Friday, 24 July 2009

Dragonflies in danger of extinction seek sanctuary at new rescue centre

Pollution, pesticides and habitat loss bring dragonflies close to the brink after 325m years
Adam Vaughan, Saturday 25 July 2009 00.06 BST
Dragonflies may have hovered and hunted across the planet for the last 325m years, but their modern relatives are staring extinction in the face. Experts warn that one-third of British species are now under threat, a plight that today sees the opening of the UK's first ever dragonfly centre to celebrate and protect one of the country's most fascinating insects.
Located at Wicken Fen nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, the new centre hopes to reverse the decline of the 42 species found regularly in the UK. Conservationists blame the decline on the loss of wetlands, and pesticides and insecticides drifting from farmland.
Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who opened the centre today, said: "The loss of wetland habitat throughout the UK is having a massive impact on the long-term survival prospects for many dragonfly species." He warned that three British species have already become extinct since the 1960s.
Dragonflies spend much of their lives underwater as larva "nymphs", and when the winged adult finally emerges its flying lifetime is comparatively short, ranging from just weeks for small species to a few years for the largest. They are a key indicator of water quality and a valuable natural predator of mosquitoes and midges.
Some British species are faring worse than others. White-faced darters have seen a signifcant loss and drying out of the bog pools where they live, while the Norfolk hawker's limited distribution - mostly in the Norfolk Broads - has left it vulnerable to sea level rises and salt water infiltration.
As well as pressure from the historic loss of East Anglian fens, many of which have been drained and converted to farmland, British dragonflies and their prey are at risk from insecticides and pesticides. Vicky Kindemba, freshwater officer at conservation charity Buglife, said: "Different chemicals affect invertebates differently, but one we know about is permethrin - used to treat wood and animals to remove fleas and woodworm - which can affect dragonflies when it finds its way into the water course." Chemicals reaching rivers and streams from agricultural run-off can disrupt dragonfly breeding patterns - reducing the number of eggs, for example.
There are signs that increasingly conservation-conscious farmers are aware of the problem. David Felce, who runs Midloe Grange Farm near the site of the new dragonfly centre, said: "We have several types of dragonfly on the farm, including blue emperors and brown hawkers, which we've protected by building grass buffer zones near our seven ponds and water courses. As well as acting as a failsafe to keep insecticides away from dragonflies and other insects, the grass is a habitat for wildlife in its own right."
Dragonflies are doing better this year compared to 2008, according to anecdotal evidence from naturalists at the British Dragonfly Society. "We think it's due to the sustained wet weather during late spring and early summer last year," said Katharine Parkes, a spokesperson for the society. "This year, although we've still had wet weather, it's been showery rather than sustained, and dragonflies are very good at making the most of sunny intervals."
However, long-term records are required to establish an accurate picture of dragonfly health, and the data collected by naturalists from 1986 to 2005 shows a third of British species are now classified as endangered, vulnerable or near-threatened under official Red List criteria.
Wicken Fen, where the dragonfly centre opened today, is one of the few bright spots for dragonflies and home to 21 of Britain's species. Stuart Warrington, the National Trust's Nature Conservation Advisor for the East of England, said: "Dragonflies symbolise the importance of Wicken Fen and our ambitious project to create a 22 square mile nature reserve. Work to develop good quality habitats for dragonflies, such as clean ditches and ponds, has led to successful breeding of all the species found at Wicken and on the land surrounding the fen."
The new centre, staffed by volunteers, will give visitors access to educational displays, advanced courses on species identification and guided "safaris" to see the fen's darting inhabitants, from the emperor dragonfly to the hairy dragonfly.
Dragonflies: fast facts
• The dragonfly family has more species than any other mammal
• The wings of a dragonfly beat at up to 35 times a second
• The insects can fly forwards and backwards at up to 18mph
• The eyes of a dragonfly cover a field of vision close to 360°
• The largest species have been known to fly across the Atlantic Ocean
• Dragonflies don't sting humans

