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Environment News Round-up: July 2023

Cromarty Firth

As the Northern Hemisphere summer progresses, extreme temperatures and weather events continue to dominate our environment news round-up. Monthly temperature records were yet again broken for June, and it seems increasingly likely that they will be for July as well. Wildfires also continued to rage in Canada, along with blazes in Greece, Algeria, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The UK Government introduced legislation that removes the cap on civil fines for polluters. A new law also finally bans the import and export of shark fins to and from the country. Meanwhile, Defra announced extra funding to help local councils enforce this autumn’s new Biodiversity Net Gain regulations. We will also have some good news about the Isle of Wight’s white-tailed eagle introduction programme and deforestation in the Amazon.

Extreme Weather Events Around the Globe

As is becoming the norm, we lead with news of multiple extreme weather events from around the globe. In the Northern Hemisphere, as summer got into full swing, temperatures continued to break records. NASA revealed that we have just had the hottest June on record. Before the month was out, two leading climate bodies reported that it is extremely likely that this July will be the warmest month on record. It could also be the warmest month in the last 120,000 years. This translated to extreme heatwaves around the Northern Hemisphere. China, the US, Mediterranean Europe and North Africa were all affected. The UN Weather Agency warned that these heatwaves are likely to be the new normal. Wildfires across Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Algeria resulted in a number of fatalities and evacuations. Elsewhere, devastating floods affected multiple nations including South Korea, China, India, Pakistan and the US.

Wildfires have affected Portugal, along with other areas of Southern Europe

The Southern Hemisphere was not immune to worrying climatic conditions either. Unusually high winter temperatures mean Antarctic sea ice has been at record low levels for the last few months. Yet despite a month of conditions that scientists say were made much more likely by human-induced climate change, there were some push backs this month against solutions. In India, a G20 meeting failed to reach agreement on cutting down on fossil fuels. G20 nations collectively account for approximately 75% of global emissions. Elsewhere, Wael Sawan, the CEO of Shell, said that the world still ‘desperately needs oil and gas. He claimed that it is too soon to switch to wholly renewables supply and doing so would lead to worse economic conditions than already experienced by many this year. His comments were criticised by climate campaigners. There was also dismay from campaigners in the UK as Prime Minster Rishi Sunak announced plans to grant more than 100 new gas and oil licences for the North Sea.

UK Legislation Round-up

Some important environmental legislation and funding was announced this month in the UK. The government announced the introduction of new laws removing the cap on civil penalties for polluting. At present, bodies such as water and energy suppliers, as well as waste operators and developers, can only be fined a maximum of £250,000 directly by the Environment Agency and Natural England without a court case. The new legislation allows regulators to fine unlimited amounts. By making civil penalties higher, the government hopes to enable quicker enforcement proceedings and send only the most serious instances on to expensive court cases. The scale of the problem was highlighted earlier in July as the Environment Agency revealed that approximately 18% of waste is managed illegally in the UK.

Basking shark
Basking sharks are one of many species targeted for their fins

Introduced at the very end of June, legislation was brought in to end the trade in shark fins to and from the UK. Under the new Shark Fins Act, the import and export of detached shark fins is banned. This ban also covers products that contain fins such as shark fin soup. The act aims to contribute to the conservation of this threatened group of fish. The shark fin trade has not only caused significant declines in a number of species, but it is an extremely cruel and wasteful practice. Shark finning in UK waters has been banned since 2003. However, campaigners have been pressuring the government to go further for some time to help combat the trade.

Sustainable Drainage Systems like this can improve a development’s biodiversity

On the funding front, the government announced the release of funds to help local authorities gear up for new Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirements coming in this autumn. The requirements mean that any new developments will have to show a 10% net gain in biodiversity. There have been concerns that local authorities will not have the manpower to assess and enforce the new BNG rules. However, the government has announced the release of £9 million to help councils recruit ecologists and related specialists, creating green jobs.

Ecotricity Founder Announces Electric Flight Launch

Hot on the heels of last month’s news about Scandinavian airline SAS’s 2024 electric flights, the founder of green electric company Ecotricity announced plans to launch the UK’s first electric airline. Dale Vince said the 19-seat jets will fly next year. Initially, the planes will use a kerosene-derived fuel. After a year, green hydrogen will be converted to energy. The planes will have a range of 300 miles and link Edinburgh and Southampton. Vince hopes to introduce 70-seaters capable of flying to Europe after 18 months. As well as founding the green energy company, Vince is chairman of Forest Green Rovers Football Club, the first team to be certified carbon neutral.

Brazilian Amazon Deforestation Levels Down

There was hopeful news from Brazil early on in July. Preliminary data show that there has been a 34% decrease in Amazonian deforestation in the first half of 2023. This is a result of tougher environmental laws brought in by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. The previous regime under Jair Bolsonaro encouraged mining and farming interests in the Amazon. Lula has pledged to end deforestation by 2030. However, an area more than three times the size of New York City has still been lost so far this year. Two of the biggest drivers of illegal deforestation are cattle ranching and mining.

First English White-tailed Eagle Fledgling for 240 Years

The first white-tailed eagle chick in 240 years has fledged in England this summer. The chick is the offspring of two birds translocated to the Isle of Wight reintroduction product from Scottish populations in 2020. The nest site is being kept secret to protect the birds. Despite their modern association with remote, Scottish outposts, the species was once widespread across England. However, by the end of the 18th century they were extinct in southern England due to persecution. The Isle of Wight reintroduction programme began in 2019 as a collaboration between the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England. Of 25 birds released, 16 survive. More will be released later this summer and there are hopes more pairs will become established.

White-tailed eagle juvenile
Juvenile white-tailed eagles lack the white tail of adult birds (NB: this is not the English youngster)

Research Round-up

After starting this news round-up with the devastating results of climate change, our first research item this month is from the more positive side of climate-related research. New research suggests that changes in farming practices could help land store more carbon. This in turn could help us keep global temperatures below a 1.5˚C rise above pre-industrial levels. Downforce Technologies uses various sources to assess the carbon-storage capabilities of soil, selling the data on to farmers. They say that by transitioning away from heavy artificial fertiliser use and better farming techniques, soil quality improves. This results in better yields for farmers and the ability to store more carbon.

Arable field
A change in farming practices could help us store more carbon in the soil

The environmental advocacy company Wild Justice released the results of an in-depth analysis of the state of England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The group launched the research to find out exactly what state the protected areas are in, as well as when they were last assessed. Originally set up to identify and protect habitats and species of national importance, SSSIs are the basis of many of our other environmental designations. As a result, they are extremely important. However, Wild Justice’s analysis has uncovered that almost two thirds of England’s SSSIs by area haven’t been assessed for at least a decade. The analysis also shows that the most recent assessments suggest much SSSI area is not improving in condition. Wild Justice say the results show that Defra and Natural England need to urgently clear the backlog of inspections so that England’s SSSIs don’t fall into an even worse state.

Aust cliffs
There are more than 4,000 SSSIs in England, of which Aust Cliffs in South Gloucestershire is just one

Finally, research published late last month reveals just what male songbirds have to do to keep a female interested. In a joint study carried out by Lancaster and Manchester Metropolitan Universities, researchers watched female blue tits react to recordings of male songs. They found that the birds were most interested when the performers managed to repeat song patterns precisely and consistently. They also discovered, though, that over time, the females became habituated to the songs, however well performed, and lost interest. Their attention then only returned when males switched to a new song pattern. The researchers believe their results suggest why songs within a species don’t change massively all the time as consistency is ultimately the most attractive element.

Blue tit
Researchers watched female blue tits react to male songs