Mel Coath reflects on the Committee on Climate Change’s Covid challenge to Government

Today the CCC has thrown down a gauntlet to Government. We have a choice: we can respond to the Covid pandemic by investing in a cleaner, greener and nature-rich recovery, or we miss this opportunity and risk an uncertain future. Here we reflect on the big picture conclusions of the CCC, issue the RSPB’s top three challenges to Government off the back of their findings, and highlight some key wider implications of the report.

The big picture

The overarching conclusions of the report are clear: we are not on track to meeting our net zero targets and were not even before the Covid crisis hit. We therefore urgently need to sustain our commitment to net zero as we seek to “build back better” as well as to integrate adaptation to climate change across all Government policy. These measures are critical if we are to have a chance of mitigating the climate crisis, to avoid damaging impacts and to ensure the best for people and nature in our changing weather and climate.

We are also facing an ecological crisis of equal magnitude and as such, we fully support the CCC’s call for investing in nature as one of 5 key priorities.  We know that measures such as increasing tree cover, and peatland restoration have significant benefits for the climate and biodiversity alongside air and soil quality, and flood prevention. 

To meet our climate goals, the CCC identifies that action from all nations in the UK is necessary so the UK government will need to ensure sufficient funding flows to the devolved administrations to enable them to contribute to meeting the UK’s overall climate targets. But action at home is not enough – as COP26 host, the CCC rightly highlights that we must also strengthen the UK’s commitments under the Paris Agreement to demonstrate global leadership and to leverage this to ensure maximum ambition on climate change action internationally.

 RSPB top three challenges to Government

We have identified three clear immediate investment or policy changes the Government could implement to deliver on the CCC’s recommendations and show true leadership in addressing the climate and ecological crises:

  1. Set up a new National Nature Service

The CCC identifies that investing in job creation in low-carbon and climate-smart industries and training and reskilling of the workforce will be needed.

The RSPB and partners call on Government to establish a new National Nature Service. This is a ground-breaking new employment and training programme. It embraces the public’s enthusiasm for restoring nature and our environment while responding to the urgent need to prevent large-scale unemployment. Employment and training opportunities can be created in a wide range of environmental activities: native tree-planting and nurseries, creation and enhancement of local green spaces, invasive species control, supporting local farming and restoring nature in key areas. This will boost employment and skills development, particularly for young and disadvantaged groups, fast-track ecosystem restoration, help to tackle climate change and improve access to a high-quality environment for everyone.

  1. Strengthen key laws

The CCC highlights that the Environment and Agriculture Bills must be strengthened if we are not to miss the opportunity to reform agricultural support and achieve transformational land use change. It also underlines that UK trade policy and future trade deals must avoid undermining the required changes to reach Net Zero in the UK.

The RSPB is calling for robust Environment and Agriculture legislation across the UK that promotes transformational land-use change for nature and climate. We particularly welcome the CCC’s recommendation for a ‘strong regulatory baseline’; such a baseline is completely absent from the Westminster Agriculture Bill at present.  In tandem, we call on the UK Government take into account the CCC recommendations on trade, and to put into law safeguards that prevent food and other products being imported into the UK that are produced in ways that would be illegal in the UK, and thereby undermine our environment and climate goals.

  1. Preserve our peat!

The CCC highlights the need for large scale peatland restoration and an end to the extraction of peat and rotational burning.

The RSPB is calling on the UK Government to bring an immediate end to the extraction of peat and burning of our upland bogs and to invest in a major peatland restoration programme, working with devolved administrations. These measures would make a significant and immediate contribution to our fight against climate change and increase the resilience of these habitats and the benefits they provide, such as water quality and carbon storage, for people and wildlife. The CCC highlights that the UK’s peatlands store an estimated 3 billion tonnes of carbon, with England’s peatlands storing an estimated 500 thousand tonnes of carbon.  However, much of England’s blanket bog is now severely degraded as a result of draining, grazing and burning for farming and grouse shooting, devastating large areas. Instead of helping absorb and lock in carbon from the air, these bogs are releasing 350,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, with three quarters of this resulting from burning. This is equivalent to the emissions of 140,000 cars per year. In Northern Ireland, the situation is even worse: only 14% of Northern Ireland’s peatlands are currently intact (either undrained or uncut). The planned inclusion of emissions from degraded peatland in the UK emissions inventory could add around 9% to NI’s total emissions and turn the land sector into a net emitter UK wide.

