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Environment News Round-up: August 2023

Bembridge Yar River

This month we lead our news round-up with an update on the parlous state of England’s rivers and coastal waters. We’ll also have a full climate update, along with news of an incredible victory for campaigners in Montana. Plus, we report on the reaction to Rishi Sunak’s pledge last month to ‘max out’ the UK’s oil and gas reserves. Brazil, meanwhile, hosted a summit of Amazon nations, aimed at tackling shared issues such as deforestation. Back in the UK, there was a development in the Dartmoor wild camping case, and Scotland looks to follow Wales in banning snares.

England’s Water Woes Continue

At the end of July, Greenpeace revealed that water companies discharged sewage into protected habitats for more than 300,000 hours in 2022 alone. The organisation’s journalism project, Unearthed, used mapping analysis to uncover the discharge events. Affected locations included sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and special areas of conservation (SACs) across England and Wales. The government says that protected areas will be prioritised under plans to address sewage pollution events. However, later in the month, the Guardian reported that water health assessments that were annual until 2016 will not now be updated until 2025. Campaigners insist that England’s water bodies need urgent assessment in light of their current condition. The last full checks in 2019 found that no English rivers were healthy from a chemical standpoint and just 14% healthy ecologically.

News round-up water monitoring
The last comprehensive checks of England’s rivers were in 2019

Then, as August drew to a close, the government announced it would be scrapping requirements for developers to offset nutrient pollution caused by new homes overloading sewage systems. At present, nutrient neutrality rules mean developers cannot build in protected areas where new houses or the construction sites themselves are likely to add more phosphates and nitrates to rivers and water courses. They must also mitigate for extra nutrients by installing wetlands or buffer zones onsite or buying credits for similar action elsewhere. Developers say this is too expensive and time-consuming. The government says it wants to make house-building easier. Environmentalists, though, say that this will just make already polluted rivers even worse. The government’s own environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, also warned the changes would weaken protections.

News round-up Lymington River
Increased pressure on outdated sewage systems risks polluting rivers

Highlighting the state of England’s seas and rivers, at least 57 triathlon competitors at an event in Sunderland in early August subsequently fell ill. The swimming section of the race took place at Roker Beach. After a number of competitors were sick with diarrhoea and vomiting, the UK Health Security Authority launched an investigation. And at the end of the month, a swim race in Lynmouth, Devon was cancelled due to a large sewage discharge in the area. Meanwhile, legal action is being taken against six water companies. The actions concern accusations the companies have underreported sewage discharge rates to the Environment Agency and Ofwat. This in turn means they have been overcharging customers and avoided paying financial penalties. The group action could result in a payout of more than £800 million to customers.

Extreme Weather Events Latest

Heat waves, extreme weather events and wildfires continued to hit large parts of the globe throughout August. An unprecedented series of fires spread through Maui, Hawaii early in the month, killing at least 155 people with many more still unaccounted for. Wildfires have already hit multiple provinces in Canada this year with British Columbia and the Northwest Territories the latest regions affected. Nearly ten times more land has burned this year than during last year’s Canadian fire season. Fires that began in July are also still raging across Greece. Climate change has been implicated in all three cases, with exceptional heat and tinderbox dry vegetation factors. Elsewhere, weeks of rainfall led to devastating floods in Pakistan and the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 battered Los Angeles.

As NASA confirmed that July was indeed the hottest month recorded globally since detailed recording began in 1880, high temperatures weren’t just affecting the Northern Hemisphere. Even though it is still winter south of the Equator, heatwaves hit Chile and Argentina in July and into August. Later on in the month, Brazil logged a record August temperature of almost 42˚C. The conditions are a result of a combination of climate change and the start of the periodic climate phenomenon known as El Niño. The world’s ocean temperatures also hit an all-time high at the start of August. This poses a threat to a huge range of vulnerable species such as corals, as well as increasing the likelihood and intensity of tropical storms.

A Mixed Month for Climate Action

Some diametrically opposed views on the climate crisis hit the headlines in August. In the UK, Greenpeace protesters scaled Rishi Sunak’s home in Yorkshire in response to his pledge last month to ‘max out’ Britain’s oil and gas reserves. Four activists climbed onto the building’s roof to unfurl black, oil-coloured fabric down its front. The group said it wanted to bring home to the prime minister how disastrous granting new oil and gas licences in the North Sea will be. Sunak and his family were away at the time and the protesters were later arrested.

Climate graffiti
Climate protesters are dismayed by Sunak’s plans to ‘max out’ oil and gas reserves

Meanwhile, in a landmark victory for protesters in the United States, a judge found in favour of young activists in their case against the state of Montana. The group stated that by continuing to allow fossil fuel development, without properly assessing their contribution to the climate crisis, the state was violating their right to a clean and healthy environment. Currently, Montana assesses permits for potential developments without allowing agencies to evaluate their potential greenhouse gas emissions. Judge Kathy Seeley ruled this was unconstitutional.

