As you will know by now (we hope!), the RSPB has been campaigning hard these past few months to get Government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture.
Why? Because extracting peat destroys vital wildlife habitats and is responsible for loads of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, there are plenty of peat-free alternatives available, making phasing out peat a no-brainer.
Government accepts this argument but seem remarkably reluctant to do anything meaningful about it. For the past dozen years, we have had a voluntary approach to phasing out peat use, with a target of using 90% peat alternatives by 2010. The result has been a spectacular failure - growing media in the UK is still 70% peat!
Even many of the big gardening businesses have had enough of this. They, like us, are calling for a meaningful Government intervention to deliver peat-free gardens and businesses. They recognise that a voluntary approach will do nothing to address the fact that peat-free is currently more expensive than peat, and lets companies who don’t care about the environment to get away with doing nothing – ‘free-riding’ on the efforts of others as economists like to call it.
In spite of this, Defra appear wedded to a voluntary approach for another decade. They subscribe to the idea that people just need a ‘nudge’ to do the right thing.
There is clearly a role for voluntary agreements. They can help pioneer new, more environmentally-sound technologies, for example. But they rarely offer long-term solutions to environmental problems. Just look at the failure of voluntary approaches to replace lead in gunshot, to deliver widespread responsible pesticide use, for example. And we all know what happened as a result of soft approaches to regulation in the banking system...
So, Mr Benyon, please listen to those who want to meet Government peat replacement targets, and let’s have a proposal that delivers us a regulatory framework that will spell out the end of peat use, whilst supporting the British horticultural industry.
Apparently people are getting ‘climate fatigue’. They’re bored of fretting about climate change and are more worried about getting Britain’s economy growing again.For many, this is understandable. The recession, and now the cuts are biting hard.But this can’t distract us from the enormity of the threat posed by climate change. Heat waves, floods, and droughts aside; climate change is set to drive mass extinctions. An extraordinary synthesis study published in Nature in 2004 that I’m still not bored of citing concluded that under a mid-range climate change scenario, up to 37% of species could be committed to extinction by 2050.That’s why we at the RSPB supported the climate change act, which committed the UK to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and established a mechanism to deliver this, called the ‘carbon budgets’. This system had cross-party backing and it was set up to be as independent from politics as possible. The last Government set the first three carbon budgets for the country, taking us up till 2022. This Government must now legislate on the fourth carbon budget that will cover the 2023-2027.The Climate Change Committee have advised what level this should be set at. We see complying with this advice as critical to protecting wildlife from the ravages of dangerous climate change. It’s also critical to this Government’s integrity as the Greenest Government Ever.But one man who appears to be suffering from climate fatigue is Vince Cable, who this week wrote to Chris Huhne calling for a lower carbon budget. He’s worried that it could slow economic growth. It’s true that a cleaner, greener future won’t be free – Lord Turner said that the cost of meeting this target would be less than 1% of our GDP.
But even if Cable’s sums are right and the Climate Committee is wrong, when he wrote this letter did he ask whether saving that money would be worth it? Did he think about what this would do to our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change and the extinctions this will cause?
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) published a major report on the future of renewable energy in the UK today.
The RSPB has welcomed the report and its headline conclusion that renewable energy has serious potential to deliver in the UK. Why? Because wildlife is already feeling the heat from climate change and, in the longer term, climate change is likely to become a major driver of extinctions – one study in Nature concluded that up to 37% of species could be committed to extinction by 2030 as a result of climate change.
The UK must therefore do its bit to lead the world in cutting carbon emissions radically, and the CCC have clearly shown how this could be achieved. The Britain in 2030 that they describe is cleaner and greener, and, if the Government introduces the right safeguards now, we can deliver the windfarms and other renewable energy the CCC prescribe whilst minimising the impacts on wildlife.
The first and most pressing challenge this report puts to Government is to demonstrate its support for renewable energy, particularly as since coming in to power, the Coalition have been unclear about their long-term aspirations for renewables. The CCC have previously advised that the UK should commit to reducing our emissions by 60% by 2030; and in this report they recommend we commit to a minimum level of support for renewables in 2030. Adopting this advice would send a clear message that this Government believes in a low-carbon, renewable energy future.
Alone, however, this commitment would put those who love wildlife in a difficult place. On the one hand, renewable energy developments like windfarms can damage birds and wildlife. On the other, climate change promises mass extinctions and continued reliance on fossil fuels comes at the additional expense of risks of environmental disasters like that caused by Deepwater Horizon.
The RSPB believes that a renewable energy revolution in harmony with nature is possible. Windfarms and other renewable energy schemes can be built with minimal impact on wildlife. But only if Government takes immediate action to ensure developers act responsibly.
The CCC recognise this in their report. They note that the planning system in England is not delivering sustainable renewable energy, and that the Coalition’s planned reforms may make matters even worse. They also recognise the success that the Scottish Government has had in delivering wind power, and the critical role that ensuring wildlife is properly protected has played in this. This has been achieved by being strategic in their approach, guiding the industry towards the most appropriate sites, and ensuring that the organisations like the RSPB are consulted and listened to.
If we want wind energy to work in England, this strategic approach needs to be emulated. The alternative is developers working with no guidance and no support, leading to conflict, delays, and, ultimately, missed targets and a continued reliance on fossil fuels.
I had thought I’d be writing this Scottish election results blog article in about a weeks time after much party negotiating, coalition rumouring and new Government formation. But with Alex Salmond and his SNP having just held Clackmannanshire and Dunblane they already have an overall majority in Parliament and the big man will be First Minister again.
What does this mean for action on climate change over the next 5 critical years? Perhaps the SNP will carry on much as before but with the confidence of a majority this time round. But, if we look back at the election campaign, were there new climate change promises in their manifesto that we can hold them to?
Here are a few highlights of what they promised:
For RSPB Scotland, our key climate change ask was for commitment on peatland restoration. We were pleased that their manifesto did promise action, even though there was no detail on money or the area of peat bog to be restored. So there’s plenty of work still to do with the new Government, to secure what we know will be good for climate change and essential for getting life back into our peat bogs.