Martin Harper's blog

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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
  • The marching has stopped, so let the negotiations begin

    This weekend, on the eve of the UN climate talks in Paris, 785,000 took part in over 2,300 events in 175 countries including the UK (Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Newcastle and London).  It was an incredible demonstration of global solidarity urging climate action.  

    It was also a lot of fun.  My son and I joined RSPB supporters in London to clap, dance and march (in the wind and rain) for the love of nature.

    But now the negotiations have begun - two weeks of tough talks designed to secure a deal.   

    Below, our Principal Climate Change Advisor, John Lanchbery, gives his first postcard from Paris.

    Images from Sunday's march in London (credit, Nick Cunard)


    Presidents and prime ministers abound: a postcard from Paris by John Lanchbery

    Today 150 leaders arrived in Paris from around the world. The UN says that this is probably the biggest gathering ever of heads of state and government.

    It is cast iron evidence that the vast majority of the most senior politicians, almost everywhere, want to tackle climate change. The junior ministers and civil servants are being told to get on with it.

    Yet, everyone back home will know what their leaders say. Their speeches are generally directed at domestic audiences and the news media will run them word for word, complete with comment. So here I focus on a few things that are happening in the background - most of which will definitely not be reported.

    The first thing to say is that Paris is buzzing. I am staying in the area where the terrorist attacks occurred. Yet the cafes and restaurants have been bursting with (French) people all weekend - at least in the evenings as I have been out all of Saturday and Sunday.

    On Saturday we had our usual Climate Action Network strategy meeting, in the predominantly immigrant district of Bobingy - no problem at all. All of the big environment and development groups were there.

    Our meetings differ from the governmental ones in that we work on the assumption that we are a basically a bunch of friends, albeit a very large bunch with over 950 member organisations worldwide. We had people outlining the good and bad things in national policy - with Europeans talking about the EU, Americans talking about the USA, Chinese talking about China, Indians talking about Índia, Brazilians talking about Brazil and so on. This is a much better way of working than the intergovernmental one. We have a common purpose.

    On Sunday, the official UN negotiations began at 5pm at the UN conference site at Le Bourget, the old Paris Airport but with a huge area of new buildings. I like it, but that may just be because it has been warm and sunny.   As happens at these conferences, everything then seems to speed up...

    ...on arrival I bumped into some journalists: first Fiona Harvey from the Guardian and then Geoffrey Lean who used to write for both the Observer and Telegraph. I talked to some of the lead negotiators for the European Commission team, briefly greeted the German team, chatted to some of the S Africans, and then settled down with some of the environmentalists working on forest matters.  And then, I met up with people from DRC (Congo) and Uganda before being joined by the Filipinos working on forests, including Tony La Vina who brilliantly chaired the UN group on halting deforestation, and Yeb Sano who who was the Philippines head of delegation but is now making his own way as a principled environmentalist.

    ...I then went into the formal UN session mainly with the US environmental folk working on forest issues to construct our cunning plan ... get home, I took the train back to Paris with Janice from the Sierra Club in the USA who is a volunteer and running the CAN technology group as a pensioner. We were seated with the Afghan delegation who have been having a hard time obtaining visas.

    ...this morning (Monday) I came in on the train with Enrique from Argentina. Security was tight but very slick so we arrived early for the CAN coordination meeting at nine o'clock.

    ...there are leaders' speeches all day today with high level meetings between them that we cannot get near, let alone into. The negotiations on the Paris treaty start again at 7pm. In the meantime, we are meeting with country delegations who cannot get into the leaders meetings either.

    More soon...


    If John has the time, I hope to be able to share another postcard from the front line of the talks in Paris.  But in the meantime, I wish every success to all those involved in the talks.


  • Why we march and what we want

    Why we march

    There is a letter in the Times today signed by 49 leaders of development, faith and environment groups (including Mike Clarke of the RSPB).  It explains why tens of thousands of people will be marching tomorrow.  This is what it says...


    This weekend, thousands of people will march in London and in cities around the world, calling for action to tackle climate change. At the talks in Paris, our leaders must confront the ecological destruction, poverty and injustice that climate pollution carries in its wake, and act before it is too late.

    Sadly due to tragic events including in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and Bamako, the Climate March in Paris has been cancelled, though many of us will still join with Parisians for other events across the city.

