places (on heathlands, on peatlands etc etc). Plantations of fast growing, non-native tree species, planted on land that has existing wildlife value could have damaging direct impacts on wildlife; where plantations displace crops onto previously uncultivated land this could also have negative indirect effects. Restoring damaged peatland on the other hand, improves habitats for wildlife and prevents huge carbon emissions, as well as providing jobs in remote rural areas. I encourage the Government to continue to recognise and develop natural resource management as having a key role in the Clean Growth Strategy
Driving energy from organic matter (bioenergy) in an environmentally friendly way is a tricky one. We’ve had concerns for several years over the role of biomass in our energy system. Felling trees, or converting land to crops, can harm special places for wildlife as well as, perversely, having negative climate impacts. In the Strategy, the role of biomass for electricity production is downplayed, a welcome development. However, it’s given an absolutely central role in plans for decarbonising the industrial sector. The Government sets out plans to explore this role with stakeholders and we will be drawing their attention to the large body of evidence that highlights the limited role for bioenergy and encourage a focus only on truly sustainable supplies.
Biogas is also one of a number of technologies identified as a way of decarbonising heating. Using genuine wastes or residues to generate heat through gasification (or combustion in district heat networks) could deliver sustainable, low-carbon heat. But using purpose-grown maize or other crops, or burning wood, can pose environmental risks. If reducing emissions from heating is to be done sustainably, then we look forward to the promised studies on low-carbon heat options and on the quantity of sustainable biomass that’s available.
The Strategy sets out support for a significant increase in growth in offshore wind. This will be necessary to deliver high volumes of clean energy but in this sector in particular, it is crucial that developments are sited carefully in order to avoid conflicts with the seabirds and marine mammals that live off our coasts. A drive towards lowest-cost could mean that wildlife is side-lined in site selection processes as priority is given to ‘easy’ nearshore locations. A strategic spatial planning approach could avoid difficult and ultimately costly conflicts that are likely to become more frequent with increased nearshore development: the Government’s commitment in the Strategy to work with the Crown Estate and Crown Estate (Scotland) to identify offshore wind deployment potential in UK waters would provide an excellent opportunity for this approach to be included.
As my colleague Aedan Smith highlights in a BBC News report this week, the RSPB supports investment in floating offshore wind. With its ability to be located in deeper water, away from bird breeding and feeding areas, we see considerable potential for large amounts of clean energy to be generated harmony with nature. Floating wind is mentioned as a potential new innovation opportunity in the strategy and we would urge Government to invest more in its support.
One limited concession to this was the announcement that onshore wind projects on remote Scottish islands will be eligible for subsidies under the next Contracts for Difference ‘Pot 2’ auction for less established technologies. Although some onshore wind development on the Scottish islands will be possible, with benefits both locally and for the climate, these are also some of the most important places in the UK for wildlife, with internationally significant populations of birds and sensitive habitats like peatlands. This inevitably limits the number of large projects that can be developed in these special places. Whilst support for onshore wind is welcome, what is really needed is support for established, well-sited renewable energy technologies. These include both onshore wind and solar energy, across the whole of the UK, allowing all communities to benefit while weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
So there we have it, some challenges but also some exciting opportunities to deliver a clean green future for the country – if the Government steps up to ensure that its policies match the ambition that is needed and it ensures that these are delivered in harmony, rather than in conflict with, the natural environment. The RSPB will be there to help ensure that it does.