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Environment News Round-up: December 2023

Wind turbines

Our final environment news round-up of the year is, unsurprisingly, focusing largely on the recent United Nations climate summit, COP28. Many environmental campaigners viewed the event as our last chance to make meaningful progress towards limiting temperatures to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile, developing nations and many island states used the event to demand more financial and practical help to alleviate the effects of climate change on their countries. We’ll also look at a few other stories in the news this month, including the controversial golf course plans for Coul Links in Sutherland. Finally, we’ll have a look at the latest research in the news.

COP28 Controversies

The latest UN climate summit was controversial well before it even started. Not only was the COP held in petrostate the United Arab Emirates but, as we reported back in January, COP President Sultan Ahmed al Jaber is also CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Climate campaigners’ fears of a conflict of interest seemed to be justified when comments from al Jaber during a recent online event surfaced. As well as claiming there was ‘no science’ supporting a phase-out of fossil fuels to support the 1.5˚C target, he said that any such phase-out would take the ‘world back into caves’.

Gas power station
Pre-summit comments from the COP President suggested he still sees a role for gas, such as this gas power station

There was further controversy about the UAE’s role during the summit itself. Journalists working for the Centre for Climate Reporting, alongside the BBC, discovered leaked documents outlining the UAE’s plans to use the summit to strike secret oil and gas deals. The documents showed the state planned to talk to 15 other countries about fossil fuel deals at the summit. The reporting group also uncovered a UAE state programme to increase oil and gas demands overseas. In actions that contradict their claim to support efforts to combat global warming, the programme aims to boost demand across Africa and Asia.

There was further anger at the 2,456 COP attendees, a new record, with links to the fossil fuel industry. From a UK standpoint, there was criticism as the minister for climate change, Graham Stuart, returned to the UK at a crucial point in negotiations. Critics speculated that Stuart had flown to the UK to take part in a vote on Rishi Sunak’s immigration policy. The resulting anger led to the minister’s return to Dubai for the closing discussions.

COP28 Outcomes

There were some positive outcomes as the COP began. On the summit’s first day, a number of countries pledged $400 million to set up a loss and damage fund for vulnerable developing nations. Initially put forward at last year’s COP, more funds from a range of sources are expected to be added over the next few years. Germany, Japan, the UAE, United States and the UK were among those pledging start up contributions. The United States also pledged $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund, to halt new coal-fired power stations and to work with other nations to triple global renewable energy production by 2030.

Wind Farm environment news round-up
The COP28 agreement pledged to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030

COP28 ended a day late with a historic deal on fossil fuels. As negotiations ramped up in the final days, many small island nations were concerned that early drafts would not go far enough in tackling emissions. Indeed, initial drafts had included no mention of phasing out fossil fuels to the dismay of many. The resulting strengthened agreement is the first to commit to a transition away from oil, gas and coal. The agreement also included a commitment to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030 and reduce methane emissions. However, despite celebrations from some, including COP President al Jaber, many felt the final document falls far short of what is needed. The Alliance of Small Island States in particular felt let down by the pledge to ‘transition’ away from fossil fuels rather than ‘phase out’. They also wanted to see an end to the $7 trillion annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. There was further criticism as oil and gas producing Azerbaijan was announced as next year’s COP host.

A Sense of Urgency

COP28 was held against a backdrop of increased warnings from the scientific community about the consequences of not limiting emissions. The Global Tipping Points Report, launched at this year’s COP, highlighted five natural thresholds that are close to being crossed as temperatures rise. Reaching these tipping points are likely to produce a series of domino effects that could destroy our ability to produce food, alongside other disastrous consequences. The points include widespread permafrost melt, loss of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and coral reef die-off. A major report on how climate change is affecting migratory species was also launched at COP28.  The climate change and migratory species review showed that climate change is having ‘catastrophic impacts’ on migratory species. It concluded that we need to act now to help these vital ecosystem service providers.

Pied flycatcher
Migratory species, such as this pied flycatcher, are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change

Meanwhile, the UK Health Security Agency warned of the likely increase of tropical diseases as our climate heats up. Of particular concern is the possible arrival of insect-borne diseases such as Zika and dengue fever from warmer areas. This in turn could lead to a huge number of deaths in the UK. Recent research has also shown that climate change means that 60% of European insects are struggling to keep up with changes to their food plant growing seasons. Just how much we need to work to reduce emissions was also revealed this month. The Global Carbon Budget scientific consortium announced that global emissions from fossil fuels reached record levels in 2023. The group’s scientists say this shows we are not moving to limit emissions fast enough to combat dangerous levels of global warming. Whether the COP’s agreement will begin to turn the tide remains to be seen.

