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Environment News Round-up: December 2022

Cley nature reserve

A slightly earlier than usual round-up this month in the run-up to Christmas.

Last month, representatives from around the world met in Egypt for COP27 to discuss the climate emergency. This month biodiversity took the spotlight at COP15 in Montreal. The Convention on Biological Diversity meeting addresses species and ecosystem losses every ten years. Here, the UK Government released a set of targets required by last year’s Environment Act. It also gave the go ahead for a controversial coal mine in Cumbria. Two energy-related proposals affecting East Anglia likewise received criticism from conservation groups. And Rishi Sunak performed a U-turn on onshore wind farms in the face of backbench pressure.

COP15 Aims to Halt Biodiversity Loss

The UN’s latest biodiversity conference, COP15, took place in Montreal this month after two years of COVID delays. This once a decade gathering sets targets for protecting biodiversity. The focus this time was on getting agreement on a new set of rules called the post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF). This set of rules aims to be a nature equivalent to climate’s Paris Agreement and would include a range of measures to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030. Multiple drafts have already been wrangled over. One major proposal, backed by 114 nations, is to set aside 30% of the Earth’s land and sea for nature, the so-called 30×30 plan.

Hebridean machair
Many think that threatened ecosystems, such as this machair in the Hebrides, need extra protections

Some, though, see this as not going far enough. Others disagree about what areas should be included; areas rich in biodiversity or threatened ecosystems, for example. Many are worried that any outcome will be too little too late. As an illustration of the perilous situation nature is in, as the COP was on, scientists revealed that flying insect populations are in critical decline. They have fallen by 64% in the UK since just 2004.

At the beginning of the second week, representatives from developing countries walked out in protest at a lack of information about funding sources for any deal. The final negotiations finished in the early hours of the morning of Monday 19th with what some are lauding as a historic deal to protect nature. Nearly 200 countries signed the agreement. The main points include a commitment to the 30×30 plan, reformation of harmful farming subsidies and placing the rights of indigenous groups at the centre of conservation. The funding issue still needs to be addressed. A number of African states objected to the agreement over a lack of commitment to new funds. That the US has never signed up to the convention or taken part will also impact its efficacy.

Environment Act Targets Released

Part of the Environment Act 2021 required the UK Government to set a tranche of legally binding targets for water quality, air pollution and to halt biodiversity loss in England. These targets were finally published on the 17th of December. This followed months of consultation and was six weeks later than the original end of October deadline. Critics were extremely disappointed in the targets, though, for a number of reasons. The targets are weaker than the ones called for in the consultation and fail to lay out overall targets for water quality in rivers. In addition, original proposals called for farmers to reduce waterways pollution by 40% by 2037. This has now been extended to 2040, delaying any improvements to river health. Targets relating to protected areas are also missing.

River Wye at Hereford
The River Wye’s health is in decline

New Coal Mine Given Green Light

Levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, gave the green light to controversial plans to open Britain’s first new coal mine in 30 years. The mine proposal originally got the go ahead two years ago. Plans were then put on hold following opposition and while the results of a public enquiry were awaited. Environmentalists, as well as the Government’s own climate advisor, Lord Deben, condemned the decision. The proposed mine near Whitehaven, Cumbria aims to extract coking coal to supply the steel industry rather than energy production.

Industry insiders, however, say that UK steel manufacturers will be unable to use the coal due to its high sulphur content. They also point out that the steel industry is looking to decarbonise its processes. This means over 80% of the coal will likely be exported for energy production elsewhere. While Gove insists the mine will be net zero, experts have dismissed this as greenwashing. Others, including former COP President, Alok Sharma, have pointed out that the move sends completely the wrong message to those nations we have been trying to persuade to give up coal.

East Anglia Proposals Prompt Backlash

There were more criticisms for two development projects put forward for East Anglia. National Grid’s proposals for new undersea energy cables include them hitting landfall near and passing through important nature sites in Suffolk including RSPB Minsmere, RSPB North Warren and the Leiston/Aldeburgh Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The RSPB challenged the Sea Link and EuroLink interconnector cable plans and asked members of the public to respond to National Grid’s consultation. Minsmere is one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves. It is already under threat following confirmation that the adjacent Sizewell C nuclear power station build will be going ahead.

