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Environment News Round-up: June 2024

Degraded peatland

In this month’s environment news round-up, we lead off with news from the EU and the surprise passing of the bloc’s seemingly dead in the water Nature Restoration Law. We’ll also look at the environmental discussions surrounding the build-up to July’s UK elections. There will be an update on the latest climate and energy news, as well, and details of some of the latest legal cases and their outcomes. Along with our usual research round-up, we’ll also look at some recent mammal stories from the news.

EU Nature Restoration Law Passes

There was surprise news from the EU this month as the bloc’s ambitious Nature Restoration Law passed after a dramatic last-minute vote change by Austria. The legislation had appeared dead in the water in back in March as a number of member states withdrew their support, partly due to intensifying farmer protests across the region. The law aims to restore 20% of the EU’s terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030, especially those critical to carbon storage, such as peat and wetlands. All degraded habitats should be restored by 2050. Supporters hope the results will be greater biodiversity, improved food security and enhanced resilience against extreme climate events. The vote came shortly after the results of recent EU elections. As predicted by many commentators, these saw a swing to the right and some level of rejection of green policies. Environmentalists, though, predict that although it will now be harder to pass ambitious legislation, existing laws will be difficult to dismantle.

Peatland restoration
Peatland restoration projects are a feature of the new law

UK Election Spotlight

With the UK’s snap general election taking pace on 4th July, campaigning stepped up this month. Disappointingly for many, environmental details were lacking from most of the parties’ manifestoes, with the climate and nature emergencies barely mentioned except in that of the Green Party. This is despite a Wildlife Trust poll showing that many of the public are not only concerned about the environment and climate but they also feel the main parties aren’t tackling these issues adequately.

The depth of feeling was also shown as over 80,000 marched in the Restore Nature Now event in London towards the end of the month. Organised by campaigner and presenter Chris Packham, the march urged whichever politicians are in power after the election to step up and act for nature. Despite the crowds, the march was ignored by most media outlets. Campaign group Wild Justice, meanwhile, put together a useful analysis of every party’s manifestoes from an environmental standpoint, with links to the manifestoes themselves, too.

Heatwaves Intensify

Deadly heatwaves continued to affect multiple parts of the Northern Hemisphere throughout June with tragic consequences. At the start of the month, India’s elections coincided with continuing high temperatures putting voters at risk as they queued to make their mark. Over 200 people died in the last days of May and first few days of June, some of them while on duty at polling stations. Meanwhile, in the southern United States, attendees at Donald Trump’s political rallies in Phoenix and Las Vegas endured record temperatures. Across the two events, 35 needed medical attention as a result, with 17 of those hospitalised. Despite the heat, Trump continues to assert he will ramp up oil and gas drilling if elected to the presidency in November.

Gas flaring
Donald Trump says he will ramp up oil and gas extraction if elected in November

Later on in the month, more than 1,000 people from at least 10 different countries reportedly died due to extreme heat during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Temperatures had reached 51.8˚C in the shade by 20th June. The true toll may be even higher due to the fact many pilgrims are unregistered visitors to Islam’s holiest site. Greece has likewise been hit by a heatwave resulting in a number of tourist deaths. By the end of the month, at least six tourists had died due to heatstroke, with more missing, feared dead. The dead included British doctor and TV presenter Michael Mosley who was found dead after getting lost and succumbing to the heat on the Greek island of Symi. Tourist authorities issued a warning to visitors, particularly older ones and those planning on strenuous hikes. Greece has not experienced a heatwave as early in the summer before.  

Emissions Round-up

Two weeks of negotiations took place at the UN’s Bonn Climate Change Conference this month. The annual event aims to deal with some of the more technical details of the body’s strategy ahead of each year’s COP in November. Campaigners criticised June’s talks for failing to make much progress, especially in the way of climate finance for developing countries. There was also concern as reports emerged that BP’s new CEO Murray Auchincloss is focused on halting investment in offshore wind projects and concentrating on fossil fuels instead. The move is supposedly a result of shareholder pressure and the slow return on renewables investments.

Offshore wind farm
BP’s new CEO is halting offshore wind farm investment

In the US, Vermont became the first state to pass a law aiming to make oil companies pay compensation for the results of greenhouse gases. Officials now have 18 months to calculate the costs to the state of fossil fuel emissions and charge individual companies. Elsewhere, Edinburgh City Council said it was banning advertisements for SUVs, airlines, cruise operators and fossil fuel companies in response to the climate and nature emergencies. The city is following in the footsteps of Amsterdam, Liverpool and Cambridge whose councils have introduced similar advertising bans. Lawmakers and farmers in Denmark, meanwhile, have reached an historic agreement on agricultural emissions. From 2030, farmers will pay the equivalent of €16 per metric ton of emitted carbon dioxide and €40 from 2025. Much of the emissions come from Denmark’s pork and dairy industry. The money raised will be invested in helping farms to transition to greener practices.

Legal Cases Latest

Environmental legal suits are becoming a recurring theme in our news round-up and this month is no exception. We lead with a late story from May as the Norwegian division of the World Wide Fund for Nature confirmed they are pursuing a legal challenge to Norway’s decision to allow deep-sea mining in its waters. The group says the government has taken no steps to investigate the negative impacts and that it sets a ‘dangerous precedent’. As reported in our January round-up, Norway is the first country to allow deep sea mining. Closer to home, a collection 83 conservation groups united under the Wildlife and Countryside Link banner is launching a legal challenge to whoever forms the next government in the UK. The move aims to force the new government to review current environmental targets which they say are inadequate. Chief executive of the group Richard Benwell said that there is ‘no sign’ current policies will halt and reverse catastrophic wildlife declines.

