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Environment News Round-up: November 2022

EV Charging Sign

November’s biggest story was of course COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Against a backdrop of demands for loss and damage payments to countries suffering the worst effects of climate change and a U-turn from Rishi Sunak as to whether he would even attend, the outcome of the conference was a mixed bag. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro lost the presidential runoff to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Closer to home, Jeremy Hunt released the UK Government’s Autumn Statement. An independent panel is to look at ongoing crab and lobster die offs on Teesside. And despite past assurances that badger culls would be phased out in England, it was revealed this month that 11 new areas were added to the list of cull zones for 2022.

Cop-out at COP27?

Each year, signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) attend the UN’s climate conferences, or COPs. There were hopes that this year’s meeting in Egypt would see more concrete efforts by countries to limit warming to 1.5˚C. This year’s extreme weather events also led to increased calls to introduce loss and damage payments from rich countries to poorer ones. Floods, droughts and storms disproportionately affect poorer countries who contribute less to global warming than their richer counterparts. A sense of urgency to achieving progress on warming was heightened by news that Africa’s floods this year were made 80 times more likely by climate change. Even while COP27 was on, drought continued to ravage parts of east Africa, and the UK’s warmest Armistice Day ever was recorded.

Armistice Day
This year’s Armistice Day was the warmest on record in the UK

So, what was the outcome of the two-week conference? There was controversy from the start due to Egypt’s incarceration of political prisoners. In addition, despite the fact it is one of the world’s leading plastic polluters, there was anger that Coca-Cola was one of the events main sponsors. On the plus side, the meeting passed a historic agreement to compensate developing countries for loss and damage caused by climate disasters. However, many campaigners were disappointed that there was no commitment to phasing out fossil fuel use or reducing emissions. This was despite the fact emissions are still increasing. This was very much a COP meeting that aimed to deal with the effects of climate change, not halt its causes. For an in depth look at COP27’s outcomes, see this Carbon Brief round-up.

Seabank power station
There was no commitment to phasing out gas power stations at COP27

Lula Wins Brazilian Presidential Runoff

In Brazil’s presidential runoff at the tail end of October, Lula Inácio Lula da Silva, the veteran former president, narrowly won. As reported in last month’s news, the first round had been too close to call, with incumbent Jair Bolsonaro performing better than expected. Under Bolsonaro, levels of deforestation in the Amazon reached a 15-year high in 2021 in order to clear land for beef and soy production. ‘Lula’, in contrast, has long supported environmental protection of the region, as well as indigenous rights. Many see this as a huge win in the fight against climate change. In his speech at COP27, Lula pledged to fight for a complete cessation of deforestation and a reversal of his predecessor’s environmental destruction.

UK Chancellor Issues Autumn Statement

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, issued the Government’s Autumn Statement on the 17th of the month. While much of the focus was understandably on how this would or would not alleviate the current cost of living crisis, there were some environmental implications. One point was that from 2025, electric vehicles will no longer be exempt from paying vehicle excise duty. Although this was almost certainly inevitable at some point as more people switch to electric cars, there are some fears that this will disincentivise further take-up. However, the cost of running non-EVs is set to rise next year with a likely increase in fuel duty, which may balance the effect of removing the vehicle tax exemption.

Tesla badge
Electric cars, such as this Tesla, will not be exempt from vehicle duty from 2025

There was also disappointment from some quarters that the Statement reaffirmed a commitment to the construction of both HS2 and Sizewell C Nuclear Power Station. Both are controversial due to the environmental damage that many feel their construction will cause (or is already causing in the case of HS2). The Wildlife Trusts issued a statement of their own expressing their dismay at the chancellor’s support for both projects. They also criticised the lack of any funding for energy efficiency measures until at least 2025.

Badger Cull Areas Extended

Boris Johnson backed the cessation of badger culls while he was Prime Minister, instead supporting the use of vaccinations to fight bovine TB. However, this month it was revealed that 11 new areas have been added to those already granted cull licences for 2022. Dated in August, this means culling is likely already being carried out. Some counties are seeing culls for the first time.

Cow
Conservationists would like to see a bovine TB vaccine developed for livestock

The Wildlife Trusts spoke out against the plans to cull up to 68,000 animals this year, saying culls are ineffective at stopping the spread of the disease. Increased testing and vaccination of badgers, along with better biosecurity measures on farms and research into a vaccine for cattle are their preferred options and likely to be much more effective. Earlier this year, a paper published in the Veterinary Record found no evidence for the culls being effective.

Independent Panel to Investigate Crustacean Die-offs in North-east

The Government has confirmed that it is setting up an independent panel to investigate a series of crab and lobster die-offs in the north-east of England. The first big event occurred in October 2021, with large amounts of dead and dying crustaceans washed up on coasts around Teesside. Smaller events followed and there have been reports of starving seals as a result of the loss of an important food source. Local fishing businesses have been hugely impacted, with catches down at least a tenth along the coast as far north as Scarborough.

Crab shell
There have been large die-offs of crustaceans in the north-east of England over the last year

Initial investigations by Defra stated that algal blooms were to blame, but locals are convinced nearby dredging as part of the construction of a freeport on Teesside is the cause. The North East Fishing Collective commissioned an independent scientist early this year who found the chemical pollutant pyridine in the region. Dredging of contaminated sediment could be responsible for redistributing it in coastal waters. The new panel will investigate any links between dredging and the die-offs, but locals are unhappy that in the meantime, dredging is continuing.

Research Round-up

There were some worrying study results published this month, with two centring on how human behaviour is adversely affecting wildlife. The University of Bristol published a study that shows how chemical fertilisers or pesticides can deter pollinators from visiting them. Scientists found that the chemicals caused changes to the electrical fields around plants which insects then detected. They were less likely to visit these flowers. This can have implications both for the survival of both the plants, which may lose out on pollination, and the pollinators, who may have to increase their foraging time.

Chemical exposure was also central to research on migrating birds published this month. Carried out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the study found that birds attracted to artificial light while on migration were consequently drawn into areas where they were exposed to higher concentrations of airborne chemicals. Zones with higher light pollution also have higher levels of toxic chemicals. Migrating birds already have to deal with multiple threats, from loss of stopover sites to building collisions, and this is another, until now unforeseen, hazard.

Yellow-rumped warbler November news
Migrating birds like this yellow-rumped warbler are attracted to lights, leading them to more polluted areas

Finally, charity Thames21 revealed this month that their volunteers have picked up approximately 64,000 wet wipes from just a few small sections of the Thames foreshore over a five year period. Most of these wipes contain plastic and are washed into the Thames after being flushed down the loo. Eventually, they break down into microplastics which enter aquatic ecosystems, potentially affecting countless organisms. In one shocking snapshot, volunteers recently counted over 2,000 wipes in a section of foreshore near the Hammersmith Bridge.