September, 2011

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • Bioenergy - how to get it right

    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!

  • Thinking Big

    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.

  • Good or bad compromise?

    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.