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Environment News Round-up: November 2023

Black guillemots environmental news

November was another busy month for environment news as things geared up for the annual United Nations climate conference, or COP. We’ll of course be reporting fully on COP28 next month. In the meantime, this month’s environment news round-up looks at the latest climate stories, including the first ever breach of 2˚C above pre-industrial levels. There were a number of UK Government developments this month, too. As well as the announcement of a raft of new oil and gas licences, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey stepped down from her cabinet post. Elsewhere, the EU voted to reduce methane emissions across the bloc and halt plastic waste exports to developing countries. There was also some good and bad news on the bird flu front this month.

Climate Round-up

November’s biggest climate news was undoubtedly the fact that the global average temperature was 2˚C higher than pre-industrial levels for the first time since records began. Although November’s breach was only temporary, scientists fear it is a precursor to further temperature rises. The 2˚C limit has played a part in climate discussions since the 2015 Paris Agreement. That meeting’s goal was to get countries to work to keep temperatures well below this limit, the maximum that temperatures can feasibly rise by without causing irreversible climate breakdown. The resulting domino effect is predicted to ultimately make the Earth uninhabitable to humans.

Breach of 2 degrees centigrade
The global temperature average breached 2˚C above pre-industrial levels in November

Extreme weather events also continued to hit various parts of the globe as climate change combined with the El Niño system. Early on in the month, countries in East Africa, including Somalia and Kenya, suffered the worst floods for decades. Warmer than average ocean temperatures caused by El Niño and a phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole intensified the region’s monsoon rains. The resulting floods claimed lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. On the other side of the world, Canada’s wildfires finally seemed to be dying down as the country counted the cost of the exceptionally destructive fire season. Over 6,500 fires raged across the country between spring and the present, with a record 45.7 acres burned. Tonnes of carbon was released as a result. Many fear the boreal forests that bore the brunt of the fires will be unable to grow back, in turn affecting carbon sequestration across North America.

UK Government Latest

November was a contradictory month as far as UK environmental policies were concerned. At the start of the month, the government’s environmental principles duty came into force. A requirement of the Environment Act 2021, this stipulates that ministers must consider the environmental impact of any new policies. However, less than a week later, one of the headline elements of the King’s Speech setting out the government’s next programme of legislation was the plan to allow oil and gas firms to bid for new drilling licences on an annual basis. Rishi Sunak said the move was aimed at reducing the UK’s reliance on overseas energy. Critics pointed out, however, that it is incompatible with the government’s commitment to reaching net zero by 2050. The speech also announced plans to scrap minimum energy efficiency requirements for the private rental sector. Campaigners say this will lead to tenants using more energy and lead to greater levels of fuel poverty.

There were also concerns later in the month over plans to loosen UK laws on chemical ‘hazard’ information. Chemical suppliers will no longer have to submit as much information when registering substances in the UK. While the move will save the chemical industry money, there are fears it will leave the environment and humans at risk. The mixed bag of environmental news continued as the month progressed. Mid-month, Thérèse Coffey resigned as environment minister, citing a desire to step back from the front bench. Coffey had faced sustained criticism during her tenure for failing to deal with UK’s water companies’ sewage releases into rivers and sea water. She was replaced by former health secretary Steve Barclay. It quickly emerged, however, that his wife is an executive at Anglian Water. Barclay has also recently received a donation from a climate denying group.

Hazard Symbol environment news
The UK Government wants to loosen chemical hazard information laws

Following September’s news that no developers bid for offshore windfarm contracts in the latest auction due to rising costs, the government this month pledged to offer higher subsidies to help offset those rises. There was, though, very little in the way of green policy in Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement on the 22nd. And finally, November ended with news of government plans to increase public access to nature. The plans contained a series of proposals including establishing a new national park, a number of nature recovery projects and funding to help get children outside.

EU Legislation on Methane Emissions and Plastics

The EU agreed two important deals this month. First, the bloc committed to reducing methane emissions from the energy sector. Methane is the second biggest driver of climate change behind carbon dioxide and is mainly produced by energy production, agricultural practices and the waste industry. Although the deal still needs to be formally approved, it requires oil, gas and coal companies to record methane emissions and work to reduce them. Routine flaring, which releases methane, will be banned.

Gas flaring
Gas flaring releases methane into the atmosphere

The Commission has also agreed to ban plastic waste exports to developing countries. There have long been concerns about plastic being shipped abroad that then causes huge levels of pollution and environmental damage rather than being recycled. The move aims to stop third party nations becoming the EU’s dustbin. After five years, plastic exports can resume if strict environmental conditions are met in the receiving nation. Exports of other types of waste will be permitted only if the destination can deal with it sustainably.

