Today the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK Government’s independent advisory body, published much-anticipated advice on how the new and ambitious global deal in Paris could alter the UK’s efforts.
This is something RSPB cares about because climate change poses the greatest long-term threat to wildlife, and every degree of temperature rise puts more species at risk of loss and extinction.
The CCC’s letter today to Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, begins well. It acknowledges that the aim of keeping temperature rises well below two degrees is a more ambitious trajectory and the UK needs to be part of efforts to achieve this.
However, unfortunately, they propose no changes in order to achieve this. Their advice is about the fifth carbon budget. This budget, from 2028-32, sets out the UK’s proposed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. They don’t suggest that it should be any more ambitious than their advice back in November.
The Committee does say that the UK may want to tighten subsequent budgets, but right now they propose no change. Setting out that existing carbon budgets are an absolute minimum is right, but failing to insist on more ambition now is somewhat disappointing. In light of the ambitious deal in Paris, we hope that budgets might be tightened and made more ambitious in the future.
What’s more, we all know that action now is cheaper than action in the future, and that postponing cuts on emissions only makes it more likely that we might have to rely on untested or risky technologies like bioenergy carbon capture and storage, that can pose threats to nature.
The Committee rightly points out that more policy support is needed in order to make sure the UK meets its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but this isn’t an excuse for keeping ambition the same – in fact it should be a spur to action.
The Committee will be providing more detail to Government on how they think the 5th carbon budget could be met. We hope this provides an opportunity for them to improve the targets in carbon budgets.
This is a guest blog by Andre Farrar, RSPB Planing and Strategy Manager.
Crazy weather has always been with us – floods and droughts, cold snaps and heat waves, wind and storms ... it’s the patterns over time that count and those are now showing more clearly than ever before that our climate is changing. At one extreme the grievous impact of the latest floods in the North of England at the other unseasonably early spring flowers all point to the things we love, the places we cherish, the nature that inspires us are being affected by climate change.
(Want to know more about how climate change works and how it impacts the UK and beyond? The Met Office has some handy guides, see here and here, and they recently announced that 2015 was the hottest year on record.)
Last year, the world came together in Paris and a plan emerged that gives hope that together, across the world, our Governments and peoples will tackle the threat of runaway global warming and keep our home, our fragile planet, within the bounds of a temperature rise that minimises (though cannot avoid) impact. As with any plan – its value is only demonstrated if it is implemented and that will mean we must hold our leaders to account and ensure that the optimism of Paris is not wasted.
We’ve been at the heart of campaigning for a future safe from the worst impact of damaging climate change because it directly affects the things we love. For each half a degree rise in temperature more species are condemned to extinction – so it matters for all life on earth as it matters directly to us.
And our natural world is an asset in helping us to adapt to the changes that are here now and that will continue to affect us in the future. Resilient and healthy landscapes are better able to cope with the extremes our weather throws at us.
In the wake of the Paris conference, The Climate Coalition, which includes the RSPB, is once again turning red hearts green this Valentine’s Day to spread the word that we can change the world if enough of us show we care. In honour of the occasion Michael Morpurgo has written a love letter from a grandfather to his grand-daughter, all about his hopes for her future. This has been turned into a film featuring Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake which will be coming to an RSPB website near you very soon.
Guest blog by Dr Rob Field, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
A recent paper 'The potential for land sparing to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture' in the journal Nature Climate Change has attempted to show that land sparing has the technical potential to significantly reduce agricultural emissions, by balancing them with greenhouse gas uptake from ‘spared land’. The land spared including new woodlands and wetlands would be more than just a carbon sink. They would help support declining UK wildlife – including many species of conservation concern – provide more areas for nature recreation, and help to reduce flooding.
What is land sparing?
The concept of sparing land for conservation purposes has been around for about a decade now, and was first proposed and investigated as a way of saving further loss of pristine natural habitats to agriculture – the idea being that the more food you can produce per area of land, the less extra land you require, thereby sparing that land for conservation goals. This has been largely examined in tropical, high biodiversity countries, and shows large benefits for the majority of species endangered by agricultural expansion.