    As a wide range of development, environment, faith and other organisations, we believe that hope lies in acting together to address the shared problems faced by humanity.

    Thousands of citizens of all ages, races and religions, will be taking to the streets. No violence, no hatred will shake our determination, or undermine our trust in each other to make a better world."

    If you love wildlife and are concerned by the impacts of climate change (brilliantly document by a Birdlife report - here - published yesterday), then please do think about taking part.  

    What we want

    The outcome of the Paris negotiations will be an important moment to send the right signals to economies of the world that we are on the path to a zero carbon future to avoid dangerous climate change.  

    This is why we will be calling on world leaders to ensure that the Treaty delivers real ambition. Where Governments’ commitments fall short of what the planet needs (ie collective emission reduction targets which will avoid global temperature rises of no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels), we want to see mechanisms in place to enable ambition to be ratcheted up in the future.

    The RSPB has attended the negotiations, working under the umbrella of BirdLife International, for many years. My colleagues have pushed hard for strong ambition from a global climate treaty. At the same time they have co-ordinated NGO efforts in ensuring strong wildlife protection measures are included in proposals to reduce deforestation emissions in developing countries, and in ensuring that all emissions are counted from forests and land in developed countries.

    We are all too aware how political these negotiations will be. My colleagues have worked hard to ensure that there are good options in the negotiation text to protect wildlife and forests and their efforts will be focused on ensuring that these are not traded away as pawns in the bigger political game.

    There is everything to play for and I look forward to keeping you updated with news from the front line in this important process.

    In the meantime, I hope to see you in London at midday tomorrow. 

  • Taking the lead

    Proceedings of scientific symposiums are often not the most exciting reads. There are frequently full of fascinating and useful information and as such are vital in informing our conservation actions, but the fact remains they are usually written by scientists, for scientists, which means you sometimes need to take a fair bit of time to sift through and identify the key conclusions.

    However, you may have noted that the Proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium were published yesterday especially as it was covered extensively on the BBC (for example see here). The Symposium had been organised by Oxford University about this time last year and it brought together a range of experts on the impacts of lead ammunition use on wildlife and human health. I wasn’t able to attend, but several colleagues were in the audience including our Principle Research Biologist, Professor Rhys Green, who contributed two papers.

    It has, as I signalled on Monday, been a busy week so I’ve not had time to read and digest all 154 pages of the Proceedings yet. But what is clear is that even on a cursory read, the take home message is absolutely clear: whether you’re from Denmark or Germany, the UK or Sweden; whether you’re an expert on wildlife, human health or ammunition ballistics - the time to phase out lead ammunition is now.  If you have ten minutes, I recommend reading the closing remarks from Professor Ian Newton.  Having summarised the evidence (which includes up to 100,000 waterfowl estimated to die each year from lead poisoning), he concludes,

    "There are two approaches towards getting hunters to switch from lead to less toxic alternatives. One is by persuasion; informing them of the facts and hoping they will make the switch themselves. This approach has clearly not worked: witness the continued use of lead shot over wetlands for more than a decade after the 1999 ban; witness the continuing opposition by some hunters and their organisations to restrictions in the use of lead. This leaves us with the only other approach which is mandatory. All other major uses of lead have long been banned or strictly regulated by law, yet this particular use, which provides a direct and important route for lead into the human blood stream, remains unrestricted. Legislation proved necessary in Denmark to cut the use of lead; as in Britain, the dissemination of scientifically-collected findings and appeals to the better nature of hunters had not worked. Danish hunters now accept it, and (as confirmed by surveys) would not go back."

    This is encouraging as it tallies with the UK Government’s commitment under a Convention on Migratory Species resolution agreed last year which again sets a clear roadmap to a lead free future. Scientists and policy experts are on the same page on this one. With more science supporting the need for action, we look forward to working with Government and other stakeholders to deliver the necessary change.

    And it’s clear that there is an expectant public watching and waiting. An e-petition has been set up asking for an end to lead ammunition use. This could be a further useful contribution to the debate, so please do go and look at this and consider adding your name. Showing Government there is a strong desire for action can only help encourage change which benefits wildlife and people.  The petition is in line with RSPB policy and so we support it.

    Proceedings of scientific symposiums might not always be the easiest read. But when scientists, policy experts and the general public are all pointing us in the same direction, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time for action is now.