I sense a shift in momentum in how political leaders are addressing the nature and climate emergency.  A raft of climate advice and strategies emerged last week from the Committee on Climate Change  and the UK Government.  Our team has spent some time scrutinising what they all mean.  We are particularly interested in the role of nature in helping deliver ambition in climate change mitigation and adaptation and, of course, the potential impacts any proposals could have on wildlife.   

Our team has been working hard to influence the outcomes of these documents and their headline assessment is that that the announcements last week are heading in the right direction.  Below, I outline the team’s detailed assessment of the proposals.

First, let’s look at the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations for climate action in the 2030s – it’s Sixth Carbon Budget.  

In terms of a blue-print for climate ambition, the Committee have done a tremendous job in producing 1000 pages of evidence, analysis and recommendations for a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050.   Was it good enough?

The RSPB supports net zero by 2045 at the latest with an ambitious role for nature and, of course, the Committee could only offer advice on the UK Government’s legal target of net zero by 2050. While there are elements that we would like to see strengthened, which I’ll expand on a little below, it was nevertheless a world-leading effort.  It was particularly important that it stated the costs of taking the right steps to decarbonisation are relatively minimal, indeed in some scenarios even cost-neutral.  

Last Friday, I welcomed the Committee’s focus on the need to protect and restore our upland peat soils and ban rotational burning (as will now happen in Scotland). The Committee also underlined the need for enhanced action on lowland peat soils that are under agricultural production. While this is also to be welcomed even greater ambition is needed and Defra’s new Lowland Peatland Task Force needs to go further and faster in stimulating action to reduce emissions from the land in the lowlands.  

It was also refreshing to read the Committee’s recommendation that tree planting should ensure “the right tree in the right place” - the mantra of conservation organisations over the last decade following the tree planting scandals of the past.  It was good to see recognition of a greater role for native broadleaved species.  With very high tree planting rates as set out in the report, however, we need reassurance that these will be matched by policies that deliver for wildlife and the climate and that the critical “right place” part of the mantra is heeded.   Our evidence shows that tree planting on existing important wildlife or carbon-rich sites such as peatlands or biodiverse permanent grasslands will have both negative ecological and climate consequences. It is why we have been so opposed to the Forestry Commission consenting tree planting on the peatlands at Berrier End in Cumbria.  The same rules apply to trees in the wider landscape whether as part of new/extended hedgerows or agroforestry schemes and as governments develop new incentives to land managers now we have left the EU, these must not prioritise carbon at the expense of nature when there are clear wins to be had for both. 

This brings me to the proposed very high levels of planting for energy crops in the Committees report where more caution is certainly needed. We know that over the past decades, the increased demand for biofuel and bioenergy from crops and forests has driven competition with food production and nature conservation, resulting in direct and indirect land use changes which can increase greenhouse gas emissions and the degradation of natural carbon sinks and wildlife. Although the Committee’s intention is that these crops should be planted on land freed up from other land use changes, a lack of strategic planning in the land sector means that this can’t therefore be guaranteed.   

As ever, it’s as much about how we implement strategies to ensure that they deliver for people, nature and climate. As such, I was delighted that for the first time the Committee including wildlife concerns among the constraints and barriers to the expansion of offshore wind. This is a hugely positive step by the Committee in light of the challenges cumulative impacts on our globally important seabirds (kittiwakes for example are already projected to lose 21% of its population as a result of the impact from existing built or consented offshore windfarms).  It is why we are pleased to be members of the new Crown Estate led Offshore Wind Evidence and Change programme which we hope will find a way to reconcile competing needs of seabirds and renewable energy. 

Second, the Government has also launched its international commitments for climate mitigation and adaptation action.

Its mitigation actions were set out in the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution. The NDC commits the UK to reducing GHG emissions by at least 68% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.  This new target that the UK makes independently of its EU peers for the first time is consistent with the CCC’s advice and shows credible leadership from ahead of the UN Climate Talks that the UK will host in Glasgow next year. It shows real ambition but now needs to be backed up by action.

The NDC makes a welcome reference to the UK’s commitments on nature and biodiversity under other conventions, including the CBD and Ramsar Convention, as well as the commitments made in the Leaders Pledge for Nature. It also acknowledges that fulfilling its responsibilities under these will contribute to mitigation and adaptation outcomes. However, the NDC falls short of setting out any actions in the land sector that could deliver these benefits along the lines set out in our report, the Role of Nature in a UK NDC. While we are therefore disappointed that the potential for natural ecosystems is not adequately reflected in this document, we will be working hard with Government to ensure that domestic policy realises this ambition, even if this framing document under the UN climate process does not. 

Third and finally, the UK’s Adaptation Communication was launched at the Ambition Summit alongside the NDC.

The RSPB has long worked on adaptation policy: while it is vital that we mitigate dangerous climate change, we know that a certain amount of warming is locked in and that nature has a critical role to play in helping us adapt to the changing climate that we can expect. Ahead of the Adaptation Communication launch, we worked with WWF and the Nature-based Solutions Initiative at Oxford University to publish our own report on the role for nature in UK adaptation policy. As we reviewed the Adaptation Communication itself, we were gratified to see that nature-based solutions feature prominently, including a case study of a partnership that includes RSPB, on blanket bog restoration. We will use this report and our existing adaptation policy platform to raise the profile of nature’s role in helping deliver adaptation in our international commitments as well as in the domestic context.   

So, last week was a big week and I believe generates important momentum. The challenge is now for the governments across the UK to put in place the policies and funding to translate ambition into tangible action to tackle the nature and climate emergency in an integrated way.  

*image of blanket bog and heather moorland at RSPB Vyrnwy is courtesy of Nicholas Rodd (rspb-images.com)

  • So what should we be doing ? I'd suggest    1. new woodland should 'come down the hill' onto improved land. unimproved upland - including peatlands - are actually lousy for trees. the last thing we need are more plantations that blow over. Look at traditional estates from the 19th C and some of the earlier Fc plantings - superb trees integrated with the farmed landscape 2. The elephant in the room is neglected woodland - most of it broadleaved, 500,000 hectares in England which could if properly managed reverse the decline in woodland birds without planting a single tree. 3. get behind the Natural Capital Committee's 250,000 hectares of new woods around our towns and cities - is covid confinement hasn't made the case nothing will. And, finally we should move the 'wrong' planting, like the bogs RSPB is de-foresting in the Flow Country, and put it down where it is needed - next to where we live, for example.  We need multi-purpose, multi value landscapes but if we don't get this sorted we'll end up with the alternative - harsh, single purpose energy crops no different in intensity and value to birds than the most intensive arable farming

  • So what should we be doing ?

  • Sorry, accidentally sent the first part of the comment

  • The RSPB really needs to say what it thinks the right tree in the right place is. If you can't go beyond conifer vs broadleaf you aren't even on the pitch. You've got the big negative issue: should we be planting any semi-natural unimproved land ? We certainly shouldn't be planting anything with existing wildlife or carbon value - planting up that 'rough corner' is the last thing to do - it may be the last natural place on the farm.