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Environment News Round-up: July 2022

Environment news round-up July

The month began with news of a US Supreme Court ruling that would severely impede any attempts by the White House to tackle the climate crisis. But July’s biggest environment news was undoubtedly the unprecedented heatwaves affecting many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, the government gave the go ahead to the controversial Sizewell C nuclear project. And households across the country took part in a Plastic Free July.

Heatwaves Hit the Northern Hemisphere

Dangerous heatwaves, a direct impact of climate change, affected large parts of the Northern Hemisphere this month. By the middle of the month, eastern and southern China was experiencing unusually high temperatures. Heat alerts were issued for many cities. Following earlier heatwaves in June, some US cities’ temperature records were being broken on a daily basis in southern and central states. As the month progressed, cities in the northeast, including Boston, New York and Washington, were also hit. Hundreds of wildfires are still raging across central and western states due to the tinderbox conditions.

Spain
Spain has recorded nearly 900 excess deaths due to the heatwave

In Europe, nearly 1,900 excess deaths were recorded as a result of the high temperatures in Spain and Portugal between 7th and 18th July. The heatwave then moved north to hit France and the UK. On Tuesday 19th, the previous temperature record of 38.7˚C for the UK was smashed when 40.3˚C was recorded in Lincolnshire. The heat, coupled with extremely dry conditions, led to wildfires across the country. London’s fire service experienced its busiest day since the Blitz and major incidents were also declared in Yorkshire and Leicestershire.

Climate scientists warn that this is the shape of things to come if action on carbon emissions isn’t taken. Extreme weather events, including heatwaves, will become more frequent and prolonged if temperatures are allowed to keep rising.

US Supreme Court Ruling on Clean Air Act

A US Supreme Court ruling made on the last day in June means that America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be severely limited when it comes to restricting power plant emissions. This came despite extreme weather events including high temperatures, flooding and wildfires affecting many areas in previous weeks.

The EPA still has some power to regulate levels of emissions under the country’s Clean Air Act 1970. But the conservative-dominated court ruled by six to three to curtail its ability to push for a switch to electricity production using renewables, instead of fossil fuels. They decided that only Congress can decide on something affecting the economy to that extent. Attempts to pass any kind of climate policy in Congress, though, have stalled. The ruling was met with widespread dismay both in the States and overseas.

Sizewell C Decision Announced

In further energy news, the UK government announced it had approved EDF’s application to build a new nuclear power station in Suffolk. The French company’s new reactor would be adjacent to the existing Sizewell B reactor on the coast. The government’s decision overrode recommendations from the Planning Inspectorate. They stated it should not be approved unless concerns about water supplies and the impact on the natural environment were resolved.

Sizewell B
Sizewell B Reactor on the Suffolk coast

Environmental groups and anti-nuclear campaigners are considering their next steps in efforts to halt the project. Groups opposed to the plant include the RSPB, Greenpeace and Suffolk Wildlife Trust, as well as many local people. Sizewell C would be built right next to one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves, Minsmere. This is home to rare breeding birds such as marsh harrier, bearded tit and stone curlew.

The project would involve a huge construction site and campaigners insist that this would damage or destroy large areas of important habitat, despite EDF’s assurances they will restore the area once work is completed. The area of Suffolk coast involved is protected by multiple environmental designations: it is a SSSI, Ramsar site, SPA and SAC.

Plastic Free July

The annual Plastic Free July drive took place this month. Organised globally since 2011, this event aims to help people reduce their plastic use. In 2021, an estimated 140 million people took part from countries around the world. As well as providing lots of ideas for replacing single-use plastic items with reusable products, the initiative provides ideas for groups to run their own special events each July. The ultimate aim is for participants to turn month-long trials into lifetime habits. Results from Greenpeace’s Big Plastic Count this May revealed that British households only send 12% of single-use plastics for recycling. It also revealed that 96.6 million pieces of plastic are thrown away each year in the UK, highlighting the need for change.

Environment news round-up July
Single-use plastics are a major pollution issue

A timely study reported this month further illustrates the importance of reducing plastic waste. A joint investigation carried out by the Mammal Society and Universities of Sussex and Exeter has found traces of plastics in the faeces of over half of the small mammal species they examined. The faeces of four species, hedgehog, brown rat, field vole and wood mouse, all showed signs of plastic ingestion. Worryingly, positive results weren’t restricted to urban animals, as might be expected.

Signs of Fin Whale Populations Recovering

There was positive news from Antarctica where scientists have revealed evidence of fin whale populations recovering. Up to 150 fin whales were recorded feeding together during research trips in 2018 and 2019 and the footage and survey results have now been published.

Fin whale
Fin whales are the second largest animal on the planet

Industrial whaling in the 20th century reduced numbers of the second largest mammal on the planet to a fraction of their original population. Estimates suggest as few as 1,000 animals may have survived in the Southern Hemisphere before the whaling ban of 1976. Numbers have been recovering since, but sightings of large groups are still extremely rare. The hope is that this is a sign of the species’ further recovery.

Avian Flu Update

Finally, a quick update on the avian flu outbreak affecting seabirds around the North Sea. This has continued to spread with dead birds now appearing in western Scotland. NatureScot announced a new task force to coordinate a response. Following the closure of the Isle of May and Noss in Shetland to landing visitors from the beginning of July, the task force recommended banning landing on a further 23 islands in Scottish waters to help stop the spread of the virus. A full list of the islands can be found here.