Today's guest post comes from Norwich councillor Adrian Ramsay (pictured, right) who is destined to unseat Charles Clarke at the next election - really. Here Adrian takes on the fact that not everything that has eco- in its name is necessarily good for the environment.
In recent years there has been an upsurge of large-scale projects purporting to be ‘green’. The Green Party has been proved right about the problems with large-scale biofuels, with most green campaigners and journalists now appreciating the major land use problems they cause. Similarly, the Government has been caught out over eco-towns by not adequately considering important environmental factors such as transport links and availability of local services in planning these new developments.
Large scale renewable energy proposals are becoming more commonplace, and more lucrative. Although the Green Party has, for decades, been calling for a massive increase in renewable energy projects, it’s important that we take the lead in making sure that such large-scale projects are appropriate to the proposed location, and that the environmental impacts don’t outweigh the benefits.
A current example of a hugely damaging proposal masquerading as a ‘green’ solution is the proposed Severn Barrage. The Severn Estuary is unique in Europe. Boasting a tidal range of more than 12.5 metres – the second largest in the world – the inter-tidal mudflats act as a huge feeding-station for tens of thousands of migrating birds. As well as its international importance for birds, the estuary is important for plants, invertebrates and migratory fish, and encompasses a range of rare habitats. Its vital importance for wildlife has led to it being given the highest protection under national and European conservation law.
On the face of it, it might seem that Greens should welcome a proposal that claims it could generate around 5% of electricity demand in England and Wales. However, most environmental groups – including the RSPB and Friends of the Earth – are strongly opposing the barrage, citing the significant impacts on wildlife and habitats, as well as the carbon footprint of constructing and maintaining the barrage. The proposed concrete barrage would stretch for 10 miles, enclosing an area of 185 square miles. The aggregates required for construction alone are estimated at 13 million tonnes.
The estimated £15 billion cost of the barrage could save substantially more greenhouse gases if invested in other forms of renewables and energy efficiency measures. A report by Friends of the Earth suggests that tidal lagoons could harness the tidal power of the Severn Estuary at lower economic and environmental cost than the proposed barrage, whilst generating double the amount of electricity per square mile of estuary impounded.
The Scottish Parliament recently turned down proposals for a large-scale wind farm on the island of Lewis. Like the Severn Estuary, the proposed area is an internationally important wildlife site, designated as a protected area under European law. Its fragile peatland (blanket bog) is so rare it is only found in a few areas in the world. The site is a vital breeding and feeding area for a wide range of threatened birds, including golden eagles, red- and black-throated divers, and merlins. The huge development – 181 wind turbines, with 30 kilometres of overhead cables and 137 pylons, plus roads, quarries and eight electrical sub-stations – would also have blighted one of the few remaining wild and pristine landscapes in the country.
Thankfully, the Scottish Government turned down this proposal, but until a strategic approach is taken to identifying criteria for suitable – and unsuitable – sites for large-scale renewables projects, the threat of revised planning submissions will continue to loom over the island.
There is clearly an urgent need for more renewable energy projects to be developed and supported. In many cases, the Green Party has given strong backing to proposed windfarms and other forms of renewable energy generation. Examples we have supported include the Blacklaw Wind Farm and Whitelee Wind Farm (both in Scotland), the London Array (off the Kent and Essex coasts), Cefn Croes Wind Project (west coast of Wales) and Fullabrook North Devon Wind Farm.
However, there are some places that are simply too important for wildlife to be threatened by large-scale renewable projects. If nature is to have any chance at all, then places and species that have been designated for protection under national, European or international law should be afforded that protection.
There are plenty of places where renewable energy can be generated with much less impact on the natural environment – including large scale projects such as those mentioned above plus micro-generation projects in urban areas (which the Government needs to make easier and cheaper for more households to do and should be mandatory in new developments). Much more attention also needs to be given to energy efficiency – both in terms of better grants for home insulation and in terms of energy saving in the economy generally (through, for example, reducing the unnecessary transportation of foods and goods).
The lessons of Lewis and the Severn Barrage are clear: protecting the environment requires sensitivity to all aspects of a project’s impacts. The Green Party is right to oppose the Severn Barrage proposals and should always consider the full impact of any large-scale renewable energy proposal before taking a position.
Adrian Ramsay is the Leader of the Opposition on Norwich City Council, where the Green Party holds 13 seats. He is also the Green Party’s Parliamentary Candidate for Norwich South.