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Environment News Round-up: May 2024

Black-tailed Godwit

We’ll be kicking off this month’s environment news round-up with the outcome of plastics pollution talks in Canada late last month. As extreme weather continued to affect parts of the globe, including Asia and Central America, we’ll also highlight May’s contrasting energy stories. With Rishi Sunak calling a surprise election for July, following on from local council polls this month, the next month will see the various political parties’ green pledges scrutinised. The National Audit Office, meanwhile, raised concerns about England’s newly implemented Biodiversity Net Gain rules. Finally, we’ll report on the death of one of Scotland’s most famous ospreys and good news for godwits, plus our usual research round-up.

Plastic Pollution Talks

April ended with a week-long conference on addressing plastic pollution in Ottawa, Canada. The talks follow on from 2022’s UN resolution to come up with a legally binding treaty on the issue by the end of this year. Plastic not only causes pollution due to its non-biodegradable nature, but its production is also responsible for high carbon emissions. There was some level of progress at the talks. Nations agreed to look at funding means to help developing nations implement any future treaty, as well as working to identify chemically harmful plastics and single-use products. Environmentalists were disappointed, however, that there was no progress towards signing a pledge on cutting plastic production despite proposals from some countries to that effect. Talks will now resume in full in November in South Korea, with smaller meetings taking place between now and then.

Environment news plastic pollution
Campaigners want more action on the production of single-use plastics

Climate Round-up

Extreme heat continued to impact south-east Asia this month. As reported in last month’s news round-up, many schools have closed across the region, with Delhi following suit towards the end of this month as temperatures hit 47.4˚C. Officials in affected countries have issued health warnings. Southern India, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar have been worst affected. Seasonal temperature records have also been broken in many of the affected countries. There are increasing fears as crops fail and more lives are lost to the heat. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been devastated by weeks of heavy rainfall and flooding. The latest floods killed at least 68 people. Hundreds of people have already lost their lives in the floods, and thousands of homes been destroyed.

Southern Brazil was also hit by floods at the start of the month. Scientists believe these were made worse by a combination of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon. Further north in Mexico, an ongoing heatwave has claimed the lives of more than 25 people in the last two months. It is also now beginning to impact the country’s howler monkeys, with animals falling dead from the trees due to heatstroke. Record temperatures, drought, fires and deforestation leading to lack of shade, water and fruit have all combined to hit the species. At least 83 have died in the town of Tecolutilla alone since early May. There was bad news for our oceans as well, this month. Research shows that they have broken temperature records every day of the past year. Once again, human-induced warming and El Niño are the likely causes.

Fossil Fuels vs Renewables News

Next, we have a range of news from both the fossil fuels and renewable energy sectors. There was disappointing news for climate campaigners early on in May. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that oil and gas companies will be permitted to explore underneath offshore wind farm sites for the first time. Around 30 companies will be issued licences to carry out the explorations. Supporters of the move say that using existing wind farms to power any drilling that subsequently takes place will lower resulting emissions. Campaigners, meanwhile, say that investment should be made solely in renewables if the UK is to meet its climate commitments. There was further dismay as Australia announced shortly afterwards that it would be ramping up oil and gas extraction to beyond 2050 to ensure the nation’s energy security.

Offshore wind farm
Rishi Sunak announced that oil and gas explorations can take place at offshore wind farm sites

Researchers revealed this month that the average concentration of atmospheric CO2 in March was significantly higher than at the same time last year. The jump of 4.7 parts per million over the last year is the biggest change recorded over a 12-month period. Current levels are over 50% higher than in pre-industrial times. There was some good news, however, as energy think tank Ember published its latest Global Electricity Review. The report found that in 2023 renewables generated 30% of electricity globally, a new record. The year also saw record rates of solar and wind energy construction projects. The authors see the results as a significant step on the way to phasing out fossil fuels, a major contributor to global warming.