The internationally important golden plover relies on wet peat bog habitat    Andy Hay / RSPB Images

Other key areas

Of course in such a far-reaching report from the CCC, there is much that cuts across the RSPB work. Here I reflect on the wider implications of the report for key RSPB priorities in the Covid recovery.

New infrastructure in harmony with nature

The CCC recognises the importance of natural capital and highlights the significance of setting clear direction and investable policy for a low carbon energy transition. As such, we are calling on the UK to transition to low carbon energy in harmony with nature, averting the threats which unchecked infrastructure deployment put on our wildlife and special places. The role of renewables in tackling climate change is undeniable, however without significant changes to how these technologies are planned, it is likely that conflict with nature will increase, particularly in relation to offshore wind which is predicted to have long-term impacts on our breeding seabirds. Government must align its energy and environmental objectives to ensure a strategic approach to ambitious infrastructure developments on land and sea alongside thriving nature. On land, the RSPB’s maps of high carbon, high nature areas highlight that two-thirds of our precious places for wildlife and climate change mitigation are not protected; robust protection measures in the Environment Bill need to secure their protection and new infrastructure proposals must avoid these areas so that the short-term Covid recovery objectives do no undermine goals to stem the climate and nature crisis. Finally, energy efficiency and reductions in demand have a vital role to play in the shift from fossil fuels and provide significant opportunity for employment and training opportunities – we are pleased to see a series of strong recommendations to deliver on this in the CCC’s report. Water efficiency improvements will also help limit damaging infrastructure proposals.

Growing and using trees

The CCC recommends increasing tree planting rates and the RSPB recognises the need for further action to incentivise expanding woodland and tree cover. However, RSPB commissioned research underlines that biodiversity rich native woodlands hold the greatest key to long-term climate and biodiversity protection. We are concerned that the recommended auction mechanism risks placing too much emphasis on commercial returns and could lead to a proliferation of plantation forestry which offers limited benefits to or even harms biodiversity, instead of the nature-rich places society needs. Burning wood for bioenergy can also lead to damaging outcomes for climate and nature so we welcome the CCC’s recommendation for a cross-departmental Bioenergy Strategy. To address the most significant impacts from bioenergy this must look in detail at global accounting rules that allow bioenergy emissions to go unaccounted alongside wider environmental and sustainability issues.

A role for water

The CCC has recognised the integral role of water as part of adapting to climate change and creating a resilient future for nature and people. In particular, we are pleased to see the call for Government to improve the 25-year Environment Plan restoration targets for terrestrial and freshwater habitats to include all priority sites and the increased ambition through setting targets for reducing the water demand and reducing leakage, which leaves more water in the environment. We would also like to see Government and the CCC recommending an increased role of nature-based solutions to address flooding and coastal erosion risk.

Adapting to a warming world

The UK’s approach to adaptation to climate change bears a striking resemblance to our approach to the situation we were in before the pandemic hit: we knew what would inevitably come, but we hadn’t prepared for it. It is therefore welcome to see the CCC recommending that adaptation should be integrated across all government policy: adaptation must be absolutely embedded - both across nature conservation and all of our society’s activities. We are particularly pleased to see the CCC’s proposal to include ambitious flood policy to counter increased impacts, alongside recommendations to ensure that adaptation measures are rewarded under the new Environmental Land Management scheme in England (and similar schemes in the other UK countries) are integrated properly into the 25YEP, Fisheries Bill and Environment Bill.  The Met Office’s UKCP18 climate change projections provide a robust evidence base for understanding impacts and vulnerabilities.  However, we should move on from the CCC’s notion of resilience, or being strong against climate change, to realise the realities and opportunities of climate change – as the CCC says, to have better lives – for people and for nature.

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