Greenwash: easyJet's carbon claims written on the wind

EasyJet says its flights have a smaller carbon footprint than a Toyota Prius hybrid car. Let's do the maths…
Fred Pearce, Thursday 23 July 2009 08.00 BST
You probably weren't watching BBC3 at 4am on Monday morning. Not if you had a job to go to in the morning, anyhow. So you probably missed a nice little programme called Britain's Embarrassing Emissions.
It door-stepped the budget airline easyJet about claims on the company's website that it is greener than a hybrid car. Or, more particularly, that its emissions were less than those of a Toyota Prius. It's greenwash, of course. As, I discovered, are several of its other environmental claims.
The crux of the matter is the company's website, which highlights a graph showing that its emissions "based on one person" are 95.7g/km, whereas those for a Prius are 104g/km. As the programme pointed out, this is not comparing like with like. EasyJet doesn't say so, but its "typical comparison" is very atypical. It assumes that the plane is full and its emissions are shared out among all the passengers, while the Prius is presumed to have only one occupant.
EasyJet may succeed in its aim of completely filling up every flight (though it is not true in my experience). But all British official stats on car emissions reckon on an average of 1.6 passengers in a car. Eastjet presumably didn't follow this convention, because it would show even a full easyJet flight emitting 47% more per passenger-kilometre than an averagely full Prius. And of course a full easyJet flight would emit close to for four times as much per passenger as a full Prius carrying four people.
In the programme, which I'm guessing was filmed recently, the hapless easyJet spokesman appeared to promise to try and get the website changed to reflect reality. Not so far, it hasn't. The greenwash persists. And if the claims are repeated in any of easyJet's advertising perhaps someone fancies contacting the Advertising Standards Authority...
But the environment pages of easyJet's site contain other slippery claims. They repeatedly proclaim that "aviation's carbon dioxide emissions... only account for 1.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions", citing as the source Lord Stern's famous review of the economics of climate change. But the company ignores the next sentence in Stern's text, which says that "the impact of aviation on climate change is greater than these figures suggest because of other gases released by aircraft... for example water vapour". These emissions roughly double the effect, says Stern. So make that 3.2%.
Oddly enough, easyJet's seems seems not to trust its headline claims. Its own report on corporate and social responsibility quotes a figure of 3.5% contained in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1999.
In any event, both Stern and the IPCC report are out of date. Stern's data come from someone else's report in 2005, which in turn cites data for 2002. Since when global aircraft emissions have grown by about 40%. And IPCC scientists now quote a figure for aviation's contribution to global warming of almost 5%.
Whatever aviation's true contribution to global warming, it is not 1.6%.
What else does easyJet offer to reassure its growing number of passengers that it is green to fly? Naturally, since it doesn't fly to the US, the company flags up how flying to Europe is better. So it says in big letters: "Flying from London to Nice produces 10 times fewer CO2 emissions than flying London to Miami."
Leaving aside the ugly English, I am not sure this stands up. Since easyJet doesn't fly to Miami, we can't check the stat on its own carbon calculator. But a couple of others I went to, including Climate Care, show the difference at a bit over eight times.
The comparison is misleading in a more important way, however. If I need to get to Miami, I have little choice other than to fly. Whereas if i need to get to Nice, I can catch a train. It might take a bit longer, but it will save on carbon. Thanks to the nuclear power-running Eurostar and the French railways, my emissions would be, very roughly, one-tenth those of flying. With easyJet or anyone else.