Uskmouth Power Station news round-up
Fossil fuel developments were at the centre of the Montana action

However, how the ruling will translate to the Republican dominated state legislation is another matter. The party’s overall attitude to the climate crisis was made clear at the first Republican presidential candidate debate this month. Despite continuing extreme weather events across the country, the majority of candidates appeared to deny that humans are causing the climate crisis. Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy went as far as to say the ‘climate agenda is a hoax’.

Amazon Nations Meet in Brazil

At the start of the month, politicians from the eight countries in South America’s Amazon basin met to discuss a range of issues affecting the region. The summit covered deforestation, climate change, indigenous rights and cross-border criminal activity, much of which contributes to deforestation. Representatives from three other countries with significant rainforest cover, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Indonesia, also joined the meeting. Aiming to set an agenda for sustainable development in the region, the summit recognised that the Amazon is at a tipping point. Leaders also called on developed nations to fulfil their promises of financial support for combatting biodiversity loss and climate change.

Some felt the summit’s declarations didn’t go far enough, however. Not only was there no commitment to ending deforestation by 2030, but there was also no pledge to end gas and oil expansion in the region. Some indigenous leaders also feared there were not enough concrete targets for the declaration to provide the necessary protections. In a separate development, though, Ecuadorians voted against further oil extraction in an important Amazon national park in the country. In a victory for environmental campaigners, the legally binding vote means that the state-owned oil company, Petroecuador, will have a year to end operations in the park.

Devolved Government News

Following on from Wales’ vote to ban snares in May, the Scottish Government announced a similar plan this month. Forming part of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, a six-week consultation opened on the proposal and to debate possible exemptions to a total ban. Wildlife campaigners OneKind have been demanding the move for decades and implored the government not to include any exceptions in the bill. Land managers use snares to control predators such as foxes and stoats. Primarily used to protect game birds, they often lead to maiming or a prolonged, painful death that many feel is an inhumane way to deal with predators. Snares are also indiscriminate and risk trapping non-target species, including domestic pets.

Red fox news round-up
Foxes are one of the main target of snares

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) missed an important environmental deadline at the end of July. As part of the Environment Act 2021, DAERA was obliged to publish an Environmental Improvement Plan EIP) by July 25th, setting out how it aims to improve the natural environment. This EIP would subsequently be monitored, reviewed and amended, if necessary, every five years. DEARA say that publication is impossible while the Northern Ireland Assembly remains suspended. However, RSPB Northern Ireland have criticised this justification. They say that the EIP was signed off by a minister before power-sharing collapsed and has been approved subject to some minor improvements by the government watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection.

Dartmoor Right to Roam Update

In a victory for the right to roam movement, the Court of Appeal overturned a ban on the right to camp without the landowner’s permission on Dartmoor. The ban was brought in following an action by two such landowners, Alexander and Diana Darwell, in January. Despite local laws allowing wild camping in the park, the couple wanted to be able to remove campers from their property. The appeal, brought by the Dartmoor National Park Authority, however, reversed this decision. Right to roam campaigners, along with the Authority said they were delighted that people can continue to enjoy the park in this way.

Research Round-up

Our first research item comes from a study of great tits carried out by Lund University, Sweden and the University of Glasgow. After analysing feather samples from birds in both urban and rural settings around Europe, they discovered that urban great tits have paler yellow breast feathers than rural birds. This yellow colouring comes from carotenoid pigments in the insects eaten by great tits, who in turn get it from their plant food. The research shows that urban birds are getting less carotenoids. Carotenoids contain important antioxidants which means town-dwelling birds may not be as resistant to the effects of pollution on their health. Having paler breasts could also impact their desirability to birds of the opposite sex, reducing their chance of passing on their genes.

Great tit
Urban great tits are paler yellow than their rural cousins

Staying with birds, a paper published in July revealed an incredible instance of cooperative nesting between species from Italy last year. A pair of common redstarts and a pair of black redstarts were observed using the same nest to rear their young. Researchers believe both species helped build the nest and cameras showed that both sets of parents fed all the chicks, not just their own. Three black redstart and two common redstart chicks successfully fledged. While birds from the same species have been observed cooperating in this way before, no one has ever recorded the behaviour between species.

Black redstart news round-up
A black redstart and common redstart pair were observed cooperatively nesting

University of Bristol researchers have discovered that there is less bat activity around solar farms. The study recorded bat activity around a number of solar farms as well as paired control sites with similar attributes bar the solar panels. Six species, including noctules and common pipistrelles, showed substantially reduced activity around the solar sites. Results show the need for further study to find out exactly what is causing lower bat activity as it was not clear whether the panels reduced insect levels, affected the amount of foraging area or caused collisions. Mitigation measures can then be put in place. The authors called for planning and ecological assessments to take this new information into account when granting permission for new solar farms.

Solar farm news round-up
More research on the ecological impacts of solar farms needs to be done

Finally, scientists have revived a nematode worm frozen in the Siberian permafrost approximately 46,000 years ago. Although they knew that some nematodes survive dormant periods of up to 40 years, the researchers had no idea that they could do so for anywhere near as long. Radiocarbon dating confirmed the age of the soil the worm was in.