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Environment News Round-up: February 2023

Red squirrel

February was another busy month with the English, Scottish and Welsh Governments publishing a number of updated environment plans, reviews and frameworks. Meanwhile, HS2 was in the news again. A few major developments this month centred on fossil fuel vs renewables. Harmful neonicotinoids were again approved for use in the beet industry but there was better news on lead shot. And we’ll have our usual research round-up, as well.

Environment and Planning Updates

England

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its Environmental Improvement Plan this month. This first revision of 2018’s 25 Year Improvement Plan sets out how commitments made to the environment are to be put into policy. The government includes a commitment to restoring 1.2 million acres of wildlife habitat and 400 miles of rivers. Some of this will be achieved through the creation or expansion of nature reserves. There will be funds to help protect vulnerable species such as red squirrel, and there is also a commitment to upgrade wastewater treatment works to tackle sewage spills. There was some criticism of the plan, however. With no clarity on sources of funding for proposals and some of the targets set decades into the future, there are concerns that the plan contains hollow commitments with little detail.

Red Squirrel
New funds will help protect species like the red squirrel

Natural England’s  Green Infrastructure Plan, also published this month, will play a role in some of the above commitments. The government is committed to enabling the public to access green spaces within 15 minutes of home. The framework is designed to help local planning authorities achieve this by analysing where green space is most needed. It also advises on how to design green infrastructure. The government also confirmed that from November this year, all new developments will have to show a 10% Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). This puts into effect a commitment from the Environment Act 2021. It means developers will have to ensure their plans not only protect, but also enhance nature. For more on what BNG is and how it is measured, see here.

Scotland

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4), part of their long-term plan for development and infrastructure. The framework will govern how planning applications are assessed for the next decade. Included are provisions to encourage the restoration of green spaces, return of derelict sites to community use and to enable more renewable energy production. In separate news, the Scottish Government also started a consultation process on ending peat sales to protect important habitats and reduce carbon emissions.

Forsinard
A proposed ban on peat-digging would help protect bogs such as this one in the Flow Country

Wales

There was a landmark announcement in Wales concerning its roadbuilding policy. In 2021, the devolved government set up its Roads Review to assess whether its proposed schemes tied in with policy, in particular regarding tackling the climate crisis and nature loss. Following the review process, the majority of road development schemes have been scrapped. The independent panel found that the resultant increase in emissions from further roadbuilding, plus the loss of habitats from such schemes, was incompatible with the government’s climate and environmental ambitions. A number of conservation organisations welcomed the announcement, including representatives from the Wildlife Trusts in Wales.

The Knotty Issue of Knotweed

In other planning news, a landmark case concerning Japanese knotweed could set a precedent, increasing claims for compensation. Japanese knotweed is a highly invasive species. The recent case saw property owner Marc Davies win compensation from Bridgend Council despite the fact knotweed that had likely spread from their land to his had been treated. He contested an earlier ruling against compensation, saying that his property had lost value due to the stigma of having the plant present in the past. This is the first time damages have been award for financial loss due to stigma rather than the actual presence of the species. This could have implications for any developers with invasive species on their land, highlighting the importance of ecological surveys from the outset.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed is covered by invasive species legislation

HS2 Nature Figures Deemed Inaccurate

A report commissioned by the Wildlife Trusts has revealed that HS2 Ltd underestimated the levels of nature loss the controversial project would cause. As well as destroying more habitat than promised, the report found that HS2 Ltd was assigning too much natural value to its compensation work, such as laying new hedges. The company is deemed to be using an outdated and inaccurate metric to assess the value of habitats on the route. For example, the metric placed more value to nature on newly laid replacement hedges than older, species-rich hedges taken out during the works.

Hedgerow
HS2’s nature metric could be valuing existing hedges less than newly planted ones

The report found that Phase 1 of the project between London and Birmingham will cause 7.9 times more biodiversity loss than claimed. Phase 2a of the scheme will lead to at least 3.6 times more loss. Environmental campaigners have been calling on the government to cancel the project since its inception due to its ecological damage to important habitats.