MPs urge 'pay as you drive' to counter road tax scepticism

Dan Milmo, transport correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 24 July 2009

Motorists do not believe the government's claims that road taxes help cut carbon dioxide emissions and boost public transport investment, according to an MPs' report released today which recommends a voluntary "pay as you drive" scheme.
The report, by the Commons transport committee, urges ministers to revive the idea of giving motorists the option of being taxed per mile driven – one of the most controversial government proposals of recent years. The recommendation comes with a warning that says the motoring public has become "mistrustful" of taxes on road users.
The committee's chair, Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, said recent increases in vehicle excise duty had been handled so badly the image of environmental taxes had been tarnished.
The report says: "The government has been inconsistent in the way that it has justified motoring taxes. Fuel duty has been presented, at different times, as a tool to reduce carbon emissions, a source of general revenue, and a means to fund transport investment. We are concerned that motorists are mistrustful of the government regarding taxes."
The idea is that "pay as you drive" schemes could be used as a substitute for excise duty or fuel duty payments.
Road pricing remains a politically toxic subject for the government after nearly 2 million people signed an online Downing Street petition condemning the concept two years ago.
However, the reintroduction of road pricing into the tax debate was welcomed by one leading motorists' thinktank. The RAC Foundation said a charging scheme "might become unavoidable" but ministers had to restore belief in the purpose of road taxes first.
Taxes on drivers raise about £45bn a year for the Treasury, say motorists' groups.
Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said motorists would not back a revised road tax system with the "apparent sole intention of shoring up the nation's ailing finances". He added: "For any radical policy to be successful, public trust in the politicians introducing it is essential. That trust is lacking."
According to an AA poll, 86% of UK drivers do not believe the government would deliver a fair road-pricing programme. Edmund King, the AA's president, said the introduction of even a small scheme would be "some way off" because of the online petition revolt and the recent rejection of a congestion charge by voters in Manchester. "Voluntary or not, it would be very difficult to introduce at the moment," he said.
A Treasury spokesperson said: "Government has always been very clear that transport taxes are primarily revenue-raising – but that they also send strong environmental signals, encouraging greater fuel efficiency, and the purchase of lower-emitting cars."

Vestas dispute: Red and green coalition forms to fight wind plant closure

Terry Macalister, Thursday 23 July 2009 20.32 BST

A unique "red and green" army of trade union and environmental campaigners was on the march in an attempt to save from closure Britain's only major wind turbine manufacturing plant.
Up to 500 people are expected outside the Vestas plant at Newport on the Isle of Wight tomorrow night where 25 workers are engaged in a sit-in, while further demonstrations are being planned simultaneously outside the Department of Energy and Climate Change in London.
Greenpeace said the Vestas dispute promised a historic change from a situation where the labour movement and environment activists have found themselves on different sides of the fence, with one wanting to shut down polluting industries and the other defending jobs.
"Although we have always tried to highlight the employment opportunities that could flow from a low-carbon economy, historically there has been animosity between the two sides. If we can build this new alliance and break down those perceived barriers then there all sorts of exciting opportunities," said John Sauven, UK executive director of Greenpeace.
The RMT transport union endorsed the Vestas dispute as a springboard for closer co-operation, with its general secretary, Bob Crow - better known for addressing striking London Underground workers - visiting the wind plant today. He said: "There is an interesting coalition growing around Vestas that builds on issues where we have common cause such as public transport, which is really green transport. But this is a unique situation [on the Isle of Wight] involving globalisation, recession and the kind of low-carbon manufacturing jobs that everyone can relate to."
The growing protests are embarrassing the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, who last week promised that thousands of new jobs would come from a new, low-carbon economy and now finds himself on the defensive over a decision by a cash-rich company to close a plant directly involved in renewable energy.
Miliband said he had been trying hard to help avoid job losses. "They [Vestas] are keeping a protoype facility at the factory and we are currently considering an application from them for government help to test and develop offshore wind blades in a facility which would employ 150 people on the Isle of Wight initially and potentially more later," he said.
In April, Vestas announced plans to shut the manufacturing side of the Isle of Wight business with the potential loss of 600 jobs, saying it could produce blades cheaper in America.

