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Environment News Round-up September 2023

Environment news round-up Sycamore gap

From an environment news point of view, September was an extremely busy month. The biggest stories arguably centred on a series of announcements from the UK Government. These included granting consents for the Rosebank oil and gas field off the Scottish coast. Rishi Sunak also revealed his government would be weakening some of their net zero policies. Meanwhile Defra has delayed the implementation of biodiversity net gain requirements until at least January 2024. At the end of the month, the latest State of Nature report was released, a comprehensive health check of the nation’s wildlife and habitats. This month’s environment news round-up also includes details of the latest extreme weather events and high temperatures affecting large parts of the globe.

Rosebank Oil and Gas Field Gets the Go Ahead

The biggest news this month came towards the end of the month as regulators approved drilling for gas and oil in the Rosebank field. This previously undeveloped field is approximately 80 miles north-west of Shetland. The two owning companies, Norwegian firm Equinor and British company Ithaca Energy, believe it could contain as much as 300 million barrels of oil. Those supporting the move, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, claim the field bolsters the UK’s energy security. Supporters of the project say it will also create jobs and provide large tax revenues. In contrast, US President Biden cancelled seven oil and gas licences sold near the end of Donald Trump’s time in office. These were for development in Alaska’s Arctic national wildlife refuge.

Environment news round-up Cromarty Firth
Rishi Sunak says the UK should take ‘every last drop’ of oil from the North Sea

The Rosebank announcement met with severe criticism. Environmentalists say that giving the green light to Rosebank shows the UK is not interested in helping to combat the climate crisis due to its carbon emissions. It will also delay investment in sustainable energy production by concentrating infrastructure and materials in fossil fuel extraction instead. Offshore windfarm development had already been hit by lack of support from government earlier in the month. Critics say Rosebank will also contribute little to the country’s energy security as we will be competing for the resulting oil and gas on the open market. There was anger, as well, over the fact Equinor will receive significant tax breaks to help them fund development. Protesters picketed the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s London offices as the month ended to show their opposition. There are also likely to be legal challenges to the licence. Meanwhile, Labour said it would grant no new licences if it came to power but not revoke Rosebank.

Net Zero Policies Weakened

The Rosebank announcement wasn’t the first climate related climb down from Westminster this month. A few days before, the prime minster announced delaying the implementation of policies aimed at getting the UK to net zero by 2050. Although Rishi Sunak claimed he was still committed to 2050, he said he felt many of the policies passed on unacceptable costs to the general public. Previously, there was due to be a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. This has been pushed back to 2035. A phase out of all gas boiler installations by 2035 has been amended to an 80% one by that date. In addition, a move to fine landlords for not making their properties more energy efficient with insulation has been dropped completely.

Environment news round-up EV Charging Sign
Sunak’s net zero policy weakening included rules on electric vehicle sales

There was a backlash from environmentalists and climate campaigners following the announcement. As with Rosebank, critics say it shows the lack of commitment to combatting climate change from the government. They also point out that the moves won’t ultimately save households money and may even cost them more as it ties them into volatile fossil fuel prices for longer. Many feel the announcement was simply an attempt to capitalise on what was seen as a protest vote against London’s expanded ultra-low emission zone in July’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip byelection. Despite Sunak’s plans, a separate mandate on car dealers to have 80% of their sales electric cars by 2030 or face fines means the majority of cars will be electric by then anyway.

Biodiversity Net Gain Requirements Delayed

The UK Government also delayed implementation of another environmental policy this month. Requirements for developers to ensure a minimum of 10% Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) on a project were due to come into effect this November. However, as September drew to a close, Defra announced that the requirements would not now be implemented until January 2024. They will, though, be publishing various guidelines, including the statutory biodiversity metric, in November. These are also overdue. The department says that developers can use the additional two months to familiarise themselves with the guidelines.

Environment news round-up Detention basin
The inclusion of sustainable drainage systems can boost a development’s biodiversity

The response to this delay was mixed. The Royal Town Planning Institute, an international body representing thousands of planners, welcomed the delay. It says its research shows a large proportion of planners were not ready for a November launch, and many did not have staff in place to provide expertise on implementing and enforcing rules. The body wants the government to engage fully to resolve this issue. The Wildlife Trusts also welcomed the delay if it means getting implementation right. They stress that there need to be sufficient guidelines for developers, as well as effective policing of BNG implementation for it to work for nature. There is also concern that plans to weaken environmental rules for developers in other areas, such as the recently defeated move to axe nutrient neutrality requirements, undermine BNG.

