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Environment News Round-up: August 2022

Environment news round-up

Extreme weather events continued to dominate the news this month, with droughts, floods and fires affecting countries around the globe. It was perhaps fitting, then, that both the USA and Australia passed important climate legislation in August. Closer to home, only two candidates remained in the Conservative leadership contest. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak look set to remove EU conservation legislation should they win. Two bee eater nests fledged young in Norfolk, and there was publication of some interesting and important research this month.

Extreme Weather Events Continue

Extreme weather events continued to affect countries around the world throughout August. In the last few weeks, floods have devastated Pakistan and Afghanistan with over 1000 dead in Pakistan alone at time of writing. Thousands more have been displaced and millions impacted. Although floods often affect Pakistan, many observers say the scale has been unprecedented this summer. Flash floods likewise hit Uganda at the end of July, with rescue efforts continuing into August. Over 5,000 people have been displaced and thousands more have reduced access to clean water. As with Pakistan, Uganda is often subject to heavy rains and floods but the scale of flooding this year has led many to fear climate change will lead to worse and more frequent disasters.

In Europe, large rivers including the Loire, Po and Rhine are all at extremely low levels as drought conditions continue to affect the continent. With a very dry winter preceding this summer’s extreme temperatures, drought has also hit parts of England and Wales. England experienced its driest July since 1935 and a spell of heavy rain in mid-August has not alleviated the situation. Various regions including Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Pembrokeshire, Cornwall, Yorkshire and parts of Kent and Sussex have had hosepipe bans imposed.

Hosepipe bans
Hosepipe bans have been imposed on a number of English and Welsh regions

In the United States, wildfires continue to affect many states, including California. The hamlet of Klamath River in Northern California was wiped out by a huge fire at the start of the month, and fires are still burning across multiple states. Wildfires have also hit China. The country has recorded temperatures of more than 40˚C for over 70 consecutive days and the Yangtze River is at an all-time low level.

Australia and the US Pass Historic Climate Bills

Australia and the United States both passed climate legislation this month. In Australia, although the new climate bill has yet to reach the Senate, its passing there is considered a formality. The bill introduces a legally binding target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 as well as reaching net zero by 2050. How Australia reaches these targets is still to be ironed out, and there are many who think the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough in halting coal and oil expansion. But this is a huge sea change in how the country deals with the climate crisis. It follows the election of Labor in May after 10 years of conservative government.

President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law in the US following months of wrangling and fears it would never see the light of day. The act is a huge spending package with multiple aims. As well as covering healthcare and taxes, the act grants $369 billion in funds to tackling the climate crisis by reducing emissions and investing in greener energy. However, to get the bill through the Senate, the fossil fuel industry received a number of concessions. This has led to green activists accusing the government of falling far short of achieving anything meaningful with the act.

Tory Candidates Pledge to Remove Remaining EU Laws

As the Tory leadership contest was whittled down to two candidates, there are strong indications that both would get rid of the EU Habitats Directive once in Number 10. This important piece of environmental legislation led to the designation of over 650 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in the UK, giving a huge range of sites the highest level of protection. It is important to note that the already existing UK system of SSSIs was a significant part of the framework used to decide what to designate as an SAC. So by dismantling the Habitats Directive, any government would be removing UK as much as EU law. The implications of this could have a seriously negative impact on wildlife and conservation in the coming years.

Severn Estuary SAC
The Severn Estuary is one of England’s 256 SACs

To highlight the importance of environmental legislation, August’s news in the UK has also been dominated by a large number of pollution events on British beaches. Raw sewage has been pumped onto beaches and into rivers after mid-August’s rain overwhelmed outdated sewers. Water companies have been criticised by the government and campaigners for years of underinvestment following privatisation, with large sums heading to shareholders and chief executives instead of infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.

Sewage outfall pipe environment news round-up
Water companies have been criticised for releasing sewage onto UK beaches

Opposition politicians, though, have attacked the government for not doing more to hold water companies to account and for not introducing stricter limits on how much can be discharged. In the last few days, the government has set tough new targets on reducing sewerage discharges and investing in infrastructure. Many, though, fear the 25-year timescale for improvement is too long.

Of course, regardless of how water companies manage contamination, pollution of any kind must be strictly controlled on construction sites at all times within the terms of any construction site licence and planning permission constraints.

Exotic Bee Eaters Breed Successfully in Norfolk

Bittersweet news from Norfolk this month as two nests produced five bee eater chicks. These brightly-coloured birds normally breed in southern and central Europe, as well as parts of Africa. Apart from an isolated instance in 1955, there have been six breeding attempts in the UK over the last two decades, with only two successful until now.

Bee eater environment news round-up
This bee eater was photographed in Spain, one of its more expected breeding locations

Bee eaters are colonial nesters. Eight birds arrived at the site in June, with two pairs breeding and the remaining birds helping out with nest-building and food supply. Although many people travelled to the RSPB watchpoint to see these stunning birds, there is a darker side. The recent increase in breeding attempts by bee eaters (and other continental species, such as black-winged stilt who bred as far north as Yorkshire this year) is the result of climate change. These birds would not be able tolerate our climate without the temperature rises of the last decades.

Research Round-up

There have been some important studies and discoveries published this month. The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) published the results from a decade-long study to assess the benefits of agri-environment measures when it comes to biodiversity. Since World War II, farming in the UK has become increasingly intensified leading to the declines of many species that use farmland, including vital pollinators. The experiment centred on a 1,000 hectare arable farm in Buckinghamshire and found that farmland wildlife benefited from measures such as leaving margins full of wildflowers to supply birds and pollinators with food. Crucially, they also found that despite giving some land over to habitat creation, yields didn’t drop and, in some cases, actually grew.

Corn bunting helped by agri-environment schemes
The corn bunting is one of a number of farmland species that benefits from agri-environment measures

A study has revealed that disposable face masks and plastic gloves discarded at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly impact wildlife globally for decades. Volunteers reported instances of COVID waste impacting wildlife, with most cases involving entanglement of birds. Some mammal entanglements were also reported, as well as a small number of affected fish and invertebrates. Being non-biodegradable, masks and gloves are going to be present in the environment for an extremely long time. The fear is that they will continue to impact our wildlife negatively through entanglement and ingestion.

Covid waste research
COVID waste poses entanglement risks to wildlife

Finally, Seasearch volunteer Allen Murray found a species of sea slug not previously seen in UK waters. Set up by the Marine Conservation Society, Seasearch recruits volunteer divers to record sightings and habitats so that conservation bodies can identify and then focus their efforts on important sites. The colourful sea slug, Babakina anadoni, was seen in the waters around the Isles of Scilly.