Britain should rally round to protect our wind turbine industry

Despite an increase in offshore wind generation, Vestas still don't have sufficient orders, and it's up to us all to help

Ed Miliband, Thursday 23 July 2009 17.50 BST
Seumas Milne draws attention to the issue of the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight. But he misses the reality of the problems faced by Vestas and hence the real solutions.
The factory makes onshore wind turbine blades, not for Britain and Europe but a different-sized turbine designed for the United States. Currently, its turbines are shipped to the US, and it has now opened a US facility to serve that market.
For some months, we have worked with the company to understand what would be required for them to convert their factory to making onshore blades for the UK market. The issue for them was not subsidies from government but how they could get sufficient volumes of orders for the future.
Despite a 67% increase in offshore wind generation last year and 29% increase in onshore wind, they do not yet have sufficient orders. We need to grow the market further to help, and central to that, as Vestas have said, is planning.
Ditlev Engel, chief executive of Vestas, described Britain as "probably one of the most difficult places in the world to get permission". That is why the planning rules are being changed by the government from April next year. As we all know, the rules matter, but so does public oppositon or support.
We are unlikely to be a centre for onshore wind production, if up and down the country, and indeed on the Isle of Wight, onshore wind applications are consistently turned down. So we have to win a political argument that environmentally and industrially, onshore wind is part of the solution.
In the meantime, there must be a strategy for the Isle of Wight to do all we can to help and there is. Not just support for the workers who are losing their jobs, but a strategy to work with Vestas. They are keeping a prototype facility at the factory and we are currently considering an application from them for government help to test and develop offshore wind blades in a facility which would employ 150 people on the Isle of Wight initially and potentially more later.
Alongside this, we will invest £120m in offshore wind manufacturing and £60m in the marine industry. This is an active industrial strategy designed to create low carbon jobs throughout the country.
• Ed Miliband is secretary of state for climate change and energy

It's switch-on time for Scotland's first offshore wind farm

The wind farm in the Solway Firth seen from Kippford. It will eventually have 60 turbines, producing enough electricity for 120,000 homes. The first eight turbines will be connected in coming days. Picture: Robert Perry