Wind farm construction
Wind farm projects are increasing in number globally

Following on from last month’s round-up of fossil fuel-related legal cases, similar actions were both launched and ruled on this month. In the UK, the government’s lack of progress on limiting greenhouse gas emissions was the subject of a legal ruling by the High Court. The court found in favour of joint plaintiffs Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth and ruled that the government’s Climate Action Plan is unlawful. The UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) also made a landmark ruling this month in response to a case brought by a coalition of small island states. The court ruled that greenhouse gas emissions can be regarded as pollutants when absorbed by the sea. This in turn means that member states must work to reduce emissions as a result. Although the ruling isn’t legally binding, the plaintiffs hope that it can act as a precedent for future treaties and guide policy. In the US, meanwhile, eight young Alaskans launched a similar case this month. They are suing the Alaskan government over its plans for a new fossil fuel project, saying it violates their state constitutional rights.

UK Elections

May kicked off with local elections in England. Many predicted that the Conservatives would fare badly, and this was borne out as they lost a total of 474 councillors. The Green Party, though, had their most successful local elections to date. They gained more than 240 seats and took control of a council for the first time in their history. As well as overall control of Mid-Suffolk, they also became the largest party on councils including Lewes, Hastings, Stroud and Bristol. The party had focused their campaign on rural seats, in particular, and the move seemed to pay off. Towards the end of the month, Rishi Sunak called a snap election for July 4th. Whether the Green’s local election successes translate to parliamentary seats remains to be seen.

Hedgerow
New hedgerow legislation has been passed in the run up to the general election

Although some policies the government had promised to introduce during the lifetime of this Parliament will not now be enacted before the election, one piece of environmental legislation was passed before electioneering began in earnest. Westminster had promised to introduce new hedgerow protection rules following the lapse of existing EU legislation in January. The replacement regulations were passed into law with immediate effect in late May. The new rules include a ban on hedge cutting between March 1st and August 31st. They also require hedgerows to have a two metre buffer strip from the centre of the hedge. This strip should include the establishment and maintenance of green cover and be free from cultivation and pesticide use. The move was welcome by conservation groups including the Tree Council.

National Audit Office Raises Concerns Over BNG

Three months after its adoption in England, Defra’s Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirements were the subject of scrutiny by the government’s independent spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO). Nearly all new developments in England now have to ensure a minimum of 10% BNG for a minimum of 30 years either on site or by buying habitat units elsewhere. The NAO, though, is concerned that the complex scheme was launched without all the necessary supporting elements in place. Concerns include a lack of certainty over the ability of the private market to supply offsite units, as well as local authorities lacking the resources to enforce and assess developments. The NAO is also concerned over the lack of central monitoring by Defra on the success of the scheme. In addition, there is no structure at present for spending income raised from biodiversity credit sales. They say that all these factors risk undermining the long-term effectiveness of BNG.

Broadleaf woodland
BNG rules mean developers must replace removed habitat types, such as broadleaved woodland, like for like

Environment Agency Buries FOI Requests

The head of the Environment Agency (EA) in England, Philip Duffy, admitted at this month’s UK Rivers Summit that the agency sometimes deliberately ignores freedom of information (FOI) requests. Duffy suggested that officers did so because they are scared what their answers will reveal about the true state of nature in the country, in particular water quality and pollution. He also said that part of the problem was the increasingly antagonistic relationship between NGOs and water companies, with the regulator caught in the crossfire. Last year the EA was served an enforcement notice by the Information Commissioner’s Office for not meeting FOI standards.

Good News for Godwits, Bad for Ospreys

There were decidedly mixed fortunes for two bird species this month. Good news first as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) announced that the first chicks in their black-tailed godwit captive breeding project have hatched. One of the UK’s rarest breeding birds, less than 50 pairs breed in England each year. As well as habitat loss to agriculture and development, increased flooding in their remaining stronghold of the Nene and Ouse Washes means they are struggling for nest sites. The headstarting programme takes wild eggs for captive incubation and rearing until the chicks are deemed old enough to survive on their own back in the wild. Some birds will be kept for future breeding purposes as a back-up population. The WWT have carried out similar programmes with the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, Eurasian curlew and common crane.

