Climate change on the Somerset Levels – realism and action
Think Global; Act Local
'We must … think of development, mitigation and adaptation together'.
These two statements are the foundation stones of RtL's approach to safeguarding the Somerset Levels in the context of a rapidly changing climate. We must also face the fact that central government policy will not meet future carbon budgets under the 2008 Climate Change Act*. Everyone should be prepared to lobby our elected leaders as well as to consider our scope for direct action. We need action, legislation and strong policy, not more strategies with no teeth.
The task of protecting our population, economy and nature from extremes of weather and sea level rise depends on facing up to these factors and combining this with a thorough knowledge of local geography. Only such a combination will give us a realistic grasp of the challenges we face and the options available to us.
We do not have the luxury of either dismissing global forces as something beyond our control or neglecting the complex network of local factors which determine our options. We must play our part in mitigating climate disruption by decarbonising our economy and we must do all in our power to reduce the destructive impact of extreme weather when it hits us.
Some measures (such as judicious tree planting) are effective in both ways, ie contributing to climate change mitigation and helping to alleviate the effects of heavy rainfall.
Any effective climate strategy must begin with energy saving and be backed up by decarbonisation of the energy we do use. The outline proposals below illustrate this twin track approach.
Here is a link to a British Social Attitudes survey “Climate Change – social divisions in belief and behaviour”. It’s an interesting and quite wide-ranging piece of research, with some useful cross-referencing. It confirms the persistence of widespread ignorance on things like human causation of climate change and the preponderance of negative effects from it. There are finding that may cause surprise. For instance, although younger people are on average more aware and more concerned about climate, this does not correlate with feelings of personal responsibility or motivation to save energy.
One of the cross-referenced factors is Brexit. 71% of Remainers accept that climate change is definitely happening, compared with just 53% of Leave voters. There seem to be scant grounds for believing that a change of UK government would result in a higher prioritisation of the environment – Green and LibDem supporters being the only ones that would demand change. Unlike the USA, climate change in the UK is not a partisan issue, but the polarisation around Brexit is seen as potentially changing that. There is marked pessimism about both wide scale reduction in energy use and in government action.
The summary at the end includes some sensible caveats about interpretation of the findings.
Somerset is vulnerable to climate change, particularly to rise in sea level (presently projected to be 71 cm by 2100) as The Levels are low lying and adjacent to a coast with the second highest tidal range in the world. The County also has tidal rivers, exceptionally low woodland cover and farming practices which are increasingly intensive, detrimental to preserving precious soil and with high carbon emissions.
Somerset therefore needs to take action. The full RtL study considers a wide spectrum of linked measures which include agriculture, soil protection, woodland cover, waterways management , transport and renewable energy generation. A step change in renewable energy generation would be one of the appropriate responses to the climate threat. Somerset is well suited to the renewable technologies listed below. The measures suggested here are considered more fully in the RtL study but we would welcome feedback on which of these people feel offer the greatest opportunities.
The global economy (and Somerset is no exception) has been built on the implicit assumption that huge amounts of fossil carbon can be burnt indefinitely and without harmful consequences. We now know how dangerously wrong this is, but we are very slow to change how we operate. The change begins with looking at every possible way of eliminating wasteful and unnecessary consumption across all sectors: building, transport, leisure, industry, food and agriculture, home heating, the goods we buy. The change begins with awareness, and is enabled by clarity of purpose supported by appropriate technology.
Tidal – A Tidal lagoon in Bridgwater Bay would generate very large amounts of electricity for at least 120 years. This could also have enormous benefits in reducing flood risk through control of the tide levels on the vulnerable Somerset levels.
Wind turbines – Planning consent for onshore wind turbines should be allowed in Somerset again, subject to appropriate controls. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy generation and special incentives should be available for community owned turbines.
Offshore wind - the Severn estuary is an obvious location to capture the force of the prevailing South Westerly winds. An area called the Atlantic Array was designated around 2005 but the first application was abandoned due to cuts in Government support, siting objections and a poorly designed scheme. This development should now be carefully re-examined, given the steep reduction in the cost of offshore turbines and the possibility of floating turbines.
Solar – fitting panels on large industrial and farm buildings should be eligible for incentive payments as well as on all new buildings (residential or business). Financial incentives should include tax breaks on installation costs. There should be a requirement on any new buildings to have solar panels (or the solar tile option mentioned below) fitted during construction where there is a Southerly facing roof elevation. These would help reduce the grid demand of the activities in these building and create surplus. Supermarkets with large roof space and high power consumption are a good example of potential users.
Solar roof tiles - installation of these should be a planning condition on new houses and commercial buildings. Bearing in mind how large an industry this is likely to become in terms of job and wealth creation Somerset should aim to be a location for tile manufacture.
Batteries – householders should be given incentives to install batteries to store power from locally generated solar panels, roofs and turbines. This would help to achieve the aim of making solar energy available when it is needed during the day and at night – overcoming the main disadvantage of solar generation. Discussions with Western Power Generation and ReGen, have confirmed that this is technically feasible.
Ground source and air source heating systems should be encouraged with far greater incentives, particularly for businesses, via tax breaks.
Travel – electric vehicle charging points should be installed in many more locations, including new housing developments. All buses should be electric powered, also helping to reduce pollution in towns. Electrification of the railway should be extended to Exeter and beyond.
Cycling - safe cycle ways should be provided around all towns and linking to the larger villages where possible. Government should be making available significant grant aid towards the creation of safe cycle routes financially viable for local authorities or voluntary groups to develop, using local fundraising to achieve the total sums required. Ideas put forward by Sustrans and local initiative CaSTTA (Campaign for Sustainable Transport in the Taunton area), to encourage cycling, walking and use of public transport, should be taken up .
Delivery vans – these should be electric powered and supermarkets and other large businesses encouraged to have joint deliveries. (Ocado vans are already used for grocery delivery by several different supermarkets).
Agriculture – is a major source of carbon emissions and contributes to flooding threats in areas like Somerset. The adoption of methods such as excessive or poorly sited maize production and industrialised cattle farming must be stopped to achieve a more sustainable and healthy farming system. Soils need to be managed to reduce run off and erosion, with hedgerows restored and small woodland areas located to reduce run off and flooding.
The extensive areas of peat in the Somerset Levels should not be used for arable production. It should be kept wet and in the ground in order for its precious carbon to remain locked up. Peat covers only 3% of the earth’s land but contains 33% of carbon stored in the soil.
Legislative changes, surmounting vested interest pressures, would be required for some of these initiatives.
The references above to incentives may give rise to concerns about costs. Reducing the large subsidies (mainly through tax breaks in the UK) given to fossil fuel industries is an obvious way of achieving a win-win situation. Given the huge but hidden future costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels such a change in public subsidy is not only entirely justified, but an urgent necessity.
These suggestions cover some of the areas in which major changes towards a sustainable economy can be achieved, thereby mitigating the future impact of climate change. Some impact is however inevitable and a joined up climate strategy also requires a range of defensive measures in the face of the inevitable increase in extreme weather.
An outstanding example of detailed analysis and planning is available from the Norfolk AONB:http://www.norfolkcoastaonb.org.uk/partnership/climate-change/1110
*See assessment of the UK Clean Growth Strategy by the Committee on Climate Change