EV Charging Sign
Norway says deep sea mining is essential if it wants to keep making electric car batteries

Also in the UK, the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of campaigners Weald Action Group in a challenge against Surrey County Council. The group were suing the council over their granting of planning permission for extensions to an oil well at Horse Hill in 2019. The ruling found that the council should have considered the climate impact of burning oil from newly opened wells when granting permission. Campaigners, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, hope the ruling sets a precedent for future rural fossil fuel projects. There was less positive news, however, from Switzerland. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in April that the country was violating the rights of older citizens by not enacting adequate climate policies. This month, Swiss politicians rejected the ruling. They said the court had overstepped its jurisdiction and the country had done enough to protect its citizens.

Mammals in the News

There were a number of mammal stories in the news this month. Despite speculation that Iceland was winding down its whaling activities following a temporary suspension last year, the government issued a new licence to one of the nation’s only remaining whalers this month. The licence allows Hvalur to kill 99 fin whales but will only last for the rest of 2024 rather than the five- or ten-year licence the company requested. Campaigners are dismayed with the decision and hope that the one-year licence means this season will be the last for Icelandic whaling.

fin whale
Campaigners had hoped Iceland would end whaling for good

There was further dismay from animal rights supporters in the UK. It emerged this month that Natural England has gone against its own Director of Science Dr Peter Brotherton in approving supplementary badger culls this summer. Brotherton had stated that there was no scientific evidence to support supplementary culls as a means of preventing bovine tuberculosis and he recommended against authorising them. Nevertheless, Natural England has ignored the recommendation and culls will go ahead in a number of zones, including nine previously untouched areas. Critics say the focus should be on enhanced farm biosecurity and vaccines rather than badger culls.

Badger
Badgers are the UK’s largest mustelids

There were a number of more positive stories, however, centring on the UK’s increasing beaver population. Three quarters of respondents to a recent survey in Scotland said they supported further beaver reintroductions and want relevant bodies to identify suitable sites. There is some frustration at the lack of action on the government’s part, however. Recent research led by the University of Exeter and Devon Wildlife Trust has also shown that beavers can help alleviate the effects of both flooding and drought. By looking at the dams and resultant wetlands created over the last ten years by Devon beavers, they found that storm flows were reduced by up to a third, preventing flooding downstream and retaining water during drought conditions. Land managers in Knapdale, Scotland are also pointing to the positive impacts of beavers on water voles. First introduced to the area 15 years ago, the beavers have created a complex mosaic of water and land which conservationists say should provide valuable habitat for the voles, and protect them from their main predator, non-native American mink.

Research Round-up

We kick off our research catch up with a University of Cambridge study looking at Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). This long-awaited legal requirement for new developments in England to include a minimum of 10% biodiversity gain came into force earlier this year. Ecologists measuring both a site’s existing baseline biodiversity and subsequent levels must use Defra’s metric tool to assign a value to different habitats as part of the process. Researchers at Cambridge used the metric on 24 locations across England and compared results with long-term species data from the sites. They found that while the metric accurately measured plant diversity, there were discrepancies when it came to birds and butterflies. This means that relying solely on the metric won’t help bird and butterflies on development sites and further conservation measures will be needed. The study’s authors say the metric needs to be fine-tuned to be able to assess ecosystems as a whole, rather than just plant communities.

Marbled white
Researchers found that the BNG metric wouldn’t help butterflies, like this marbled white

We head north of the border next where Woodland Trust Scotland launched a report at the Scottish Parliament at the end of May highlighting the country’s level of nature depletion. In it they point to the paradox of a stretch of central reservation on the A9 near Dalwhinnie that is in a far more natural condition than the bare hills surrounding it. High deer numbers and muirburn mean that only a strip in the middle of the busy dual carriageway has been free to regenerate since the road was dualled 40 years ago. The charity calls on Highland estates to introduce more ‘nature positive’ practices, along with a change to farming schemes to help land managers integrate trees more effectively. Ultimately, they call for trees and woods to be placed at the heart of Scotland’s nature recovery.

Heather management
A Scottish hill showing patches of muirburn

Staying in Scotland, new research could provide a lifeline for one of the UK’s rarest birds, the capercaillie, while also avoiding conflict with another vulnerable species. Capercaillies went extinct in the UK in the 18th century but were subsequently reintroduced in the 1800s. Now, they are under threat again as their Caledonian pine forest habitat is lost and fragmented, leading to more disturbance. Dwindling numbers also mean they are less able to withstand natural levels of egg and chick predation by pine martens. Pine martens themselves are protected, having been close to extinction in the past. They are now recovering but with some calling for them to be controlled to protect capercaillies, the situation risks being reversed unless conflict can be avoided. The new study, led by PhD researcher Jack Bamber from the University of Aberdeen, shows how this can be achieved. They found that diversionary feeding of pine martens reduced the level of nest predation by 83%. This means that simply putting out alternative food such as chicken eggs or deer meat during the breeding season can drastically reduce predation on capercaillies and protect both species.

Pine marten
Pine martens are recovering after centuries of persecution

We finish with new research showing that crows have similar counting abilities as toddlers. Scientists have long known that corvids are intelligent; tool use, in particular, is often cited as a measure of their cognitive ability. The new study, though, shows that they are also able to match their calls to a number of objects shown, just as young children do. Researchers trained three carrion crows using a series of sounds and the numbers one to four on a screen. After training, the crows were able to call the correct number of times to match the displayed figure. This matching of vocalisations to a number is something that toddlers also do, even when they aren’t yet able to use the words ‘1, 2, 3’ rather than ‘1, 1, 1’. The crows also appeared to think carefully before their responses, indicating a level of planning not often seen outside of humans.