Over the years, the RSPB has campaigned for sustainable solutions to the climate change crisis. We've argued for strategic siting of windfarms away from the most sensitive places for wildlife. We've argued against destructive tidal barrages and in favour of environmentally benign solutions. We've argued that biofuels must neither directly nor indirectly lead to the destruction of important habitats for wildlife around the world.
And now, we are warning that the dash to generate electricity from biomass might mean that the current UK Government is about to make the same mistakes as its predecessors.
We've done some research to show that the bioenergy industry is developing rapidly in the UK, but will be heavily reliant on imported wood. This could have major impacts on wildlife and the climate. We are saying that the UK Government has an opportunity now to redirect subsidies away from such unsustainable sources towards a sustainable bioenergy industry based on using domestic wood and waste.
The driver for this is the Government's laudable plan to meet renewable energy targets by 2020. Included in that is an ambition for 6GW of biomass electricity. This would require an equivalent of around 36 million tonnes of (oven-dried) wood.
There are currently 31 bioenergy plants in the UK and 39 further plants are in the pipeline. Most of the new plants (such as Tilbury in Essex) will be reliant on imports. If these are all built, then there will be an incraese in biomass use from 5.2 to 48.3 million tonnes. This is a lot of wood coming into the UK.
The environmental concerns are twofold.
First, the biomass will come from Canada, the US and Russia, putting temperate forests under more pressure. Over-extraction of woody biomass for bioenergy is already removing the habitat of the great grey owl in Canada.
Second, there are climate risks from reliance on imports. This is a bit more complicated but undermines the case for a bioenergy system reliant on imported wood. I'll try and explain. When wood and other biomass is burnt in a power station, it releases carbon dioxide, just like fossil fuels. These emissions are ignored in government's proposed greenhouse gas emissions standard on the grounds that emissions from combusting wood are compensated for when forests regrow after harvesting. Yet studies show that trees take decades or even centuries to reabsorb the initial carbon lost to the atmosphere and therefore repay the "carbon debt" from their combustion.
The next bit is tied up with negotiations around the Climate Change Convention. Essentially, international rules state that countries should account for greenhouse gas emissions from land use, land use change and forestry - creating the brilliant acronym of LULUCF. But the rules state that the carbon released is recorded when and where the wood is harvested not when it is combusted. It is therefore counted as zero-carbon by the energy sector as the emissions have already been accounted. But countries are negotiating various opt outs so that a significant proportion of emissions from forestry and agriculture will go unaccounted. Worse is that those countries that have not signed the Kyoto protocol, such as the US, will not account for these emissions at all. So, if we import wood fom the US for bioenergy plants in the UK, no greenhouse gas emissions will be accounted despite the massive emissions arising from burning the wood to make power.
The solution is relatively simple. A number of studies show that you could source the necessary biomass from the UK by brining our woodlands back into sustainable management and by using household and agricultural waste. A number of our native woodlands are crying out for management. Butterflies and birds have suffered through the lack of management of our woodlands. What's more there is a large amount of unutilised waste - government's own figures suggest that there are approximately 6 million tonnes of waste wood that were landfilled.
We therefore have a choice: do we source our biomass from domestic sources - which will be good news for woodland wildlife such as nightingales, spotted flycatcher and the small pearl-bordered fritillary and will mean less waste going to landfill? Or do we rely on imported wood thereby putting more pressure on temperate forests and wildlife in Canada, the US and Russia?
The UK Government is about to start reviewing the levels of support given to the bioenergy industry via the renewables obligation. We want them to scrap subsidies for imported wood and redirect support to develop a sustainable bioenergy industry based on bringing domestic forests back into management and using wastes.
See - it's simple!
In his report, Making Space for Nature, John Lawton clearly set out what wildlife needed: conservation action at a landscape scale.
This week I have been lucky enough to partially escape the planning reform furore and visit two RSPB projects which are restoring habitats at a vast scale. In hurricane winds (I exagerate a little), I saw the extent of the habitat restoration that we had been carrying out at our Dove Stone reserve in the Dark Peak. We manage this 3,000ha site for United Utilities as part of our Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCAMP). Five years ago the moors were in a terribly degraded state – large areas of exposed peat and little available habitat for moorland wildlife. Thanks to an investment programme by UU and an army of volunteers, we are now restoring large areas of heather and blanket bog. This is good news for wildlife, for UU’s business (by saving money on cleaning water supplies) and for locking up the carbon stored in these upland bogs. Add this to our Eastern Moors project (which we are running in partnership with the National Trust) on the doorstep of Sheffield and it is clear that we are making a big difference to upland ecosystems in the Peak District.
Later in the week, I had my first visit to RSPB’s Abernethy 13,713ha reserve. Famous for its capercaillie and ospreys, what really grabbed my attention was the massive Caledonian pinewood restoration programme which we are carrying out. With a gentle nudge from us, we are encouraging natural regeneration of pine, birch, willow and rowan to recreate a landscape that was lost hundreds of years ago. This should be good news for Caledonian pine specialists such as capercaillie. Abernethy holds 10-12% of the UK population of capercaillie and it is a species that needs a lot of help - particularly to cope with the changing climate. I spent a day walking across the reserve (under blue skies) with the knowledgeable and passionate site management team. My horizons were filled with land that was being managed with wildlife in mind. I love the fact that we are bold enough to set 200 year visions and then methodologically set about getting on with the job of turning that vision a reality.
This is the RSPB at its best – practicing what it preaches about landscape-scale conservation.
I think John Lawton would approve.