The UK is slightly different, in that virtually all our land surface is at the very least ‘semi-natural’ and most is highly ‘anthropogenic’ (human altered). This means that most of our wildlife in the wider countryside is well-adapted to living alongside people and living in our landscapes. In spite of this, wildlife declines in the UK countryside are now well documented.
A very small proportion of the UK land surface is already spared from agriculture (nature reserves etc), but this largely covers the rarer habitats remaining unconverted to intensive agricultural use. Most widespread wild nature in Britain survives in farmed landscapes.
Meeting the requirements to reduce gas emissions by 80% by 2050
By virtue of the climate change act of 2008, UK agriculture is bound to cut its 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. This is already acknowledged to be a tough ask, as most emissions are associated with fertiliser use, and most crops need fertilisers.
Photo of wheat harvest by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Land sparing for climate mitigation and for wildlife
Our study has looked at the role of land sparing (to create new unfarmed areas in the wider countryside, additional to current nature reserves) in not only providing habitat for declining species, but in mitigating the emissions of UK agriculture towards the 2050 target.
We assumed that using the latest technological and agronomic advances, UK agriculture becomes more efficient – producing more crop per area, or more meat per weight of animal food (notwithstanding welfare and environmental restrictions).
Using a range of these projections, we looked at how much food would be needed by 2050 (the projected population) and how much land would be needed to produce it – any extra would be spared and converted to natural habitats (woodland or marshland).
Additionally, we combined these projections with other societal changes: reducing food wastage (the percentage of food produced lost before consumption); and a reduction in meat in the UK diet (not total vegetarianism, just meat less often).
Emissions from the UK farming industry could be largely offset by 2050 We found that increased agricultural efficiency was capable of balancing some of the UKs agricultural emissions (a combination of increased CO2 uptake by restored habitats and less emissions per unit food produced), but when combined with societal measures, these had the potential to essentially negate the entire 80% of 1990 emissions that is required of agriculture.
Putting the science into practice requires changes in policy
That’s the easy bit – how to do this in practice is the hard bit! Farmland is owned and managed by private businesses, all with their own pressures and incentives, and so sparing land would be the result of many individual decisions, based on individual business circumstances – therefore the most likely way to do this in the UK is through the Common Agricultural Policy and Agri-environment schemes. It would require another big reform of these schemes to enable large scale land-sparing and habitat creation.
Reducing meat consumption and food waste
The task of changing diets seems herculean compared to even this however, although there does seem to be some popular momentum behind the reduction of food wastage. In the event of a perfect storm of these three things becoming possible, there is also the small matter of the conservation policy behind such huge landscape changes – how would we view changes to our wildlife that such wholesale changes to the countryside would bring?
Changes to the countryside – more wetland and woodland
By upping forest cover from 12% to 30% of UK land over the next 35 years – close to that of France and Germany and restoring 700,000 hectares of wet peatland, would act as a carbon ‘sink’: sucking in and storing carbon. Creation of large areas of wetland and woodland would likely favour such declining species as wood warblers, lesser spotted woodpeckers and cuckoos as well as some of the recent success stories – bitterns, little egrets etc, but would this be acceptable at the cost of fewer yellowhammers, corn buntings, and stone curlews?
Photo of wood warbler by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
If we spare land, we’ll have to intensify the production on the remaining farmland, and on current form, this will be bad for our farmland specialists, which currently do best on ‘shared land’ (where conservation and farming are not separated spatially, e.g. Environmental Stewardship) or on High Nature Value Farming land (where low intensity farming persists due to subsidy or cultural factors). Which do we choose, and how will we know?
Current work 'Reconciling food production and biodiversity conservation in Poland' is looking at the comparative benefits of sparing or sharing in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which led to a reduction in farming efficiency) and will also do the same in the UK, so we may then have a better idea of what different land-use plans will suit which species.