Minsmere is already under threat due to plans for Sizewell C nuclear power station

Further up the coast, a number of conservation groups condemned proposals for a tidal barrage in the Wash. Developer Port Ovo released plans for the huge barrage at the end of November, saying it will harness tidal energy, act as a flood defence and provide road and rail transport links. It will stretch between Hunstanton in Norfolk and Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire. Conservation groups, including the National Trust and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, are extremely concerned about the impact on wildlife, however, in particular the millions of birds that utilise the Wash in winter. The Wash is one of the most important wintering grounds in the UK for a range of wader and wildfowl species. It is also important as a stopover site for birds on migration and during the breeding season. In addition, the area has a large common seal population.

Hunstanton cliffs
The proposed tidal barrage would stretch from Hunstanton north to Gibraltar Point

Onshore Windfarm U-turn in England

In a U-turn on commitments made during his leadership bid, Rishi Sunak lifted a ban on new onshore windfarms in England this month. New projects will be able to go ahead provided there is local consent. A consultation process will now begin to look at the best way of gauging levels of support or opposition for such schemes. Sunak’s U-turn is the result of backbench pressure and an effort to stave off full-scale rebellion. The Conservative Party remains deeply divided over the issue, however. A ban has been in place since David Cameron’s premiership, which saw him remove subsidies for onshore farms.

Wind turbines and saltmarsh
The Government has lifted a ban on onshore windfarms in England

Scottish Water to Phase Out Peat Moor Burning by Tenants

Scottish Water has announced that it will be phasing out permissions for any burning by tenants on peat moors. Grouse shoots routinely burn older tracts of heather to promote the new shoots that red grouse favour. However, the practice has long been criticised for the damage it does to valuable peatlands, which are vital carbon sinks. The more degraded peatlands become, the more carbon they release, even after the burning has ended. Scottish Water have told their tenants that no new burn agreements will be issued on their land and asked them to reduce burning agreed under any existing ones. The corporation has also committed to peatland regeneration across its water catchments.

Red grouse female
Grouse moors burn heather to encourage growth of new shoots for the birds

Research Round-up

The biggest research news this month involved a breakthrough with nuclear fusion. This has been the holy grail of physicists trying to create clean, carbon-free, safe energy for decades. Presently, all our nuclear power comes from fission, the splitting of radioactive atoms. It produces a lot of dangerous radioactive waste that takes centuries to decay. Fusion would produce much less waste that decays quicker. It creates energy in the same way as the Sun, by heating and forcing together atoms. The National Ignition Facility in the US announced this month that they had managed to create a small amount of energy using the technique. Large-scale use is still some decades off, however. The quest to create carbon-free energy is more urgent than ever as meteorologists revealed that 2022 is on track to be the warmest year on record in the UK as a result if global warming.

Calls at COP15 to protect at least 30% of our planet by 2030 were backed up this month by the results of two major studies on the benefits of legally protected areas for wildlife. The first paper used data from the long-running Breeding Bird Survey. It analysed any potential links between a site’s protected status and bird abundance. The research found that Red and Amber-listed species were more abundant at sites that had a greater area under legal protection. The second study by the British Trust for Ornithology found that sites that had a larger proportion under legal protection not only had more individual birds but had more species of bird. The findings show how important environmental designations are at a time when there are fears protections such as the EU Habitats Directive are about to be removed.

Shapwick Heath
Research shows that protected areas do help wildlife abundance and diversity

Two studies published towards the end of November have shown the extent that fireworks impact wildlife. German-Dutch researchers used GPS trackers to monitor migratory barnacle, pink-footed, white-fronted and bean geese over the New Year period. The results showed the geese leaving roost sites suddenly to move further away from towns and cities. Outside of the New Year period, geese usually stay at the same roost site for several nights. At New Year, though, they were seen to move more often and further and never returned to the original roost sites once disturbed. The fireworks forced them to use valuable energy. Meanwhile, an Austrian study showed that greylag geese’s heart rates increased by 96% when fireworks went off. They then took up to five hours to return to normal.

Pink-footed geese
Pink-footed geese moved more often and used more energy as a result of fireworks

Finally, some good news. Conservationists announced that pine martens are now well-established in the New Forest, Hampshire. There have been multiple sightings in the area over the last six years, including four roadkill instances. Until now, though, researchers weren’t sure of the extent of the population. Now they have revealed that the animals are breeding and have an established population in the forest. There are hopes that eventually they will link up with reintroduced populations in the Forest of Dean and Wales. Pine martens were once widespread across the UK, but a combination of habitat loss and persecution drove them to extinction across England and Wales. The source of the New Forest animals isn’t clear but is possibly from unlicensed releases.

Pine marten
Pine martens are now breeding in the New Forest (this animal is in Scotland)