Black-tailed godwit
Black-tailed godwits are one of the UK’s rarest breeding birds

There was much sadder news from Scotland. Police launched an appeal for information following the discovery of an adult male osprey’s body near Dunkeld, Perth and Kinross at the start of May. Confirmed as ‘Laddie’, or LM12, from the famous Loch of the Lowes reserve, police have so far not been able to confirm the cause of death. This would have been LM12’s 13th breeding season at the reserve. With no male to catch food for her, the reserve’s nesting female NC0 was forced to leave her eggs to fish. A prospecting male osprey subsequently destroyed the eggs, in what is natural behaviour for birds attempting to win a new territory. Reserve staff are hopeful NC0 will successfully bond with one of two new male birds in the area, but it is highly unlikely they will breed this year.

Osprey LM12
LM12, or ‘Laddie’ pictured in 2018

Research Round-up

We lead this month’s research round-up with details of a new  study on heat and bumblebee nests. Bumblebees are usually adept at thermoregulating their nests. In hot weather, they gather and use their wings to fan the nest and keep it cool. However, the new research found that as our planet warms, they will find it harder to do so. With perfect temperatures for brood incubating standing at between 25 and 32˚C, the study concluded that many would not be able to regulate nests once they hit 36˚C. The researchers suggest this could be why so many bumblebees are disappearing globally.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bumblebees, like this buff-tailed queen, struggle to thermoregulate their nests in hotter temperatures

There was more hopeful news for bees, however, from a Dutch project investigating alternatives to chemical pesticides. We have known about the dangers of pesticides since at least the publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work Silent Spring in 1962. While the main subject of Carson’s book, DDT, has been banned or restricted in many countries for some time, newer pesticides are still heavily relied on in agriculture. Researchers from Wageningen University and Research and Leiden University have created an alternative that bypasses the need for chemicals, however. Their biological alternative is made from vegetable rice oil and protects crop plants from pests by trapping them in sticky glue-like droplets. The drops are too small, though, to trap most pollinators. Inspired by the substance used by carnivorous sundew plants, the researchers hope their glue will pass environmental impact tests and will work on a range of pests.

Honey bee
Non-chemical pest control methods could help honey bees and other pollinators

There was more good news from the Antarctic as new research suggests blue whale numbers could be recovering from the impacts of industrial levels of whaling in the 20th century. By listening into their calls and songs using hydrophones, scientists can assess the frequency that whales use the Southern Ocean, an area targeted heavily during the whaling years. Across the research period of 2006 and 2021, blue whale calls were picked up much more regularly than in previous years. Scientists hope this means that numbers of the largest whale species are now stable or even rising. The news was tempered, however, as Japan launched a huge, new whaling ‘mother’ ship this month in a bid to revive the industry. Although the owners say that the Kangei Maru will not be hunting in the Southern Ocean, there are fears that this policy may change in the future.

Blue whale
Blue whales are being heard more frequently in the Southern Ocean

We wrap up with a new study showing that conservation work, including controlling invasive species and habitat restoration, does have positive effects on biodiversity. The study, published in Science at the end of April, analysed 665 conservation trials over the last century to evaluate their impact. They found that biodiversity either improved or its decline was slowed in two thirds of the projects. The authors also found that conservation success wasn’t restricted to particular ecosystems, geographical regions or political systems. Those projects that either failed to have an impact or had a negative one, meanwhile, showed that strategies need to be continuously reviewed and changed if necessary. As long as conservationists learned from the mistakes, there could still ultimately be positive outcomes. The authors also stressed that we still need to focus on actions such as cutting pollution and excessive consumption to stop biodiversity loss and not just rely on conservation efforts.