Climate change

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Climate change

News and views from the RSPB on climate change and what you can do about it.
  • On the effects of climate change in Southern Ocean seabirds

    Guest blog from Deborah Pardo, Richard Phillips and Phil Trathan, British Antarctic Survey

    In Polar Regions, where species are already at the limit of their ranges, climate change is suspected to have particularly strong effects (Barbraud et al. 2012). Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey have been monitoring several key seabird colonies for a number of decades, as well as using animal-borne devices to better understand the links between population demography, and at-sea behaviour and distribution. Analyses of some of these monitoring data in relation to oceanographic and climatic variables provide a fantastic opportunity to understand the effects of climate change on Southern Ocean seabirds. 

    Three of the 14 Overseas Territories (OTs) of the United-Kingdom are in the South Atlantic. These islands include the breeding sites of an array of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species including albatrosses, penguins, petrels and skuas. Many of those species are currently listed as threatened by IUCN, and some of the populations in the UK OTs are at risk of extinction.

    Recently, links have been made between changes in wind regimes in the Indian Ocean, and body size, breeding success and even survival probabilities of wandering albatrosses in the Indian Ocean (Weimerskirch et al. 2012). Stronger, more southerly winds appear to increase the ability of adults to move and access unpredictable resources. A shift in distribution might also reduce overlap with certain fisheries, reducing the risk of incidental mortality on longlines set for tuna and other billfishes.

    A black browed albatross, one of the numerous species threatened with climate change in Southern Atlantic Ocean UK Overseas Territories

    The effect of global warming is clearly evident at the Antarctic Peninsula where there are igher sea surface temperatures and reductions in seasonal sea ice extent. These physical changes may have profound effects on a range of trophic levels, in particular on the production of krill, which is at the base of trophic chains that sustain many marine bird and mammal populations in the Southern Ocean (Atkinson et al. 2004, Forcada et al. 2008-2009-2014, Reid and Croxall 2001). These changes may lead to range contractions, food-web perturbation and a poleward shift in distribution, as well as more variable breeding success and reduced population size. However the effect of such changes depends on the species, reflecting their specific life-histories and ecology. The case of penguins is particularly interesting; generalist gentoo penguins are seen as climate change ‘winners’, whereas Adélie and chinstrap penguins have become climate change ‘losers’ (Croxall et al. 2002, Boersma 2008, Trathan et al. 2014). Phenological changes have also been demonstrated, in particular in East Antarctica where 9 species of seabirds are breeding later, probably because changes in sea ice extent and duration have limited the quantity and availability of food prior to the breeding season (Barbraud & Weimerskirch 2006).

    Given the complexity of processes underlying responses of seabirds to climate change, and the interaction with other environmental and anthropogenic drivers, a lot of unanswered questions still remain. Long-term monitoring of populations, the development of analytical tools and devices, and a strong collaboration between researchers to synthesize intra- and inter-specific responses in different regions will be keys to a better understanding of the effects of climate on Southern Ocean seabirds and our ability to predict their future.

  • European climate deal does just enough to keep hope alive

    The growing gap between the level of ambition recommended by climate scientists and what politicians are able to deliver in terms of commitments to cut emissions is cause for serious concern. From a nature conservation perspective, there’s a high risk of climate change taking place so rapidly that many species will be lost. Just last month, for example, our partner organisation in the US, the Audubon Society, published the results of pioneering new research that found half of all bird species in the US were imperilled by  climate change.

    In this light, it would be easy to condemn the deal struck by Cameron and other European leaders last night as woefully inadequate. The new EU climate target to 2030 is just 40% emission reductions by 2030, when it should be at least 55%, and targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency are equally inadequate and aren’t even binding on national governments.

    Yet, until today Europe had no concrete plans to cut emissions beyond 2020. The renewable energy industries, which have been innovating and growing in recent years because of EU 2020 targets had no assurance of continued support, whilst energy conservation continued to be ignored. The latter has been particularly galling, given that reducing energy use saves consumers money and reduces the amount of large energy infrastructure needed, making it the most nature-friendly way of cutting our emissions!

    Today’s deal should have done just enough to alleviate the worst of this uncertainty. What’s more, the greenhouse gas emission target includes a flexibility clause that will mean it can be increased as part of the UN negotiations over a global climate deal next year.