Hebrew character moth
Climate change is also causing insects like this Hebrew character moth to fall out of step with their food plants

News in Brief

Nature Access Plans Shelved

Away from COP28, there was news that last month’s UK Government plans to improve the public’s access to nature have been quietly abandoned. We reported last month that Defra planned to set a target of providing green space or water within 15 minutes’ walk of every household. However, the department has now revealed it has no plans to make the targets legally binding.

Controversial Golf Course Plans Approved

In Scotland, a controversial golf course development planned for Coul Links in Sutherland has been approved by the Highland Council. Despite the council’s own planning officers advising against the course and huge opposition, councillors voted eight for and six against the project. The proposed course was first approved by the Highland Council five years ago, again against advice of planning officers due to the environmental status of the site. Coul Links is an internationally important dune system designated as a SSSI, an SPA and a Ramsar site. Following the initial approval, the Scottish Government stepped in and halted the plans. Developers revived the plans in early 2021 saying the course would provide valuable jobs and economic value to the area. Campaigners wanting to halt the plans have appealed to the Scottish Government to once again intervene.

Coul Links
Coul Links are a rare dune habitat
Avian Influenza Spreads in Antarctic Region

Following on from last month’s news that brown skuas had tested positive for avian influenza in the Antarctic region, it was confirmed that hundreds of elephant seals have now died of the disease. The virus has previously been recorded in seals and sea lions in a number of regions, including the UK and both North and South America. There are fears now that that as the virus spreads throughout the Antarctic, penguin colonies could be impacted before long, with devastating consequences. Many species are already being affected by climate change and scientists are concerned this will make them even less resilient to infection.

Swift Boxes Installed in North Wales

In happier news, swift boxes have been installed by North Wales’ largest housing association as they renovate houses on a Bangor estate. Partnering with North Wales Wildlife Trust, Adra has put up the boxes whilst carrying out essential external work on the houses. Swifts have declined by more than 70% in Wales since 1995 and lack of suitable nest sites is thought to be one of the causes. Campaigns such as the Feather Speech have been fighting for UK-wide legislation on installing swift boxes in new builds to help this red-listed species.

Swift nest box
Swift nest boxes are increasingly important for this red-listed species

Research Round-up

Worrying results from a decade-long study of North Atlantic orcas have revealed just how persistent many of our pollutants are. Although many of the worst chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), have been restricted in North America and Europe for 50 years, blubber samples from killer whales still show dangerous levels. PCBs in particular are very difficult to break down so build up in the body fats of many sea animals. Those at the top of the food chain accumulate the biggest concentrations as the chemicals pass up the chain. Orcas not only build up dangerous levels in their tissues, but females risk passing them on to their offspring via their milk. This is particularly worrying for those orcas that eat other sea mammals rather than fish. Indeed, the study found that orca populations feeding solely on fish carried much lower levels of pollutants than their mammal-eating counterparts.

Orcas are at the top of the marine food chain

A recently published 20-year study of Scotland’s white-tailed eagles shows that the birds don’t rely on lambs for food during the breeding season. Since the eagles’ reintroduction in 1975, there has been some conflict with sheep farmers due to fears the raptors would target lambs. However, the study found less lamb remains in nests as eagle numbers increased. As opportunistic feeders, white-tailed eagles have a varied diet that ranges from fish to carrion. But while inexperienced birds targeted sick or dead lambs in the early years of the reintroduction programme, subsequent generations have settled in areas with more natural prey available. As a result, they are attracted much less to lambs. The discovery could help to resolve some of the conflicts between conservationists and farmers in Scotland.

White-tailed eagle
White-tailed eagles in Scotland prey less on lambs than they used to

Researchers have discovered that chinstrap penguins take thousands of micro naps every day. The short snoozes average just four seconds long and can number more than 10,000 in a 24-hour period. These naps accumulate, however, to provide the birds with 11 hours of sleep each day. Scientists used a combination of electrodes, GPS to record movements, sound recordings and visual observations to study their subjects. They believe the short nap bursts may enable chinstraps to stay vigilant as they guard their nests from predators. Like many penguin species, chinstrap parents take it in turns to either head off fishing or guard the nest.

Finally, a group of Italian ecologists has found that large parts of the tree of life are underrepresented, or not represented at all, by emojis. The absence of biological emojis might seem like a trivial problem. Scientists say, though, that being able to display them graphically via emojis could help more people learn about, and want to save, a huge range of species they don’t currently know exist. Emojis are bright, fun and simple ways to communicate and could be a valuable aide in bridging the divide between scientists and the public. The ecologists were prompted to look at the biodiversity of emojis after meeting a scientist who complained there were no emojis of her study subject, aquatic fungi. After cataloguing the range of emojis available, they found that there was a strong bias towards animals and birds, but plants, fungi and invertebrates were poorly represented.