Andrew Montford

The threat to the environment that the green lobby tries to ignore

The threat to the environment that the green lobby tries to ignore
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It’s not like the green blob to keep quiet when there’s a threat to the environment in the offing. Even the smallest hint of a problem is usually enough to work a tree-hugger into a frenzy. So it’s worth taking a look at their decision to keep shtum over the recent appearance of what may be one of the greatest threats to the natural world we have seen.

Over the last few weeks, scientists and campaigners alike have been turning their attention to the question of how land can be used to tackle global warming. Their interest was prompted by the appearance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on how the increase in global temperatures might be kept below 1.5°C. One of the panel’s ideas was to propose a massive expansion of forestry, allowing excess carbon dioxide to be converted into wood. This wood could then be burnt to generate electricity, with the resulting carbon dioxide emissions captured and stored deep underground. The alternative is to use all this extra wood as building materials. This would, the theory goes, keep the carbon locked in. The IPCC paper was followed up by twin reports from the committee on climate change (CCC), the government’s advisers on climate policy. One of these papers was on the subject of biofuels; the other one was on land use. Like the IPCC, the CCC sees lots more forests and energy crops as the way forward.

But there is a problem with all these ideas, namely that if they ever came to fruition, they would do great harm to the natural world. The use of afforestation for carbon capture will necessarily involve chopping forests down on a regular basis and replanting with the fastest growing species; it’s fairly clear that few woods would be spared. The CCC talks obliquely about all the broadleaved woodlands in England that are not “actively managed” and appears to suggest that these could be sacrificed to Gaia. So forget beautiful, leafy oaks in Sherwood Forest and start thinking sitka spruce and willow monocultures.

It’s also worth remembering that, as well as wanting something like a quarter of the UK’s land area devoted to biofuels of one kind or another, the CCC makes the case for more wind turbines. They have apparently tried to obscure this inconvenient fact in their report by lumping windfarms and urban areas in a land category called ‘settlements’. But the worry is that up to 10,000 square kilometres of land – twice the area of the Cairngorms National Park – is potentially being earmarked as part of a wider rollout of wind industrialisation.

It’s fair to say that all this amounts to an ecological catastrophe in the planning. Yet there has not been a squeak from environmentalists in response. This is odd. Although ten years ago some greens were quite keen on biofuels – Friends of the Earth once wrote to the then-chancellor, Gordon Brown, demanding that oil companies be compelled to blend biofuels into petrol – they fairly quickly realised that energy crops are not all they are cracked up to be. You might therefore have expected some sort of a reaction to the suggestion that nearly a quarter of the UK’s land area should be devoted to energy crops and that a further very large chunk should be industrialised. It’s not as if they haven’t noticed – Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth both cited the IPCC report favourably. Bennett even said that it showed “huge additional action needed in next 12yrs to keep climate change to 1.5 degrees”.

The problem is that as soon as you start looking for solutions to possible climate change, it very quickly becomes obvious that the cure is far, far worse than the disease. Nevertheless, the green lobby needs to raise funds to keep itself in business. Talk of “huge additional action” can therefore be a good way to keep the money flowing in, just so long as there is a certain reticence about precisely what that action is. Expect the silence of the greens to continue.

Andrew Montford is deputy director at the Global Warming Policy Forum