Avian Influenza Latest

Onto one of our periodic avian influenza updates now. Devastating news came from the Antarctic region at the end of October when British Antarctic Survey staff confirmed that a number of dead brown skuas on Bird Island near South Georgia had tested positive for bird flu. The migratory birds likely brought the highly contagious disease back from South America. The focus now is on working to contain the outbreak by increased monitoring and enhanced biosecurity measures. The region is home to a huge range of seabirds and there are fears about the disease’s impact should it spread.

Bonxies or great skuas environment news
Brown skuas are Southern Hemisphere relatives of our great skuas, pictured here

Meanwhile, NatureScot released bird flu mortality data from this summer’s breeding season. Between April 3rd and October 1st they received 9,610 reports of dead or sick birds in Scotland. The majority of cases were along the east coast. However, Shetland, one of last year’s hotspots, was relatively unscathed. Also largely unaffected this year were great skuas and gannets, two species which died in large numbers in 2022. Instead, guillemots and kittiwakes were by far the worst affected in Scotland. In England, tern species and black-headed gulls were worst hit. English outbreaks included one at Long Nanny, Northumberland, in July where more than 600 Arctic tern chick bodies were recovered.

Avian influenza hit Scottish common guillemots hard this summer

There was some good news in late October, though. Scientists say there is hope that some birds are developing immunity to bird flu. Research in a small sample size showed that some shags and gannets had signs of immunity. Although immunity instances were low and unlikely to help at population level yet, researchers hope the information will help predict future virus emergence.

News in Brief

Before we move onto our research round-up, we have two brief news items to catch up on. In the US, the American Ornithological Society (AOS) says that after a lengthy consultation process it is committed to changing all bird names within its jurisdiction that relate to a person to something more descriptive. The move also applies to any bird names containing offensive terms, such as that of the presumed extinct Eskimo curlew. To begin with, the AOS process will apply to birds that occur primarily in North America. Some of the people used in bird names in the past have links to slavery, crimes against indigenous peoples or have other exclusionary associations. The plan will affect species such as Anna’s hummingbird, Cooper’s hawk and Steller’s jay.

Anna's Hummingbird
The AOS plans to change the names of any North American birds named after people, such as Anna’s hummingbird, above

In the UK, meanwhile, the RSPB announced that they have removed entrance fees for all 16 – 24 years olds from reserves that charge entry. There are currently 21 RSPB reserves with entrance fees. Cost is one of the main barriers stopping young people from visiting nature reserves, so the aim is to help more youngsters access nature. This is not only essential if we are to engage future generations in combatting the climate and biodiversity crises, but it is also proven to help physical and mental well-being. The scheme will initially run for two years.

Research Round-up

Eight years of wildlife recording at a Bath City Farm have revealed how climate change is altering the species found in the UK. Of the 1,250 species recorded, 30 are either new to the area completely or are now found in winter where once they were only seen in summer. Rises in both summer and winter temperatures now make the site more hospitable than previously for a range of species including wasp spider, ivy bee and Jersey tiger moth. The wasp spider was first recorded in East Sussex in 1922 but until recently was confined to the south coast. It is now spreading further north as temperatures rise. A more recent arrival from the Continent is the ivy bee. It was first recorded in the UK in 2001 but is now widespread across much of the southern half of England.

Ivy bee environment news
Ivy bees arrived in the UK in 2001

A black guillemot, or tystie to Orcadian and Shetland folk, has broken the previous UK and Irish age record for the species, although admittedly by only a few months. Ringed as a chick in Orkney in July 1997, the bird wasn’t seen for the next 25 years. However, it was recaptured in May 2022 and is now the oldest known tystie recorded in Britain or Ireland at 24 years, 10 months and 15 days. The BTO has released last year’s other longevity records, all from ringing records. They include a 22-year-old redshank, a 13-year-old house sparrow and an incredible 31-year-old avocet. Despite increased use of technology, such as geolocators and satellite tagging, in avian research, bird ringing still provides researchers with valuable data about bird survival rates and movements over long periods of time.

Black guillemot
Ringed birds, like this Irish black guillemot, are useful for avian research

Finally, a visit to the Natural History Museum of Paris led Stuttgart’s Dr Lars Krogmann and his team of researchers to a new wasp family. Spotting a strange lump of amber with an unusual wasp embedded inside at the museum, subsequent studies revealed a much older lineage for chalcid, or jewel, wasps. Previously, the oldest specimen of this group of parasitic wasps dated from no more than 100 million years ago. The new discovery was nearly 130 million years old. The team then looked at a range of similar specimens, resulting in the naming of a new wasp family and 10 new species. The finds allow scientists to understand more about the evolution of early insects.