Published Date: 24 July 2009
By Jenny Haworth
SCOTLAND'S first offshore wind farm will start generating electricity in the next few days, The Scotsman can reveal.
The first of 60 turbines that make up E.On's Robin Rigg wind farm in the Solway Firth will be connected to the national grid within days.Once complete, the huge green energy project will provide enough electricity for almost 120,000 homes – cutting carbon dioxide emissions by about 220,000 tonnes a year.Energy experts say the switch-on of the first of Robin Rigg's turbines marks the start of a revolution in offshore wind for Scotland.Jenny Hogan, senior wind energy officer at Scottish Renewables, said: "Scotland's first commercial offshore wind farm heralds the dawn of a new era in harvesting green energy from our seas."The Robin Rigg turbines are set to be followed by thousands more in Scotland's seas. Earlier this year, renewables firms were granted "exclusivity agreements" for offshore wind farms in ten other areas of Scottish territorial water, which extends 12 nautical miles out to sea. They include a second wind farm planned by E.On for another part of the Solway Firth.If each of the ten planned wind farms is granted permission, 6.4 gigawatts of electricity would be generated from the offshore sites. This is double the amount of electricity currently generated by all the renewable projects in the country, including onshore wind and hydro schemes.There are also plans, within the Crown Estate's Round 3 offshore wind programme , to build two further massive wind farms beyond Scottish territorial waters – in the Moray Firth and to the east of the Firth of Forth.These could be so big they involve more turbines than all ten offshore wind projects in Scottish territorial waters put together, according to experts.Ms Hogan said Scotland was on the cusp of an "offshore energy revolution"."With even more sites likely to appear on the map off Scotland's shores in the next few months, we are on the cusp of a new offshore energy revolution not seen since the 1970s' oil boom," she said.Ian Johnson, senior project manager for Robin Rigg, said engineers were just waiting for a weather window to connect the first turbine, which would happen before the end of the month."It's going to be fantastic because we have been working so hard on it for so long now," he said."As soon as the first power comes out there will be a great deal of happy people."Initially eight turbines will be connected, providing enough power for 15,000 homes, with the others following in batches until the entire wind farm is up and running, probably by the end of the year – although the final few giant turbines have yet to be built. Scotland has a legally binding target of generating half of its electricity from green sources by 2020.Experts believe offshore wind will play a substantial role in achieving that target.However, Mr Johnson said constraints such as the slow planning process must be improved if the targets are to be met.He said Scotland had the potential to be a major player in the offshore wind sector."It's got one of the best wind resources in Europe, if not the world," he said."We need to have the will to utilise that and be a major player. Government and other decision makers must now act fast to grasp the huge opportunities that this industry can bring, helping to meet Scotland's world-leading climate targets and bringing thousands of jobs to Scotland."Investors need clear, positive signals that Scotland is the ideal place to build, operate and supply to offshore wind farms. "Without a fit-for-purpose electricity grid, a fast and predictable planning system, and suppliers on hand to get projects built, Scotland's offshore ambitions will be dead in the water."With so much competition for skilled people and resources across the UK, Scotland will lose out unless we move quickly and confidently to prepare for this exciting new industry."Power struggle against the elementsBATTERED by five-foot waves and howling winds, it is no ordinary working environment.As many Scots go to an office each morning, offshore wind farm workers wake up out at sea at the mercy of the elements.When the sea is calm and the sun shining, the gigantic turbines and their 160-tonne foundations can be installed within a few days.However, during the worst weather of the winter, it can take more than a week.Ian Johnson, a 41-year-old mechanical engineer, has been in charge of building Scotland's first offshore wind farm since work started 17 months ago. "One of the major challenges with offshore wind is the weather – and the wind," he said."The Solway Firth is a brilliant location for generating power from the wind, but that makes it a difficult location for constructing turbines. It's a conundrum."During the installation you are lifting very large, heavy components, some of which are designed to catch the wind. It can become very dangerous."I have been on the foundation vessel in late November when the wind is howling. "You can hear the tarpaulins flapping. The waves can be four or five metres high. You just want to hunker down in your cabin. Then another day it can be glorious." Despite the difficulties, 57 of the 60 turbines have now been successfully installed.Specialist jack-up vessels are used both to install the turbines and to house workers.Each has legs that lift out of the water while the vessel is moving, and are then lowered to stand on the sea bed to create a stable platform when stationary.Up to 200 people, many of them former oil industry workers, are at sea at a time. The first job involves installing the turbines' foundation.A crane lifts it from the deck of the installation vessel and swings the construction into the water, before a hydraulic hammer bashes it up to 20 metres into the sea bed like a giant nail.Then the turbine, with two of its three 44-metre blades pre-attached, must be added on to the foundation.Tugs drag a jack-up vessel into position. The third of the seven-tonne blades is fitted out at sea.Mr Johnson said despite some early opposition to the wind farm, eight miles south-east of Balcary Point, people often do not even realise it is there.The turbines, standing 27 metres out of the water, often lie shrouded in a haze."You can stand on shore and say, 'What do you think of the wind farm' and people say, 'What wind farm?'," said Mr Johnson."At the start it wasn't something people were too keen on. But since the turbines have been erected that seems to have stopped. "The fear of not knowing what it would look like was worse than the reality."DEALBREAKERSFACTORS that could make or break Scotland's offshore wind future:Public opinion:There is likely to be less opposition to offshore than onshore wind farms though the anti-wind lobby opposes them as costly and inefficient. Manpower:A study by The Scotsman last week showed six out of ten green energy companies in Scotland were struggling to fill vacancies because of a skills shortage. Supply chain:A few years ago turbines could be supplied in a matter of months, but with growing worldwide emphasis on renewable energy, the wait may now be three years.Grid connection:Scotland's electricity grid lacks the capacity for large-scale increases in renewables, and extensions must be built for offshore wind farms to be connected.Political will:The Scottish Government backs renewables, but unless it acts fast on problems such as grid access, energy firms will go elsewhere. Planning process:Planning decisions take too long, according to renewables firms.Conflicting interests:Offshore wind sites can also be important for marine wildlife, fishing and shipping. Cost:During the recession, renewables firms face tough investment decisions. However, due to legally binding green energy targets, the government is likely to continue financial support for renewables.

