Helen Blenkharn, Climate Change Policy Officer
I regularly get asked ‘do wind turbines save carbon emissions?’
A recent report by the Committee on Climate Change looks at the UK’s carbon footprint and the lifecycle emissions from different types of electricity supply and so answers the question once and for all. Taking a lifecycle emissions approach is important – it means that the emissions not just from combustion but also from materials, production, construction, operation and decommissioning all get counted. This gives a more accurate overall picture for the different fuels and technologies than just looking at their ‘in use’ emissions.
It’s clear that low carbon technologies ‘do what they say on the tin’ - they truly result in far lower carbon pollution than fossil fuels. The Committee on Climate Change says the average carbon intensity of UK electricity supply needs to be 50gCO2/KWh by 2030. It’s currently about 500gCO2/KWh - that’s a massive challenge in just 17 years. The table shows that the amount of electricity we can afford to produce from conventional gas fired power stations is going to be very limited, and even coal with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is going to push up the average emissions significantly.
What we need is a balance of renewable energy technologies – not just those listed above but wave and tidal too, alongside gas with CCS. However, CCS is still unproven at a commercial scale which is why we’re calling on Government to invest in cracking this technology as a priority. The report also says we need to reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 70% by 2050 if we are going to meet our climate objectives. This is a staggering amount, and it proves that climate change isn’t going to be solved by leaving it to the energy sector – it needs a huge push from all of us to make it happen.
If this blog post leaves you with one message, it’s that we can’t afford to hang around. Decisions need to be taken, and put into action, quickly to change the way we power the UK. And we all need to look at our use of energy too, as individuals. Otherwise we’re going to be looking back in 2030 and thinking why on Earth didn’t we start sooner?
The Transport Select committee’s rejection of a Thames Estuary Airport will not be the final word so we won’t be cracking open the fair-trade fizzy pop just yet – that should come later when the Davies commission (we hope) hammers home the final nail.
The Thames and its mighty estuary has been through a lot. Spanish armadas, centuries of international shipping, heavy industry, intensive farming, a sunken ship stuffed to the gills with explosives and the 6 million people who live around it have not yet overwhelmed the >1000 km2 of mudflats and marshes sat on London’s doorstep.
Our work with the Thames estuary Futurescape, Wallasea Island and the multiple designations protecting these areas are all there for a reason. To protect and support the hundreds of waders, wildfowl, rare invertebrates and endangered mammals that depend upon these habitats. So it is fantastic that the committee specifically mention the impact a Thames Estuary Airport would have on wildlife in their explanation of its rejection - alongside the poor economic outlook.
Whilst everyone in the Thames Estuary will have collectively let out a sigh of relief today, the news was rather more alarming for west Londoners. The Select Committee firmly backed a new runway at Heathrow, and even encouraged an assessment of a proposal to move Heathrow West and build a fourth runway.
Its not just local residents who should be disappointed by this conclusion, however; Aviation emissions are currently increasing, and unconstrained aviation expansion will only accelerate this. Yet all countries in the world, including the UK, have committed to reduce emissions in line with keeping climate change to under an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius It’s increasingly clear that achieving this goal will mean we need to make faster and deeper emission reductions, and a new hub airport or expanded Heathrow will make this harder to achieve. It’s time that MPs and Government began to connect the dots and prioritised keeping our climate safe over short-term growth.
For a long time, climate change has felt like a distant problem; a cause of concern for our children’s children maybe, but not us. No longer, however, as our climate is changing before our eyes and we’re being forced to cope with a seemingly endless series of floods and droughts. But if you think it’s bad for us, then take a moment to think about how our wildlife is coping, because a major new report launched to today shows that it’s plants and animals that are on the frontline of our changing climate.
The ‘report card’ is compiled by Natural England and the Environment Agency in consultation with a wide range of experts to collate the latest scientific evidence, including ourselves at the RSPB. It provides a comprehensive overview of how nature is already being affected by climate change in the UK, and what is to come.
The picture at the moment is by no means uniformly negative; most of our butterflies do well out of warmer summers, and the UK has welcomed a range of new species spreading northwards over the Channel such as little egret and small red-eyed damselfly. But the negative impacts are already beginning to emerge. Spread of problem non-native species, pests and diseases is being aided by the changing climate, and we’re seeing coastal habitats such as saltmarsh being lost rapidly to sea-level rise. Individual species are also struggling with the changes – the spectacular black grouse and capercaillie show poor breeding success in response to high summer rainfall, for example.
That’s why we think conservation needs an adaptation strategy, and this strategy needs to be based on three pillars:
An enhanced protected area network of bigger, better sites that are well managed and ecologically connected across the landscape. These sites will continue to provide vital refuges that will help to accommodate the northwards advance of species in the face of climate change, but delivery at the scale needed will require new and innovative partnerships at the landscape scale, within the conservation sector and with others who can change how land is managed for the better.
Addressing existing problems to ensure populations are robust and able to withstand stress. In the uplands, for example, a combination of climate change and drainage is drying out the peat soil, reducing the number of craneflies that chicks of species like golden plover depend upon. With many others, we are working to restore these damaged ecosystems, putting the plovers and other species in the best position possible to successfully adapt.
A long-term perspective. Conservation has always been a long game, but climate change means that we now need to have our eyes on the future more than ever. If we don’t, then today’s conservation successes risk being swept away.
Even this, however, won’t work if climate change continues unbridled. Nature can only adapt so far and so fast. Reports this week that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rapidly approaching 400 parts per million - up from 280 before the industrial revolution – are a sobering reminder that current efforts to avoid ‘dangerous’ levels of climate change are inadequate. One major review in the journal Nature concluded that under a mid-range climate warming scenario, 15-37% of species would be 'committed to extinction' by 2050. We’re currently on a trajectory that would result in a greater level of change.
