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Environmental Weekly News Round Up - 29 September 2023

Achieving Net Zero - What You Need To Know

What are the legal intricacies surrounding Net Zero? What challenges do businesses face, and what strategies are organisations using to overcome them?

We are hosting a webinar on Wednesday 18th October at 12.00-1.30pm. 

Our key speakers are:

• Shane Hughes, Director of Corporate Net Zero Services at Ramboll

• Claire Petricca-Riding, National Head of Planning and Environment at Irwin Mitchell

• Nina Pindham, a leading environmental barrister based at Cornerstone Chambers. 

You can sign up here: Achieving Net Zero

The Felling of the Sycamore Gap Tree has cut deep - is it time to protect our ancient trees? 

Stood in the dramatic dip at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park was an iconic Sycamore Gap Tree. So iconic, that it starred in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it even took the crown for English Tree of the Year in the Woodland Trust’s awards in 2016.

That was, until Wednesday evening, when the tree was destroyed in what is alleged by Northumbria Police as a deliberate act of vandalism.

A 16-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage in relation with the felling of the tree. He has since been released on bail pending further enquiries.

There have been calls for a lengthy prison sentence for the responsible party, with many Northumbria residents feeling the loss of such a beautiful piece of heritage. ‘it’s part of this area’s DNA’ stated Andrew Poad, the general manager at the National Trust. ‘I can’t see the logic in what has happened’.

Although there is a clear demand for justice, ancient trees have no real legal protection in the UK.

A local planning authority does have the power to grant a Tree Preservation Order, which prohibits the cutting down of trees without the Local Authority’s written consent. Although, it is still possible for these orders to be overwritten in the form of planning permission.

In January 2023, key changes were made to further protect trees. Now, felling trees without a licence, will carry the penalty of an unlimited fine, after January 2020, when the largest fine was issued in the form of £15,000 for the felling of 12 oak trees.

In this instance however, the scope of what has happened seems to go beyond felling without a licence, and into the remit of criminal damage, as there is damage to public property.

This has not stopped the Woodland Trust from campaigning for more protection for ancient trees. They wish to see a legally protected heritage status for some of the UK’s most ancient and important trees, similar to the legal protection Italy has granted 20,000 of its trees. This could enable prosecution for similar offences to become easier.

You can sign the petition here.

One thing is for certain however, the people of Northumbria, and across the UK are shocked by what occurred on Wednesday evening, and whether this leads to legislative change, or prosecution, is another matter that will be discussed again here as the story unfolds.

Could BNG trigger a widespread adoption of AI in the environmental sector?

It is safe to say that AI is a big part of mainstream conversation. But while some members of the public hear AI and think of job loss and Skynet, others are more open to its potentially beneficial applications.

For one, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, Jason Reeves, expects that AI innovations will “complement, rather than replace professionals”.

However, as the use of AI is still quite sporadic in the environmental sector, the question poses itself -could there be an event that kicks off wider adoption?

Some believe the new Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) policy to be such an event. While the new BNG rules are fundamental in the country’s goal to halt species decline and contribute to nature recovery, there is a consensus that local planning authorities (LPAs) will need of all the help they can get.

Natalie Duffus, a community ecology research scientist at Oxford University says “The expectation is that the offset element of BNG will be relatively well managed, what with the use of a register and Natural England’s enforcement. But with onsite gains, we’re struggling to see where compliance will come from, given the finding that BNG plans with errors are being accepted by LPAs”.

Currently understaffed and underfunded, it is clear why some believe LPAs may struggle in the coming months. AI could be the solution. For instance, deep learning applications analysing imaging data, could help LPAs determine whether BNG gains have been met.

LPAs are not only the only ones that would benefit from using AI. Duffus believes that “Land managers, another of the three key BNG stakeholders, could also benefit from AI when seeking to assess the levels of biodiversity on their land if they want to sell credits”.