Plan to use jumping lice in battle against Japanese knotweed

Friday, 24 July 2009
Jumping plant lice from Japan could be released in Britain to control Japanese knotweed, under plans from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The non-native sap-sucking insect would be released under licence to tackle the weed, notorious for causing terrible damage to buildings, roads and railway lines; driving out other plants; and eroding river banks.
The ornamental plant was introduced in the early 19th century and escaped into the countryside, where it enjoys an unfettered existence, with no natural enemies.
A national eradication plan through conventional means was estimated in 2003 to cost £1.56bn. These attempts to cleanse the countryside of Japanese knotweed have required herbicides, physical weeding of plants and treating the soil.
In its native habitat, the plant is associated with 186 species of plant-feeding insects and mites, none of which is found here. Five years of research by scientists at CABI has shown that a species of psyllid, Aphalara itadori, is the best candidate to control the knotweed. The scientists believe the introduction of the psyllid would not adversely affect native wildlife and could significantly reduce the costs of tackling Japanese knotweed.
Defra and the Welsh Assembly government are considering licences to release the insect and ministers are seeking views from the public on whether the scheme should go ahead. A consultation was launched yesterday and closes on 19 October.

Climate insurance: what kind of deal can be made in Copenhagen?

One key challenge on the climate change agenda is a fairer system to protect the world's poorest farmers from failing crops and extreme weather variations.

From Climate Feedback part of Guardian Environment Network, Thursday 23 July 2009 11.32 BST
As even the staunchest advocates will tell you, climate insurance is by no means a magic bullet. But clearly the tools of modern finance could certainly help make poor nations prepare for and respond to all manner of natural disasters big and small.
We explore some of these ideas in this week's issue of Nature, taking a quick look at how the insurance debate is playing out in the ongoing United Nations climate talks. The upshot is that some kind of insurance mechanism is likely to make it into whatever climate deal is struck in Copenhagen and beyond.
One commonly cited option is index insurance, which is tied to things like rainfall that can be measured objectively. This cuts down on costs by eliminating the need for audits and investigations. In the case of something like crop insurance, moreover, it could put money in the hands of farmers immediately after the rains fail – and before the hunger sets in.
Today these programmes are being paid for largely by the farmers and nations buying the insurance, but industrialised nations would likely subsidise any insurance programme deployed as part of an international climate agreement. The logic is that extreme weather variations – including droughts and heavy storms – are likely to increase in a warmer world, which means that both costs and premiums will rise as well.
A key challenge moving forward is how to scale up programmes that benefit the world's poorest farmers and communities. Dan Osgood, a researcher at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, points out the pilot programmes that are under way today have generally been deployed in areas where information – regarding weather, crops and the like – is available. This means it will only get more difficult moving forward.
In the case of the Ethiopian project discussed in our story, Osgood only had 15 years of satellite data on rainfall. The team has installed a rain gauge in the village of Adi Ha, which they hope to use in future years, but the team had no choice but to base their rainfall metrics on satellite data this year.
Osgood says the insurance question could also increase pressure on scientists and insurance companies to tease out the long-term impacts of global warming at very local scales. He was forced to grapple with the problem when he analysed the satellite data and found a slight decline in precipitation around Adi Ha. Scientists can perhaps write that kind of trend off as an uncertainty and wait for more data. Insurance contracts, however, can't ignore such trends, because they are, by their very nature, priced according to uncertainty. The bigger the risk, the more uncertainty, the higher the price.
"It could be a climate trend, it could be just noise and uncertainty, or it could be a decadal process," he says. "What's cool about it is we don't need to know in order to write the contract this year."Jeff Tollefson
• This article was shared by our content partner, Nature's Climate Feedback blog, part of Guardian Environment Network