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Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • Energy and Climate Change Select Committee: UK not on course to meet renewable transport and heat targets

    The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee has published a new report showing that the UK is not on course to meet targets on renewable heat and transport. Its recommendations for more action are very welcome, as are its calls for more to be done to understand the carbon impacts of biomass. However, calls for the use of more crop biofuels could put nature and the climate at risk. A more detailed analysis follows below.

    Nothing happens all summer and then as soon as the schools go back, all the news comes at once, or at least that's how the past 24 hours have felt to me.

    This morning the cross-parliamentary Energy and Climate Change Select Committee published a report on the UK's progress towards meeting its renewable heat and transport targets (12% and 10% respectively).

    The report concludes that while the UK is on track in terms of its electricity target it is off course for meeting the heat and transport targets by 2020. This is a concern since the UK used the Paris summit last year to cement its international reputation on climate change, but has failed to back that up with significant action back home.

    This new report signals that now is the time for the Government to set out ambitious plans for delivering its own climate change targets and the EU ones for 2020 that currently still apply. The Committee rightly says that it is possible for the Government to meet these targets and that it should recommit to them, or risk undermining its own credibility on climate change. If we leave the EU and Government chooses to renege on the EU targets, it will need to replace them with domestic 2020 targets for the electricity, heat and transport sectors in order for us to continue to reduce our emissions to meet our domestic climate targets. The Committee's report sets out some of the ways in which these targets could be met and analyses where Government policy to date has held back progress. 

    The Government could implement some of these recommendations in its forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan, which is expected in December. The newly integrated Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy can take the bull by the horns and set out an ambitious industrial, UK-wide plan for changing our energy and transport systems to make them truly low carbon and for meeting these targets.

    Dead wood

    However, as Bill McKibben wrote powerfully yesterday, the need for solutions shouldn't lead us down cul-de-sacs and to dead ends. One such dead end is burning huge quantities of trees for electricity. Such an approach can actually put the climate at greater risk than the fossil fuels that are replaced, since wood is more carbon dense than coal in a lot of cases and the carbon is immediately released into the sky. In its report the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee rightly calls for a review of the UK's Bioenergy Strategy on carbon grounds. We agree - while the Strategy itself (written in 2017) contains some sound principles, the policies that have been used to enact it are flawed and put both nature and the climate at risk. A review would offer the chance to overhaul these policies.

    Tackling transport

    The Committee rightly calls for more electrification of vehicles as a way to achieve our climate targets, such as measures that would incentivise greater uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles. Alongside this, investment in reduce the amount of energy we use in the first place and increasing the energy we can store in batteries can help in both the transport and heat sectors. Our recent Energy Vision report called for more investment in these areas as critical for delivering emissions reductions in an ecologically sensitive way.

    In harmony with nature

    The focus should be on technologies that provide efficiency, emissions reductions and value for money in harmony with nature. In the heat and transport sectors, this means a combination of electrification, use of genuine wastes and residues and limited use of woody energy crops. However, large-scale, monoculture growing of crops for either heat or transport can put the environment at risk. Helping the hardest to decarbonise sectors, such as heavy industry and aviation, should also be prioritised. This can be done through careful prioritisation of the use of a limited biomass resource and through the most efficient kinds of technologies such as small and medium scale combined heat and power or district heating networks.

    Are biofuels the answer?

    However the Committee also suggests that the transport target could be met by using more crop-based biofuels, the contribution of which to the 10% target is currently capped at 1.5% in the UK. The EU and the UK both capped the contribution of these kinds of biofuels for good reason - the risk they pose to the climate and to the environment. Raising this cap and softening environmental safeguards is not the solution. The RSPB has long called for the 10% target to be scrapped but if maintained, it is essential that it is met by wastes, electrification and demand reduction, not by solutions that can actually cause more problems elsewhere. The call for the use of E10 (a high-ethanol blend) is also concerning. A new report this summer highlighted that ethanol-based biofuels deliver only minimal emissions savings or can even result in emissions increases relative to conventional fuels.

    In conclusion, this report provides important overarching evidence that at this point in time the Government needs to do far more to protect its domestic credibility on climate change. While some of the proposed solutions could be risky or should be ruled out, the overall call for more action on renewable heat and transport is critical.

  • EU energy efficiency success provides good example to UK

    News this week came out that the EU is well on course to meet its energy efficiency target. In part due to economic slowdown and in part due to policies that have driven greater energy efficiency, the use of energy in the EU was below what was expected in 2014 by as much as the annual energy use of Finland. Of course, as others have pointed out, it is important to make sure that this momentum is capitalised on so as if economies do pick up again energy use doesn't return to previous levels. This is called 'decoupling' energy use and economic growth.

    This success can serve as an important example to the UK, which might have seen a fall in energy demand but has been cutting key policies and subsidies for measures to drive energy efficiency.

    In the UK, some have expressed concern at backward steps on energy efficiency, including the independent Committee on Climate Change. They are worried that cuts to energy efficiency schemes have reduced effort in this area and are putting progress at risk. This is happening at a time when the energy efficiency of our built environment could be being treated as a national infrastructure priority.