Extreme Weather and Climate Round-up

Extreme weather events continued to affect large parts of the globe during September. Early in the month, after months of wildfires, Greece suffered devastating floods. Spain, Bulgaria and Turkey were also hit. Worse was to come, however, as the same low-pressure system intensified as Storm Daniel, causing severe flooding in Libya. Two major dams collapsed, releasing vast amounts of water. At least 4,000 were confirmed dead and over 30,000 were displaced. Climate scientists say that as our seas warm, storms will become more intense. This in turn will lead to more tragedies such as in Libya. Elsewhere, heatwaves affected multiple regions, including Australia and parts of the US. The United Nations confirmed that 2023 was the Northern Hemisphere’s hottest summer on record.

Despite continuing extreme weather events and their link to climate change, there was discord over fossil fuel use at the first Africa Climate Summit held in Nairobi, Kenya in early September. Some African nations, including Ethiopia and Kenya, have begun to transition to renewable energy sources, in particular solar. Others, such as Nigeria and Senegal, want to continue to use their oil reserves to finance growth. There was agreement, however, that developed countries need to invest and restructure debts if African nations are to decarbonise. Attendees also pointed out that many African countries are and will continue to be disproportionately affected by the negative effects of climate change.

Iceland Ends Temporary Whaling Ban

There was international condemnation as Iceland reversed a temporary ban on whaling. The suspension, as covered in our June round-up, was imposed when a government report found the practice contravened the country’s Animal Welfare Act. Conservationists hoped the move would lead to a permanent end to whaling in Iceland. However, the government said the delayed annual fin whale hunt could go ahead with stricter monitoring and tighter regulations. Campaigners dismissed the claims this year’s hunt would be more humane and cause less suffering to whales. They also poured scorn on whaling firm Hvalur hf’s claims that hunting whales fights climate change. The firm said that whales exhale enormous amounts of CO2 and cause algal blooms. This claim was rejected as nonsense by ocean scientists.

fin whale
The Icelandic hunt targets fin whales like this one

The truncated season was over by October 1st with 25 fin whales dying. One of these was lost at sea and one was a calf removed from its killed mother’s womb. Campaigners still hope that public opposition and a shrinking market for whale meat mean this will be the country’s last ever whale hunt.

Sycamore Gap Tree Felled

The month ended with news that the much-photographed sycamore tree on Hadrian’s Wall, known as Sycamore Gap, had been felled. The tree, which has featured in films including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was probably 300 years old. Some believe it may still be able to regrow, but many deplored the act of vandalism. At time of writing, a teenage boy and a man in his 60s had both been arrested then bailed pending further inquiries. Theories quickly began to swirl as to motive, with one belief being it was a protest against the National Trust who own the land. The felling also started a debate on tree-felling in general. Some conservationists pointed out that while it was sad to lose such a famous tree, we must do more to stop developers cutting down much bigger areas of woodland. Many also feel that the act symbolises just how disconnected from nature many people are.

Sycamore Gap environment news round-up
The tree at Sycamore gap was a famous landmark on Hadrian’s Wall

Research Round-up

September saw the publication of the latest State of Nature report. This health check of our wildlife and habitats was last carried out in 2019. The report is compiled by a partnership of conservation organisations, government agencies and academics. The latest report made for sobering reading. It confirms that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet, with continuing declines across all wildlife groups, from birds to insects and mammals to fungi. Nearly 1 in 6, or 16% of species in Great Britain are threatened with extinction. And in the last 50 years, more than half of our plant species have vanished from places they once thrived. Perhaps most worrying is the fact that amongst insects, those that perform vital pollination or pest-control functions have seen the biggest declines.

Marmalade hoverfly
Hoverflies, along with bees and moths, have declined by 18% on average

This news came at the same time as it was revealed that the government has failed to ban 36 pesticides since leaving the EU that are now banned by that body. Thirteen of these are classed as highly hazardous by the UN, and at least four are extremely toxic to bees.

Meanwhile, Butterfly Conservation also released the results of its annual Big Butterfly Count this month. This annual citizen science event asks members of the public to record their butterfly sightings and help assess the state of their populations here in the UK. This year’s survey produced surprisingly optimistic results with more butterflies recorded than over the last four events. Average number of individual butterflies seen per count was up to 12 from a low of just 9 in 2022. Red admiral was the most recorded species. The charity is still concerned about long-term trends, however. Results over the 13 years of the survey have revealed big decreases in even some of our commoner butterfly species’ populations.

Red admiral environment news round-up
Red admirals were the most recorded species on this year’s Big Butterfly Count

Finally, a study by the universities of Exeter and Bristol has looked at cooperation in jackdaws. These clever corvids mate for life, and researchers wanted to find out whether birds change their behaviour to get better access to food. Their experiments showed that jackdaws are quite happy to ditch old friends if it means accessing food, but they will not do so to their siblings, mate or offspring. This shows that jackdaws are extremely loyal to close relatives but are open to changing other types of social connections.

Jackdaws
Jackdaw families stick together