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.
If you’ve ever had a dodgy knee or a kidney stone, chances are that you’ve been prescribed anti-inflammatory medication to ease the pain. It’s quite likely that your GP’s treatment of choice was diclofenac. And very effective it is too.
Not so good, though, if you’re any one of the three species of Gyps vultures from South Asia, and you feast on the carcasses of cattle that have been treated with the drug.
Cattle? With dodgy knees? Taking drugs? Well, possibly. For religious reasons, dying cattle are not killed to relieve their suffering in some countries, so they are sometimes given painkilling medication instead. Diclofenac, though, has been banned as a veterinary drug in India, Pakistan and Nepal since 2006, and for very good reason.
Populations of the Indian, slender-billed and white-rumped vultures have crashed dramatically since the 1990s. When I say dramatically, I’m not exaggerating. The first two species have declined by 97% during the past decade, and the third by as much as 99.9%. And diclofenac is thought to have been the primary cause.
Wait, I hear you ask, vultures are taking diclofenac? Do they have dodgy knees? No, of course not – but dying cattle have been given it, and there’s nothing an Asian vulture likes more than a dinner of recently deceased raw cow. If this dinner was recently treated with diclofenac, then it’s poisonous to an unsuspecting vulture, often fatally so.
The ban in 2006 was a step in the right direction. But a new study, published in the journal Oryx, has revealed the shocking truth that over one-third of Indian pharmacies are flouting the ban and continuing to sell the drug for veterinary use. A survey of 250 chemists’ shops in 11 Indian states, conducted between 2007 and 2010, found that 36% were selling diclofenac, despite being told that it would be used for treating cattle. The drug was often sold in large containers, so could not have been intended for human use.
Preventing the sale and use of diclofenac is the major challenge in the fight to bring these amazing vultures back from the brink of extinction. The new organisation Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) is leading the fightback, managing three breeding centres in India, where 271 vultures are being housed as part of an increasingly successful breeding programme.
Remember those mop-top vultures in Disney’s Jungle Book? The ones that bore a suspicious resemblance to The Beatles? You may remember that they sung “That’s What Friends Are For” to Mowgli. Certainly the Asian vultures are in need of a few friends right now....
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!
Summer might be well and truly over, but my mind is turning once again to the deep blue sea and all the fabulous creatures that live above and below the waves.
As I have blogged before, the UK’s seas are internationally important for wildlife and today’s publication of the long-awaited network of proposed English Marine Conservation Zones is a great step forward towards ensuring the long-term protection of special sites and species. It begins to implement the requirements of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) for which hundreds of thousands of people campaigned for the best part of a decade.
The idea is that nationally important sites are established to complement those of international significance to create what government’s stated ambition of an ecologically coherent network: protecting the best places for wildlife at sea in the same way that we protect our finest sites on land.
The intention is laudable and the announcement of 127 potential Marine Conservation Zones around England’s coast is good news. Any announcement that protects threatened wildlife is good news in my book.
But it is frustrating that key species, such as basking sharks, seabirds and dolphins have largely been ignored by the proposed sites. It is equally frustrating that the UK Government has not made progress in identifying Special Protection Areas for the feeding and resting grounds for our seabirds.
I think that those RSPB members that campaigned for better protection of the marine environment will be scratching their heads as to why there are no sites proposed to protect seabirds.
They might reasonably ask - why on earth would anyone want to insure only half their house or protect only half their possessions? Surely, it’s sensible to safeguard everything that’s valuable to you.
We have been told by government that Marine Protected Areas for seabirds will not be identified until at least 2015. It is wrong to delay protection for key seabirds and other species when there is good information about marine sites that are important and worthy of protection for these species available right now.
We’ve invested a huge amount of effort in contributing to the regional stakeholder groups and it is fair to say that we feel a little short-changed by this announcement.
If you agree, then why not tell the minister, by joining our campaign now.
Some things are easier said than done.
I was struck by Ed Miliband's new soundbite "something for something". The idea that if you are given something then you should be expected to offer something in return. We've had our own soundbite which has informed our approach to many policy debates: public money for public goods. This is central to our arguments for reform of the Common Agriculture Policy. It explains why we are so keen for an increase in CAP payments to farmers which reward them for delivering an attractive countryside rich in wildlife - goods and services from which the public will benefit.
But, CAP reform is caught up in a wider debate about the future of the European Budget. I have blogged on this before and will do so again as this is the subject of a fringe at which I shall be speaking in Manchester this weekend (yes, the Conservative Party conference is just round the corner).
The European Budget needs to be agreed by the end of 2013. That seems like a long way off. Surely, we can expect agreement quicker than that? Alas, as we know too well, European negotiations are challenging. More than that - at times they feel like a social experiment. Let's take 27 different countries, each with their own culture, priorities and history and let's come up with a deal which we can all live on the subject of money during the worst economic crisis since, well since the last one. You begin to see why it might be touch and go to secure a deal within the next 27 months.
What's my point?
The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are caused by humans. And, it is only humans that can get us out of this mess. Influencing change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour is at the heart of the environment movement's agenda. So we need to be smarter about the way we work with other members of our own species.
This week, two brilliant RSPB colleauges are setting off to the Panama climate change negotiations. This will be the last set of negotiations before the Ministerial conference in Durban in December when 192 countries will be trying to hammer out a global deal on climate change. While the economic crisis has distracted attention from the dangers of climate change, globally humans are emittting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before. We are on course for a global increase of four degrees or perhaps even more by 2070. If we reach this the future looks bleak for us and for wildlife – achieving a global climate deal has never been more important.
And that means convincing politicians around the world to do things which may go against their short term interests but are in the long term interest of the planet.
So, if you have ever emerged from a meeting a little battered, bruised and possibly even grumpy with colleagues, spare a thought for those that are trying to agree the EU Budget or those that need to hammer out a climate change deal which satisfies 192 countries. And then think about what it takes to influence those talks.
According to Aristotle, the means of persuasion can be found in pathos, logos and ethos: passion, logic and empathy. This makes sense to me. And we shall need this is spades if we are to learn to live with each other in harmony with nature.