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Environment News Round-up: March 2023

humpback mum and calf

Our environment news round-up this month includes details of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with some more optimistic news about protecting our seas, both around the UK and globally. There is also a look at the environmental elements of Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget. Plus, as always, we’ll round up the latest research.

IPCC’s Latest Report Issues Stark Warning on Climate

The IPCC published the final part of their sixth assessment report, AR6, this month. The AR6 synthesis report summarises the previous three sections, drawing together five years of research on global temperature rises, fossil fuel use and the impacts on our climate of carbon emissions. And the findings make for worrying reading. One of the main points is the urgency of the situation. We must act now, or it will be too late to ensure temperature rises do not exceed 1.5˚C above preindustrial levels, above which human life will become increasingly unsustainable. At present, the rise is around 1.1˚C.

Uskmouth Power Station environment news round-up
We will need to do more to replace older power stations with renewable options

The report also confirms that climate change is already impacting the whole planet through extreme weather events and conditions, causing loss of life to humans and wildlife. And the world’s poorest are, and will continue to be, the worst hit, despite contributing less emissions. The panel says that to keep within the 1.5˚C target, we will have to cut emissions by 43% of 2019 levels by 2030 and by 60% by 2035. However, currently more money is still being invested in fossil fuels globally than in renewables and climate mitigation development. This assertion was borne out earlier in the month as Joe Biden controversially signed off on a huge oil project, the Willow Project, in Alaska, to the dismay of environmentalists. And in the UK, the government launched its updated, much watered down net zero strategy towards the end of the month, with no new financial support for a move to more renewable sources of energy.

Ocean Protection Treaty Signed

There was better news for our seas and oceans as both global and UK protections were put in place this month. On a global level, the UN announced the signing of the so-called ‘High Seas Treaty’ which sets up a legal framework for protecting waters outside of national territories. A culmination of nearly 20 years of talks, the treaty will lay down a path for creating large marine protected areas (MPAs) to address biodiversity losses, combat marine pollution and help in the fight against climate change. A conference of the parties, or Cop, will meet periodically to make sure signatories are held to account on their obligations.

Humpback fluke environment news round-up
The so-called High Seas Treaty aims to protect waters outside of national territories

Meanwhile, the UK Government announced that three new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will be designated this July as part of a pilot scheme. HPMAs are the highest level of protection for marine sites. They restore and protect wildlife by banning all activities within their boundaries, including fishing, dredging and construction. The three sites are Allonby Bay in the Irish Sea, Dolphin Head in the English Channel and North East of Farnes Deep in the North Sea. Conservationists cautiously applauded the move but point out that the zones make up less than 1% of the UK’s waters and many more areas also need this level of protection. In Scotland, the consultation process on HPMAs is ongoing and due to end this April, although there is opposition from the fishing industry over plans to include up to 10% of Scottish waters in HPMAs.

Puffins rely on sandeels to feed their young

In separate news, Defra launched a consultation on proposals to ban commercial sandeel fishing. Many of our seabirds, including puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes, rely on sandeels. In recent years, though, overfishing and climate change have depleted their numbers putting pressure on birds now also being hit hard by avian influenza.

Developing Marine News

In the first of two developing news stories at the end of the month, a major incident was declared in Poole Harbour as oil leaked into the site from a local pipeline. The pipeline is part of the Wytch Farm oilfield, to the south of the harbour. Approximately 200 barrels of reservoir fluid leaked into the surrounding area. Gas company Perenco, who operate the field, said that the fluid was 85% water and 15% oil but there are fears that the region’s wildlife will be hit. Oil was recorded a few days later washing up on Brownsea Island, an important wildlife haven in the harbour. Poole Harbour is a site of special scientific interest and is home to the Poole Harbour Osprey Project which has restored breeding ospreys to the south coast of England via a translocation scheme.

Crab claw
Crabs have been affected by a number of mass die-off events on the north-east coast of England

And as the month closed, there was also worrying news of further crustacean die-offs on the coast of north-east England, following events in 2021 and 2022. Mussels, crabs, starfish and razorfish were among the species washed up this month at Saltburn-by-Sea. The Environment Agency says this is a natural event and not unusual for the time of year. Locals are concerned, however. A government-appointed panel concluded its investigations into the earlier events in January and suggested a new pathogen may have been involved. Others claim dredging for a new free port in the region has released the harmful chemical pyridine into waters.