Forgive me if I indulge myself by starting this post with a quote from Barack Obama: "A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, 'Huh. It works. It makes sense.'" True enough. But President Obama has doubtless learned, during his time in office, that it is exceptionally difficult to achieve this perfect compromise in practice. Across the pond, David Cameron is learning that the perfect compromise is well-nigh impossible.
The media is continuing to take a keen interest in the controversy surrounding the Government’s proposed reforms to the English planning system. The Telegraph, which has a reasonable claim to be the official newspaper of the English Shires, is leading the charge, putting loyalty to its rural readership ahead of allegiance to the Conservative leadership. It obviously realises that it sells more copies to grass-roots party members than it is ever likely to sell to members of the Cabinet. And it is doing a fine job with its Hands Off Our Land campaign.
The Telegraph ran an interesting front page yesterday. “Stop locals resisting developers: New rules will mean more building, not less, says author of Coalition’s planning changes”. This appeared to be a startling revelation from John Rhodes, who co-authored the Advisory Group report that informed the draft National Planning Policy Framework. Mr Rhodes, “a leading planning consultant” is reported to have said that the new rules, “would inevitably mean ‘more development, not less’”.
This seems, on the face of it, a little worrying. But I feel obliged to point out a couple of things. If you read down the article, you discover that these comments were made in December 2010, two weeks before John Rhodes was even appointed to the Advisory Group by Greg Clark. Certainly it was before the group actually met. It’s worth reading the comments made by Simon Marsh of the RSPB in another blog, himself a member of the Advisory Group, who says that the panel inevitably found it necessary to make compromises. From our own perspective, these compromises between the various panel members did not go far enough and we are continuing to lobby against the primacy given to economic development - essentially providing the presumption in favour of development. You can help too, by joining our campaign.
The second thing that’s worth noting is that John Rhodes, whether speaking in December 2010 or September 2011, does not speak on behalf of the whole group. All members of the Advisory Group were invited as private individuals, on the basis of their experience. They did not act on behalf of any organisation or employer. Simon Marsh was no exception. The RSPB, of course, approved his involvement on the Panel, but we have never endorsed the resulting report or its recommendations. And that’s because the report was, inevitably, a compromise.
And the government's version of the National Planning Policy Framework is not yet a "good compromise", according to the Obama definition. A lot of people are not recognising it, and fewer still believe it makes sense.
But it was better, from our point of view, that Simon was involved in the process that led to the draft NPPF, than that he wasn’t. And it is worth remembering that the Government's NPPF is still a draft- theoretically subject to the consultation that is currently underway. Our job is clear - we will continue our efforts to ensure that wildlife and the environment are weighed equally against economic ones, and that the Government listens to our concerns.
The week-to-week world of conservation is always punctuated by a series of highs and low. This week has been no different.
Yesterday, we launched our new report on biomass expressing concern about the impacts of a huge increase in imported wood for wildlife and the climate. We released our report, in time, to help government fix the problem. They also have time to sort out their planning proposals which continue to cause a storm (see Newsnight for the latest gloves off battle between the National Trust and planning minister Greg Clarke). We have argued that new planning proposals must reflect the fact that our long term economic growth relies on protecting and enhancing the environmental resources that underpin it and paying due regard to social needs. If you agree, you can join our campaign.
But there was also some good news this week.
Along with Natural England, we announced that the bittern population has now broken the 100 barrier for the number of booming males in Britain. The media has responded warmly to this fantastic news for species conservation, and it’s appropriate to celebrate a record that hasn’t been beaten within living memory.
At the time the RSPB was formed – in 1889 - the bittern was extinct in Britain. We have played a major part in its recovery. Much of this bird’s success relies on managing and protecting wildlife sites: something that we’ve doing for many years. And for the sake of the bittern and all those other threatened species, this is something we’ll be doing for many years to come.
So on that slightly cheerier note, I hope you have a good weekend.
The debate around the future of England's planning rules has got a lot of people rather hot under the collar and the broadsheets are joining in, no doubt relishing the prospect of another Coalition u-turn.
The Government certainly seems to be sending out mixed messages. The news that Greg Clark, the Planning Minister, was willing to hold talks with pro-countryside campaigners was welcome, but it was accompanied by a warning that the reforms would go ahead. And George Osborne and Eric Pickles joined forces in an apparently co-authored piece in the FT, in which they stated that the Government was "determined to win the battle" on planning.
Now these are rather mixed messages. It's great that the Government wants to talk, but there needs to be a sign that they will also listen to the concerns of campaign groups, led by the National Trust. The rather clumsy messaging of the last few days seems to imply that Clark, Osborne and Pickles simply want to correct the misapprehensions of a bunch of deluded rabble-rousers (does this sound like the National Trust to you?).
That's not really good enough. The problem with conducting a war of words via the media is that the detail of an argument gets lost. And it works both ways. Politicians, of all people, should know that. It is the job of NGOs to challenge Governments when their policies seem questionable and it is the democratic duty of those Governments to listen. Some of the mudslinging and insults that have been directed at campaigning NGOs over the past few weeks have been crass and puerile. It is not how our elected representatives should behave. They work for us, after all.
To make the RSPB's position clear, we are happy for the complicated planning system to be streamlined, and we agree that there is a legitimate need for housing and development. But that development should not be allowed to cause irreparable damage to our countryside and wildlife.
So, we are calling on the Government to put the name-calling and rhetoric behind them, and asking them to sit down sensibly with environmental groups to find a solution that supports economic recovery, protects nature, and shows greater respect for the concerns of people in rural communities.