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Tackling the real crisis

In a week dominated by the growing global financial crisis, a couple of potential tipping points in

Such has been the media furore over the return to Cabinet of Peter Mandelson that it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that, once the dust settles, the return of new Labour’s prodigal son may be overshadowed by a mere reorganisation of Whitehall departments.

Yet while stories about how Peter patched it up with Gordon and what Tony thought about it dominated last weekend’s newspapers, it is the absence of energy policy from Mr Mandelson’s returned ministerial red box that has the potential to really make waves.

The fact is that successive Secretaries of State at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (and before that the Department of Trade and Industry) have failed to deliver their part of the Government’s promises to tackle global warming. They have often buckled in the face of the energy industry and business leaders, including elements within the Confederation of British Industry. With the fear-mongering line that 'the lights might go out, they push their own vested interests and ignore the needs of millions of poor people across the globe who will be the first victims of climate change, not to mention the citizens of this country.

The current situation in Haiti, where a combination of hurricanes and high food process have left hundreds of thousands of people hungry show the effects of climate change are already being felt by the poorest.

Ed Miliband, the first-ever Cabinet minister for energy and climate change, now has the chance to demonstrate how the Prime Minister’s promise at Labour's conference of “fairness at home, fairness in the world” can be turned from rhetoric into reality.

There can be no doubting the pressing need for change. In a week dominated by the growing global financial crisis, a couple of potential tipping points in the climate change debate have passed almost unnoticed.

On Tuesday, the committee charged by the UK government to examine climate change backed scientists’ call for an 80 per cent reduction in UK emissions by 2050. This was followed by a vote of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee to limit the emissions of new power plants, among other measures.

As Sir Nicholas Stern demonstrated so powerfully two years ago, the potential economic damage of climate change dwarfs even that of the current financial crisis. Yet UK government departments and corporations remain schizophrenic in their reaction to climate change. Oxfam’s report, The forecast for tomorrow reveals a country deeply divided between those who recognise the need for action and those who would rather pretend we can carry on with business as usual.

While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Greater London Authority and the Scottish Government, are all pursuing ambitious policies on climate change, BERR's approach to energy policy before the reshuffle is highlighted as one of the six organisations whose policies undermine the UK commitment to tackle the issue.

Faced with a potential reduction of electricity generation capacity of about 20 gigawatts by 2020, the department has appeared ready to ignore more than 30GW of renewable and gas-powered generating capacity under consideration or in development and plump for coal, without clear assurances of the potential for the as yet, largely untested technology for carbon capture and storage. A more recent change of heart by BERR on renewables should instead show the way forward.

The first litmus test of whether the Government’s reshuffle marks a sea-change in their approach to climate change or merely a rearrangement of chairs on the deck of a sinking ship will be the decision on plans by E.ON, proud sponsors of the FA Cup, to build the first new coal-fired power plant since a 23-year-old, bubble-permed Kevin Keegan scored a brace to help Liverpool to defeat Newcastle in the 1974 final.

Kingsnorth would have a dramatic and devastating effect on Britain’s carbon footprint; its annual CO2 emissions will be 7 million tonnes – more than the combined output of 30 developing countries. It would smash the EU’s proposed emissions limits. Kingsnorth and other coal-fired stations cannot be allowed to go ahead if the UK is to even come close to making the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 demanded by the Government’s own experts this week.

Meanwhile, European governments, including the UK, will decide in the next few weeks whether or not to water down ambitious plans for tackling climate change and promoting renewable energy, voted through by the European Parliament this week.

These decisions will have a far-reaching impact beyond the levels of greenhouse gases emitted. Striking a deal at the international climate change negotiations this year in Poland and next year in Copenhagen, will require strong, demonstrable leadership from European governments that claim they are committed to playing their part in reducing emissions, if countries like China and the USA are to come on board. Britain and Europe cannot expect to take the lead at December’s critical negotiations in Poznan unless we can show that we are prepared to take tough choices and practice what we preach.

There is however hope for change. Despite the laggards like E.ON, Oxfam's report shows that we are also home to some of the world’s best, most inspiring progress in tackling climate change. National institutions such as Marks and Spencer, British Telecom and even the National Grid have led the way in taking concrete action to reduce emissions.

Gordon Brown showed the most political courage in his reshuffle, not in the way many have suggested by springing the surprise of returning Mr Mandelson to Cabinet, but in bringing energy and climate together under one roof.

Now he, and Ed Miliband must show even greater courage to swim against the tide of interests who would water down our commitment to reducing emissions at home and in Europe, and by doing so fuel the growth of a much greater and more damaging threat than the current financial crisis.

Phil Bloomer, Oxfam Campaigns and Policy Director

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue