Winds of change?

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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

Winds of change?

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The debate about windfarms is heating up again.   Earlier this year, 100 Tory MPs wrote to David Cameron calling for a cut in subsidies to onshore wind farms and last week Donald Trump appeared in front a Scottish Parliamentary Committee complaining that wind farms (not golf courses on SSSIs) will destroy Scotland.

LIke the rain, this is a public policy debate that will just not go away.

I remember soon after my arrival at the RSPB in 2004 that two representatives of the renewable industry were (jokingly?) overheard issuing death threats to my predecessor given his and the RSPB's views about windfarms.  We had the temerity to oppose windfarms which would cause damage to wildlife.

Three years ago, we received a similar backlash when we published a report which outlined ways in which the planning system could evolve to enable more wind farms to be built in ways that did not harm to wildlife.

In the intervening years, many colleagues have been caught in the cross-fire attacked by those who want us to oppose developments which pose no problems to wildlife and those who do not want us to oppose developments that do.

This can be wearing, but I rarely hear a complaint from staff working tirelessly on the frontline (often in the communities) of these developments.  And here's a little secret - we have lost members from both sides of the argument.

But, despite this pain, we will continue to do what we think is right both to protect wildlife and to tackle climate change.

Our policy is clear. 

We think that climate change is the greatest threat to wildlife and that unless we take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly, a third of land-based species will be committed to extinction. 

We have supported successive governments' targets to reduce these emissions in line with the science.  We have argued that this demands a revolution in the way that we use and generate energy.  This means a massive reduction in the amout of energy we use and a significant increase in the amount of renewable energy. 

But we want this energy revolution to take place in harmony with the nature environment which means that we want to ensure renewable developments do not cause needless harm to wildlife.

This policy has guided our input to debates about bioenergy, barrages and of course windfarms and is informed by the emerging science about the impacts of renewable energy on wildlife.  This includes research published recently which showed that moorland breeding waders are displaced by wind farm construction and that the real threat for some species is not from the turning blades of the turbine itself, but from the construction work which happens before they are even switched on.   The study did not focus on birds of prey or migrating swans and geese, where collision with turbine blades is more often a damaging impact of wind farm development.

The policy has also guided our commitment to reduce our own carbon footprint.  We have, for nearly a decade, sought to reduce our emissions from business travel and from our estate.  I am proud at what we have achieved and am delighted to have been able to announce ten days ago our intention to build a wind turbine at our Headquarters

We’ve always supported taking power from the wind, waves, the tides, the ground, and anything else that can justifiably be labelled as a renewable energy source that doesn’t damage the environment. 

But we know there are some proposals out there – like the Lewis windfarm or the 2008 proposal for a barrage from Cardiff to Weston across the river Severn – that don’t meet sensible environmental standards. Based on the available science, we believe they'd harm the environment and are not essential in the fight against climate change - there are more environmentally benign solutions. And for this reason, we’ll continue to oppose them robustly, and other developments like them. 

The statistics tell a story - from 2006-2010, we commented on 1288 wind farm applications and upheld objections to about 55 (4.3%).

If any renewable energy proposal threatens sensitive wildlife through its operation or construction, we’ll oppose it. But if it won’t have an adverse impact on the wildlife around it then – just as we always have – we won’t stand in its way. Indeed we should be encouraging it to go ahead. 

Why? Because we can't afford to. I don’t mean financially – although opposing stupid windfarms proposed for inappropriate locations can be very expensive and time-consuming – but because the planet cannot afford to.

For the foreseeable future, we need wind energy to combat climate change. If we are going to wean our planet off fossil-fuel based energy production before we reach the point when climate change can’t be stopped, we need dramatic action. We need to find a constructive way through the obstacles that are currently preventing this. If we don’t act now, we’re effectively condemning thousands of species of animals and plants to extinction. And threatening the lives of millions of people.

We’re passionate about the natural world around us. If something threatens that environment, whether it’s climate change or an inappropriately sited windfarm application, we’re duty bound to challenge it.  

I recognise the emotion tied up with wind turbines - some love them, some hate them.  And this fuels propoganda on both sides.  I argue that the climate crisis demands a serious debate based on evidence and not rhetoric or half-truths. 

We will contiune to do what we can to make sure that we get the wind energy we need, in the right places, and in time to tackle the climate crisis. We will continue to work with the Government, planners, developers and other NGOs, to secure this outcome, and the future of the wildlife on our planet.