    Energy efficiency is a no regrets solution as it reduces overall demand and the need for capital investment in costly new energy infrastructure. It's a great and environmentally friendly alternative to measures that some are calling for such as converting more coal power stations to biomass. As I've blogged about previously this can have significant impacts on the environment and the climate too. If we can avoid the need for the energy in the first place then all the better.

    We hope that governments will put in place new measures to promote energy efficiency and demand reduction across the UK, for example the policy solutions recommended by Bright Blue in their recently published report ‘Better Homes: Incentivising home energy improvements. While these kinds of solutions aren't big and sexy they provide significant benefits without posing a risk to nature. As we identified in our recent Energy Vision report, energy efficiency is a key part of any strategy to drastically cut UK emissions by 2050 in harmony with nature. They need to be at the heart of the UK Government's forthcoming Emissions Reduction Plan setting out how it is going to meet its carbon budget targets.

  • Policy proposals for a sustainable EU bioenergy policy: lessons for the UK

    Bioenergy can play an important role in decarbonising energy systems. However, over recent years evidence has made it increasingly clear that this role needs to be limited. This is because certain types of bioenergy can result in substantial risks to nature and wildlife and in fact offer only meagre emissions savings, or perhaps even increase emissions over the medium term relative to fossil fuels.
    At the EU level, to date, there have been no sustainability criteria for biomass used for heat and electricity. However, criteria have been introduced for biofuels – the liquid fuels that replace petrol and diesel. This is in recognition of the environmental risks associated with some of these fuels.
    The EU now plans to address this discrepancy and later this year will publish proposed bioenergy sustainability criteria that would apply to biomass used for heat and power too. So, colleagues in European NGOs have today published what kinds of principles and policies they think these criteria could include.
    While the result of the referendum was a vote to leave the EU, and so these criteria may never apply to the UK’s use of bioenergy, there are some very useful ideas contained within this NGO policy proposal. The RSPB's recent Energy Vision report does see a role for bioenergy in the UK's future energy mix. And the UK Government is currently considering its plans for how to reduce emissions in the future. It should look carefully at the role of bioenergy and at the policies that have been put in place to date that, in some cases, have resulted in harm to the environment or failed to guarantee emissions reductions.
    In fact, the UK’s sustainability criteria for bioenergy could be based on similar principles and policies, namely:
    i. All emissions from biomass should be fully accounted for
    At present, only emissions from transportation and production of biomass are counted. When the biomass itself is burned, it is counted as zero carbon. Overwhelming scientific evidence now shows that this ‘carbon neutral assumption is wrong’. All of these emissions should be counted, or used as a proxy to rule out the highest carbon risk forms of biomass.
    ii. A cap on bioenergy in line with available sustainable supply
    Bioenergy, unlike wind or solar, comes from limited sources of biogenic materials that very often rely upon availability of land and can compete with other uses or benefits – such as habitats for wildlife. Therefore, any use of biomass for energy must start from an assessment of what is sustainably available and then cap use at that level.
    iii. Stronger environmental sustainability standards
    The UK is one of the few countries to have sustainability criteria for bioenergy already. However, these criteria are too weak in order to guarantee protection to the natural environment. I saw some of the environmental impacts that are wrought under the current system when I visited the US myself earlier this year. Far stronger criteria are needed in order to protect vulnerable wildlife and habitats.
    iv. Optimum use of limited biomass resources
    The materials that are used for bioenergy sometimes compete with other uses elsewhere in the economy. Reuse and recycling of materials should be maximised, in line with the principles of ‘cascading use’ before materials are burned for energy.
    The new paper builds on these four principles and suggests specific policy measures that the EU could adopt in order to ensure the best kinds of biomass are used for energy in the best possible ways. Its policy proposals are:

    * Adopt an EU-wide limit on the amount of bioenergy used to meet the EU’s 2030 climate and energy targets, including a phase out of biofuels from food and energy crops;

    * Exclude high-risk biomass sources such as biomass from protected areas, stumps and roundwood and crops from agricultural land (unless evidence is provided that this enhances their environmental conditions);

    * Limit the extraction of agricultural and forest residues;

    * Ensure that biomass for energy doesn’t displace other existing uses of the biomass and is in line with the principles of cascading use and the waste hierarchy;

    * Ensure affected communities’ Free Prior and Informed Consent, respect of their human, labour and land rights in the production and use of biomass for energy;

    * Introduce a minimum efficiency threshold for energy installations and fuel manufacturing producing bioenergy or biofuels.

    These policies would clearly need tweaking for a UK context. For example, the UK's woodlands are quite different from those on the European mainland and there may be some cases, such as on RSPB nature reserves, where using roundwood from trees for energy makes sense because it benefits wildlife. However, they are a useful springboard into a discussion about what kinds of policies should be applied to safeguard nature and the climate.

    Right now it is clear that existing criteria in the UK are not guaranteeing environmental protection or genuine emissions reductions.