This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that anyone who wants to see the unique and wonderful wildlife of our country protected must step up to the climate challenge. That means doing everything we can to reduce our emissions, and challenging Government to do the same.
If you want the latest global climate statistics, here they are.
Last year was the ninth warmest on record, says the World Meteorological Organisation’s statement on global climate for 2012. At 0.45°C above the 1961-90 average, it’s the 27th consecutive year above the long term average global average temperature.
There’s just one year – 1998 – that interrupts the years from 2001 being the hottest we’ve had. The pattern of succeeding decades being warmer is apparent.from the graph, especially given the natural variability caused by the El Niño cycle, volcanic eruptions and other phenomena.
The years 2001 to 2012 were among the warmest 13 on record. A strong El Nino in 1998 made it an exceptionally warm year. Source: WMO Annual statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2012
Globally, rainfall was slightly higher in 2012 than the 1961-90 average. But this overall average hides drier weather over much of the central United States, northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil, central Russia, and south-central Australia. In contrast, northern Europe, western Africa, north-central Argentina, western Alaska, and most of northern China saw wetter than average conditions.
2012 was also a year of extremes. While the United States and south-east Europe experienced extreme drought, west Africa and Pakistan were hit by extreme flooding. Europe, northern Africa and Asia were affected by extreme cold and snow.
The report also shows how Arctic sea ice is diminishing rapidly, reaching a record low with 18% less summer ice than the previous low point in 2007, 3.41 million square kilometres, compared to 4.17 million square kilometres.
Arctic sea ice in 2012 - and the next lowest extent in 2007 - compared to the 1979 to 2000 average. Source: WMO annual statement on the Status of the Global Climate in 2012.
Melting occurred over 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet in July 2012, the highest level in the 34-year satellite record. And whilst there was a slight increase in Antarctic sea ice Antarctica overall, like Greenland, is losing ice mass overall.
It’s pretty clear that something is happening, don’t you think?
Today a coalition of green groups and businesses, including the RSPB, has written to the Secretaries of State for Business and for Energy and Climate Change, Vince Cable and Ed Davey.
We are calling on them to protect the wildlife, climate and jobs that are threatened by the rapid expansion of bioenergy based on burning trees. We want them to act to limit the size of the biomass industry to sustainable levels.
You can help as well. Please write to your MP today and call on them to support only sustainable biomass.
Here is the letter we have sent:
We believe that Government needs to act quickly to limit support for large-scale electricity-only biomass, both to protect our climate and environment, as well as the many British businesses that depend on affordable sources of wood, pulp and other forms of biomass.
Current plans to subsidise biomass electricity could see the sector consuming the equivalent of six times the UK’s annual forestry harvest by 2017. These plans threaten to increase our greenhouse gas emissions, and this increased pressure on a scarce and valuable natural resource will threaten the survival of existing industries – in wood, wood panels, packaging, construction, furniture and paper.
Over 40,000 jobs rely on these industries and many of these would be at risk thanks to the reckless pursuit of biomass electricity. 8,400 people rely on jobs in the wood panel industry. The sawmilling industry, which supports a further 12,000 jobs, could be jeopardised. In addition the paper industry in the UK represents at least 25,000 direct employees and, it is estimated, up to 100,000 indirect employees.
A growing body of evidence highlights the carbon debt created when a tree is harvested and burned. This debt can take between decades and centuries to repay as trees re-grow, meaning that this kind of energy fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the medium term; however, current calculations of the emissions from biomass electricity ignore this and the biomass industry does not have to count them when it receives subsidies. [You can read more about this in RSPB, Friends of the Earth & Greenpeace report, 'Dirtier than Coal: Why Government plans to subsidise the burning of trees are bad news for the planet, 2012'.]
Whilst bioenergy releases the carbon stored in wood into the atmosphere, the use of wood for products such as construction timber, packaging, fencing, wood panels and furniture plays an important role by locking that carbon up for very long periods, often well in excess of 60 years after harvesting, quite apart from extended carbon storage when wood fibre is recycled and re-used. A Forest Research report commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change clearly concludes that using woody biomass for energy-only consistently performs worse from a carbon point of view than more traditional uses. When using forest biomass the underlying principle should be to maximise the beneficial use of this renewable but ultimately limited resource and to apply a cascading approach to resource use wherever possible and appropriate.
Bioenergy has an important role to play in the UK’s renewable energy strategy, but not through the use of wood (except genuine wastes) for electricity alone (as opposed to more efficient, good quality combined heat and power). It is clear that burning wood for electricity alone fails to provide the emission savings it is designed for while putting at risk other industries which perform far better from a carbon point of view. As such, we are calling on Government to use the UK Energy Bill to reflect environmental realities and to limit the scope of biomass in the energy sector and ultimately to put sustainability at the heart of the policy framework for biomass.
Mike Clarke, Executive Director, RSPBJohn Sauven, Executive Director, GreenpeaceAndy Atkins, Chief Executive, Friends of the EarthDavid Sulman, Executive Director, UK Forest Products AssociationDavid Workman, Director General, Confederation of Paper IndustriesBob Livesey, Joint Managing Director, EggerKarl Morris, Managing Director, NorbordMike McKenna, Director, KronospanAlistair Kerr, Director General, Wood Panel Industries FederationJohn Dye, President, TIMCONHamish Macleod, Director of Public Affairs, BSW TimberJohn White, CEO, Timber Trade FederationPaul von der Heyde, Chairman, British Furniture ConfederationJackie Bazeley, Managing Director, British Furniture ManufacturersMichael Powell, Chairman, FIRA, Furniture Industry Research Association
Please do help by writing to your MPs and calling on them to support only sustainable biomass today if you can.