There are so many new tools that can now take site data from developers and automatically generate a BNG plan, it makes one wonder – can this really work? Would the use of AI increase efficient or lead to more mistakes? Can AI truly replace an ecologist’s knowledge and expertise?

If designed correctly and used by people with the right level of expertise – it is hard to see how the increased use of AI in the environmental sector would not be both time and cost efficient. It could very well be that BNG will be the catalyst for change in the sector but this remains to be seen.

Greenlight for Rosebank field

On 27 September, the North Sea Transition Authority granted development and production consent for the Rosebank field, the largest untapped oil and gas field in the North Sea.

The Rosebank development is a project involving the drilling of subsea wells in the Rosebank field, to extract oil and gas. The wells will be connected by flowlines to a central production facility. A new gas export pipeline will be built to transfer the gas from the production facility to an existing pipeline called the West of Shetland Pipeline Systems. The oil will be exported from the production facility using tankers. The owners of this project are Equinor and Ithaca Energy.

The consent was granted following the acceptance of the Environmental Statement.

As the most recent hydrocarbon development in the UK, this development has been controversial.

In response to the decision, Labour’s Environment spokesperson, Shadow Climate and Net Zero Secretary Ed Miliband said: “Here’s what it means. Rosebank: £3.75bn of taxpayer subsidy which could have been invested in renewables. 80% of oil exported, not a penny off bills, equivalent to half all UK emissions for a year.

Meanwhile, the North Sea Transition Authority considered that the decision was in line with the existing guidance and national net zero objectives, and Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho said: “We are investing in our world-leading renewable energy but, as the independent Climate Change Committee recognise, we will need oil and gas as part of that mix on the path to net zero and so it makes sense to use our own supplies from North Sea fields such as Rosebank.

No water companies receive the highest rating in Ofwat’s performance report 

Ofwat’s annual water company performance report has been published for the year 2022-23. The report rates companies as ‘leading’, ‘average’ or ‘lagging’ against a set of metrics.

For the 2020-25 period, water companies had committed to reducing pollution incidents by 30%, reducing internal sewer flooding incidents by 41%, and reducing leakage by 16%. However, overall, they are not currently on track to meet any of these targets by 2025. So far there has only been a 15% reduction in the number of pollution incidents, a 27% reduction in internal sewer flooding incidents, and most companies reported an increase in annual leakage in 2022-23.

Overall, no company has been ranked ‘leading’ for this year, ten companies are in the ‘average’ category and seven have been categorised as ‘lagging’ (Anglian Water, Dŵr Cymru, Southern Water, Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Bristol Water and South East Water). Those ‘lagging’ will be required to publish service commitment plans so customers are shown when they can expect to receive an improved service.

The report found customer satisfaction fell for most companies in 2022-23 and is now worse than it was at 2020-21 for all companies, with Thames Water and Southern Water performing the worst on this metric. Ofwat also reported most of the companies have not fully invested their 2020-2023 allowed funding for delivering service enhancements, meaning they are behind on their investment programmes.

This under-performance by the majority of water and wastewater companies means £114 million will be returned to customers next year. Ofwat sets performance targets for all water companies and, where these are not met, the regulator reduces the amount of money companies can collect from customers. David Black, Ofwat CEO said: “While that may be welcome to billpayers, it is very disappointing news for all who want to see the sector do better.”

Ofwat’s full Water Company Performance Report 2022-23 can be downloaded here.

Climate Resolutions: The Takeaways from Climate Week NYC

Climate Week New York City ran last week from 17th September concluding on 24th September. It has been held every year since 2009 and has grown from a few small panel discussions into a weeklong summit.

Organised by The Climate Group an international non-profit organisation in coordination with the United Nations and City of New York the annual event aims to showcase and discuss global climate action week. It usually coincides with the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in September and is considered one of the key summits in the international climate change calendar bringing together international leaders from various sectors including business, government and civil society to discuss climate action and solutions with the aim of encouraging climate action amongst the private and public sector and to highlight leading climate initiatives and solutions around the world.