    This is an important achievement then, particularly given the other pressures on EU leaders and the continued antagonism towards climate action from some countries, political parties and parts of the media. 

    Now we must focus on building on this agreement by investing in diplomacy to achieve a strong global climate deal, continuing to push for greater ambition in Europe, and focusing on delivering the emission cuts here in the UK. I hope to see all of the political parties, for example, putting forward detailed and ambitious plans over the coming months that would deliver emission reductions through reducing energy use, supporting energy efficiency and supporting sustainable, low ecological impact renewable energy. Unless this happens, and is followed by swift action by the new Government next year, we will see the UK falling from a position of a global leader on climate action to being a laggard. 

  • Why Meat Free Mondays are a must for food security and climate change

    Lucy Bjorck, RSPB Senior Agriculture Policy Officer

    Food security means different things to different people. To a subsistence farmer in a developing country it means producing enough food for their family for a year. For a low wage worker it means having cash to buy enough healthy food to feed the family. And for us middle class westerners – it probably means very little.

    The relationship of food security with climate change is equally double edged. Agriculture is a major greenhouse gas (GHG) source, responsible for 17% to 32% of GHG emissions (the high end when including land use change, mostly deforestation which is devastating for biodiversity). Livestock production accounts, directly and indirectly, for a large proportion of these emissions[i].

    And climate change also affects agriculture, expected to reduce global crop production by more than 10% by 2050[ii] and likely to reduce marine production as well[iii].

    We need to feed more people, better, meet our climate targets and, at the same time, producing our food is getting harder. So how can we make sure that everyone has enough to eat, agricultural emissions go down, and we reduce farming’s impact on nature?

    The initial response to worries about food security often looks for ways to produce more food and, for climate change, to make current methods more efficient. But whilst these routes may help a bit, they don’t address the root of the problem. Food security is about more than the total amount of food: it encompasses what we produce, how we produce it and how we access our food. The solutions are as much social and political as they are technical.

    This is becoming more widely understood. Academic and advisor to Government, Professor Tim Benton, recently summed this up:

    “... we’ll never grow our way into food security: the more food we produce, the more we’ll waste and over-consume, ...degrade the environment and issues of equity and access will remain. To solve these problems, we need to recognise local and planetary boundaries and grow food sustainably within them...”

       Andy Hay / RSPB

    Lapwings can share farmland with lower-intensity

    A Nature Climate Change article last month showed that closing ‘yield gaps’ (the difference between yields between best-practice agriculture and average yields in each agro-climatic zone) will not be enough to prevent further agricultural expansion and deliver emissions reductions unless we improve diets and reduce food waste.

    This chimes with growing evidence and consensus about reducing the amount of meat we eat, if we are to stay within safe emission limits and nourish a growing global population. There are other benefits, too: a global transition to a low meat diet to meet health goals would lower our costs to reduce GHG emissions to meet a ‘safe’ 2°C global temperature rise by about 50% by 2050.

    Farming livestock contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions and covers a staggering 75% of all anthropogenic land use[iv].  Worldwide,  it's estimated that 30% of biodiversity loss is due to livestock yet equally, many of our priority species rely on livestock grazing. Many people eat more than they need for a healthy diet, creating a public health problem on a par with cigarette smoking, with annual costs of over £6 billion for the NHS, and rising to an expected cost to the economy of £50 billion annually by 2050.

    So it’s clear that we need to make a change! You’ll no doubt have come across campaigns such as such as Meat Free Mondays and Part time carnivore encouraging us to eat less meat. Culturally of course, this is a difficult area and initiatives are needed not just from the ground up, but also by government to lead people towards healthier and more sustainable eating habits. There’s huge potential in this approach, for nature, for the economy and for our own lives – as well as our health, eating less meat helps our wallets too, freeing up cash which we may then choose to spend on more sustainably produced food and supporting wildlife friendly farmers.

    At the RSPB we’re working, with others, to help deliver a new recipe for food, farming, nature and public health – click to the Square Meal web pages and let us know what you are going to do differently!

    [i] Ecological Livestock, Greenpeace - Pelletier & Tyedmers 2010, Bellarby et al 2008, IPCC 2007

    [iv] “An astonishing 75% of the world’s agriculture land” is devoted to raising animals, including both the land used to grow crops for animal feed and pasture and grazing lands (Foley et al 2011).