Scottish Government Introduces New Wildlife Management Bill

Following a public consultation, the Scottish Government introduced the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill. The bill aims to bring an end to raptor persecution by bringing in new licensing schemes for the killing of certain birds. The bill also brings in new controls on how wild animals can be trapped. It will no longer be possible to use glue traps for rodent capture, and in addition, a number of other types of wildlife trap will have stricter controls. Crucially, the bill also aims to ensure grouse moors are managed sustainably by strictly regulating muirburn. In recognition of the importance of peatlands as carbon sinks, burning on peat will now only be permitted with a licence and in exceptional circumstances, such as to prevent wildfires.

red grouse environment news round-up
Grouse moors traditionally burn heather to provide new growth for the birds

Spring Budget Statement

There were a few key environment strands to the Chancellor’s spring budget statement. The biggest news was a commitment of £20 billion over the next 20 years to carbon capture schemes and low carbon energy projects. Jeremy Hunt also announced renewed support for nuclear energy, saying it was vital for ensuring our energy security and for reaching net zero. There was, however, no support for solar or wind energy production.

Solar farm
The budget aims to support carbon capture schemes over solar and wind projects

Climate action and conservation bodies, including Greenpeace, criticised the budget for the lack of support for cheaper renewables. Carbon capture schemes are unproven, and many feel they are a waste of money compared to the cost-effectiveness of solar and wind projects. New nuclear facilities are hugely expensive and take time to bring online. Campaigners believe much more money needs to be spent on proven renewables that can cut emissions now rather than at some point in the future.

Actor Shows Oscars Can Be Green

One actor showed his commitment to environmental causes at the Oscars this month by travelling for the third year running by public transport. Ed Begley Jr and his plus one, daughter Hayden, travelled by bus and subway to and from this year’s ceremony and filmed their journey for TikTok. They later posed with their travelcards for photographers. Begley Jr wanted to show Los Angeles residents and visitors alike that the city has got a usable public transport system despite many people’s reliance on the car. And the network is also astonishingly cheap. As Begley Jr is a senior, his whole round-trip cost just 70 cents.

Research Round-up

The biggest research publication this month was undoubtedly the launch of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s (BSBI) Plant Atlas 2020. This phenomenal work is the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken of plants in the two countries. An army made up largely of volunteers carried out surveys for the BSBI between 2000 and 2019, and the results were compared with earlier surveys from the 1950s and 90s, showing gains and losses. The most worrying news from the project is that over half of Britain’s plant species are now non-natives. Introduced species are doing better than ever, while over half of our native species are declining. There are a number of factors at play, including changes in agricultural practices over the last 50 years and the effects of climate change.

Spanish bluebells
Spanish bluebells, like these ones, are non-natives in the UK

A new study has discovered that peregrine falcons in London changed their diets during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Typically, a large proportion of urban peregrines’ diets is made up of feral pigeons, drawn to city centres by our waste food or direct feeding. Researchers asked citizen scientists to monitor livestreams of 31 city nests over 3 breeding seasons. One of these seasons coincided with the pandemic, and scientists found that London birds killed 15% less pigeons in that year. They turned to starlings and ring-necked parakeets instead. During lockdown periods, pigeons were inevitably finding less human-supplied food and so fewer birds gathered in central London. Elsewhere, there was less change to the amount of pigeons taken, suggesting the denser the urban environment, the more peregrine falcons rely on pigeons.

peregrine falson
Peregrines in London were forced to change their diets during lockdown

There was more bad news for seabirds this month, already under enormous pressure from avian influenza, overfishing and pollution. Newly published research revealed they are now being hit by a new disease caused by plastic ingestion. Viruses, such as avian influenza, and bacteria are the usual causes of illness. The newly described disease of plasticosis, however, is caused by ingesting pieces of plastic which in turn lead to inflammation of the digestive tract. Over time, this results in scarring that inhibits growth and digestion. The disease was discovered in flesh-footed shearwaters on Lord Howe Island. Despite the fact the island is 600 km from Australia, the birds are some of the most plastic-contaminated in the world. It is unlikely that this is the only species affected by the newly identified disease. Worryingly, geologists have also recently discovered rocks made of waste plastic on an island off Brazil.

Plastic ingestion is causing a new disease in seabirds

A recent archaeological paper shows that bearded vultures were nesting at a Portuguese cave around 29,000 years ago. The discovery was made by analysing coprolites, or fossilised faeces, and comparing them to modern bearded vulture faeces. Bearded vultures have a unique bone-based diet which helped researchers identify the ancient poo. These incredible birds once lived across the Iberian Peninsula but became extinct in Portugal at the end of the 19th century due to persecution and a fall in food availability.

Chilean flamingos
Chilean flamingos, like these at Dublin Zoo, hang out with like-minded friends

And finally, if you thought that it was just humans who formed cliques and friendship groups, think again. A joint study by the University of Exeter and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust found that Caribbean and Chilean flamingos like to hang out with friends who have similar personalities. Bolder, more outgoing birds spent more time with other bold flamingos, while quieter, more submissive ones hung out with those most like themselves. It seems flamingos’ social lives are more complicated than we thought.