It was described last week in the New York Times as “chaotic, sprawling and borderline circuslike”. But behind all the hype there were serious questions to be addressed such as the mounting catastrophes linked to a warming planet, banks continuing to pour trillions of pounds into fossil fuel expansion and the gas and oil industry not only failing to meet their climate pledges but ramping up production to meet the continuing demand for fossil fuel.

What has been described as a dual narrative came out of Climate Week. On the one hand there was an acknowledgment that the transition to clean energy was powering ahead rapidly with corporate investment in decarbonisation and clean energy increasing in recent years, despite the anti-ESG efforts. On the other hand there was a mix of political and economic headwinds that have slowed down the push for more ambitious policies with corporations who were keen to announce their ambitions for decarbonisation a few years ago now realising that the implementation of those ambitions is a big challenge.

In addition a few major themes arose from the discussions this year which are more than likely to carry through to COP 28:-

  • Climate Health
  • Net Zero costs and value Creation
  • Managing Scope 3 Emissions
  • Financing Technology Scaling
  • Global Equity Transition
  • The UNGA context

Oliver Bate CEO of German Financial Services Allianz said “The long era of robust economic growth, low inflation and geopolitical stability is over” “Suddenly, fighting climate change has become an ever greater challenge”.

His message highlighted the increased urgency and complexity of climate action and the need for increased collaboration, innovation and action to continue making progress in mitigating climate change.

Biodiversity net gain delayed until 2024

In a move that can only be described as ‘please can I have an extension to submit my coursework?’, the legally binding requirement to secure 10% biodiversity net gain in relation to developments in England is to be delayed until 2024 from its much-anticipated November 2023 start date.

For the 10% biodiversity net gain as set out in the Environment Act 2021 to be a legal requirement, secondary legislation must be introduced and implemented which will set out the framework of the new regime. For the regulations to be reviewed and measures put in place, I think it is fair to say both the development sector and the local planning authorities need more than 4 weeks and as there has been no sight of the regulations, so it has come as no shock these are to be delayed.

What we will get instead are the draft regulations in November for an implementation date in January 2024. Small sites (those with 9 or fewer dwellings or less than 1,000 sqm in area) will come into the framework in April 2024 and the NSIP regime following in 2025.

We are promised the following as well as the regulations:

  • the statutory biodiversity metric, critical for calculating the correct biodiversity gain
  • the draft biodiversity gain plan template, which will help developers prepare for what they will need to complete during the planning application stages
  • the Habitat Management and Monitoring Plan template, which will set out how the improved significant on-site and off-site habitats will be managed for the long term
  • a package of Biodiversity Net Gain guidance that sets out further advice for landowners, developers, and Local Planning Authorities around their role and responsibilities in delivering mandatory Biodiversity Net Gain

Hopefully this will also be accompanied by the draft updates to the NPPF and/or the NPPG, the latter requiring significant amendments to allow for the new framework for planning applications to follow.

There is still no detail on if or when we are likely to obtain information on standard template Section 106 obligations (we have our own which seem to be working well) or critically the conservation covenants required to enforce the requirements of the biodiversity net gain plan for 30 years.

Whilst I can appreciate the delay will come as welcome relief to some, in many local plans there is already a 10% biodiversity net gain requirement (in some local planning authorities it is more), the sector needs confidence and clarity to get confidence in the schemes coming forward.

It is possibly bad timing news wise that the delay has been announced at nearly the same time of the landmark State of Nature report was launched. It is pretty grim news – the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. 1 in 6 species are at risk of extinction with a decline in abundance of 19% since 1970’s. Most species surveyed are in decline with only 25% of peatlands in good condition. So against this backdrop, the regulatory regime as to how we are going to increase biodiversity, not just preventing its loss, has never been so important.