What's your view of wind farms? Love them? Hate them? Love them in the right place?

It would be great to hear your views.
 

  • Lagopus - thanks for the question - alas our system doesn't hold info in a way that could readily answer that question.  But it's a good question!  We would have to drill down in to each case to find out what happened, assuming the info is held on record!

    The current upgrading and revamping of our database will be looking at this type of question to see if it's possible to design the system in a way that makes it easier to get this info without causing major overheads in staff time on data entry - it's an easy and sensible question to ask - just not sure how easy it is to design the system to answer it! We'll add it our list of things to do!

  • Hi Martin,

    It would be really interesting to know, out of the 1288 comments the RSPB made on wind farm applications, how many of these were objections which were later withdrawn due to more information being provided/better mitigation?

    Don't waste much time looking up these figures if they're not handy! I only ask purely for interest and for an indication as to how the wind industry responds to comments.

  • Peter - Could I add a very personal comment about the Severn Barrage.  I do strongly believe that in some way in the future considerable energy can be obtained from water, wave/tidal or whatever. Research has shown that lagoons can produce tidal energy comparable to a barrage.  

    Why is this a personal comment.  I spent the first 21 years of my life, watching the ebb and flow of the Severn Estuary, fishing for eels with a bit of string, eating fresh caught shrimps and building up birdwatching experience watching the mud flats.  I would be horrified not to be able to show my grandchildren the awesome power of a Severn Bore.   Capture that power - yes.  Destroy it - no.

  • Peter - on the barrage, we always said that, given the scale of the environmental damage , cost would need to be justified and project would need to meet the tests laid out in the Nature Directives.  The original proposal could not meet these tests and were not deemed to be an appropriate use of taxpayers money given expense.  Our economics report on this subject is as relevant here as the environmental impacts - 14,000 hectares of inter-tidal mudflat lost.  See www.rspb.org.uk/.../details.aspx.

    On neonics, I think that we have expressed our concern, sought greater investment in research but have anxiety that the substitutes to neonics may be worse.  I think that David Gibbons' blog entry a week or so ago outlined our views in this area.  But we are, rest assured, reflecting further on the new science.

    Morning Redkite - thanks for this.  We have some work to do to get our policy straight on fracking, but feel that reliance on wind as part of the mix is here to stay.

  • I would make two points firstly I think wind farms are a dreadful intrusion and secondly I think the RSPB is absolutely right in its approach to wind farms as Martin sets it out above. Wind farms are, unfortunately, a necessary evil at this stage of green power technology and have to be accepted especially if they help to limit and, hopefully, eliminate in due course, the very misguided and very flawed use of biofuels.

    I was in Kent recently near Sandwich and drove past an extensive solar panel farm. One could not help reflect how much more acceptable this form of technology is both from a landscape and wildlife point of view. The green technology situation is of course not static and changing all the time. If carbon capture and storage CCS were to become commercially viable this would change the picture considerably. Although not green technology, the advent of shale gas by means of "fracking" in the near future will also change the equations. For example China currently generates its power almost completely from coal, an almost total carbon fuel, but it has vast shale gas reserves. Assuming they and certain other countries with large amounts of shale gas, switch from coal to burning this fuel for power generation, which has a one to four carbon to hydrogen ratio, this will also help to reduce CO2 emiisions world wide.

    So one has to live in hope with the changing technologies, the first and foremost hope is to eliminate the use of bio fuels the second is to eliminate the use of wind farms

  • Re The 2008 Barrage proposal; it was first mooted in the 1980's and would have generated by now an somewhere around 4% of annual electricity needs on its own..........it would have reduced flood surges and the stressed nature of the Severn estuary creating more MUD; that is potentially good for wildlife (although this is an unknown and debatable). 25 years on we have affected this debate at the margins and this principally negatively by stopping the larger developments that would seriously add value and volume to the renewable sector. I know a number of consultants who work in the area and privately they say to me that they are sometimes bemused by the enviro objections...... trusts, RSPB etc. It is disapointing that 0.1 % of the RSPB membership felt strongly enough on this to spend a LITTLE BIT OF TIME emailing the PM ? So this is my question how does RSPB leadership better mobilise its membership into a force for change here ?

    PS I note from the half a million strong Avaaz petition re nicotinoid pesticides that 4 EU countries are moving to a ban here. Could we have an explanation from RSPB as to why it is calling for "more research" please ?