Fossil Fuels vs Renewables

Both Shell and BP posted record profits this month. BP also lowered its predictions for reducing carbon emissions by 2030 from 35-40% to 20-30%, drawing criticism from green campaigners, including Friends of the Earth. There was some positive news around renewables, however. The International Energy Agency released figures that show that renewables could be the world’s biggest energy source within three years. There had been fears that the expected future growth in demand for power would outstrip the supply of renewables. In the US, solar power is expected to make up more than half of the grid’s power this year.

Wind turbines
Renewables could be the biggest source of global power within three years

In Norway, meanwhile, the nation’s sovereign wealth fund announced it would vote against re-election of any company directors to the board if they do not commit to tackling the climate crisis and human rights abuses. The wealth fund manages surplus profits from Norway’s oil and gas industry, investing it on behalf of the Norwegian people. The fund invests in over 9,000 companies and it is urging them to set net zero targets for the future. The fund said they might sell their stakes in those companies that fail to commit.

Mapping Project Reveals Chemical Pollution Levels

Journalists from across Europe have collaborated to produce a detailed map showing just how many sites are polluted with harmful ‘forever’ chemicals. Per- and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAs) are a related group of over 4,000 chemicals linked to a number of health issues, including multiple cancers and infertility. They are used in a large number of products from cosmetics and non-stick pans to carpets and smartphones. Crucially, they don’t break down, so remain in the environment unless removed. The Forever Pollution Project began their work in late 2021, studying data from across the UK and continental Europe to produce the map. It shows that more than 17,000 sites are contaminated with these chemicals. Over 300 sites have very high concentrations. Levels of contamination are far higher than previously known.

Good and Bad News for Wildlife

There was good news in the EU as a new law banning the use of lead shot in and around wetlands came into effect. The law applies to all 27 member states, plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have been campaigning for a ban for years and hailed the new law as an important milestone. Wildfowl are particularly vulnerable to lead poison through ingesting shot which they mistake for grit. Many are calling for a similar ban in the UK. Last year, the Health and Safety Executive recommended restricting lead shot use across all landscapes, not just wetlands. A voluntary scheme in the UK appears to making little headway in stopping its use.

Bewick's swan
Wildfowl, such as this Bewick’s swan, can ingest lead shot in error

The news was less good for bees and other pollinators this month, however. For the third year running, Defra has approved the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet crops in 2023. Neonicotinoid pesticides are known to be harmful to bees and were banned in the UK and EU in 2018 as a result. However, due to the threat of yellow viruses in sugar beet, the government has granted special licences for their use for the last three years. Various wildlife charities including Greenpeace and the Wildlife Trusts reacted with dismay to the move. Research shows how dangerous the pesticides are to bees, causing disorientation, inability to find food and death. Ultimately, this could also harm the farming industry which relies on pollinators to grow crops.

Research Round-up

Still with pesticides, the University of Sussex published research this month showing that garden pesticide use is linked to songbird declines. The study used information from the BTO and its Garden Birdwatch citizen science scheme. It found that those gardens using pesticides were likely to see less birds. For example, house sparrow numbers were 25% lower in gardens using glyphosate products such as Roundup. The drop was even bigger, at 40%, in gardens using slug pellets. However, it also found that providing bird-friendly habitat in our gardens is beneficial, leading to an increase in numbers of species and individuals.

House sparrows
House sparrow numbers are lower in gardens using pesticides

Butterfly Conservation released its State of the UK’s Butterflies Report for 2022. It made for alarming reading, with the news that 80% of butterflies have declined in the UK since the 1970s. Particularly vulnerable are those with specialist habitat requirements. The charity warned that this is a sign of wider biodiversity loss. The report also showed that targeted conservation work does help to halt declines, as well as the importance of gathering data through projects such as the Big Butterfly Count and iRecord. And taking part in citizen science projects like these is not only good for nature, but good for people. A study published in People and Nature journal has found that those helping to record wildlife have an improved sense of well-being and feel more connected to nature.

Wall butterfly
Wall butterflies are on the edge of extinction in Northern Ireland

Finally, the latest research on solar farms shows that sheep benefit when put in with the structures. The study found that sheep spent 70% of their time under the panels, benefitting from the shade provided. They were able to rest better as a result. They also grazed more than sheep in fields without panels. Despite some opposition, solar farms are seen by many as a way for farmers to diversify while still remaining productive.

Solar farm
Sheep benefit from solar farms