We live in an age where there is increased awareness and understanding of the natural world and the damage that humans are doing to it writes Andy Patmore.
At the Paris summit in December 2015 the nations of the world agreed to try and limit global increases in temperatures to less than 1.5 degrees celsius. Many local councils, including our own in Hastings, have put forward motions declaring a Climate Emergency.
I think we can agree we all need to do much, much more to help prevent global warming and be mindful that policies, even on a local level, can have a positive impact. We are duty bound to generate green energy and to protect and increase biodiversity.
Where things start to get a little controversial, and in my view paradoxical, is when these two environmental goals collide.
Preserving the best of our natural environment and bio diversity has been an ongoing battle for many years. Councils have created new country parks, protected wetlands, bird sanctuaries and new spaces where natural flora and fauna can flourish. Indeed at a Hastings Borough Council (HBC) level we normally wax lyrical about our new environmental achievements.
We know how much quality green spaces matter to residents and visitors to our town. But the UK is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate and Natural England was set up as the Government’s adviser for the natural environment in England to help protect England’s nature and landscapes.
This where the paradox lies. Many councils, including HBC, are considering the installation of solar panel arrays on their land. It is obviously a fantastic way of producing green energy and in many cases make a profit for cash strapped councils. However some councils, including Hastings, are considering building them on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), near Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) and protected ecological areas.
“…organisations such as Natural England and the RSPB… recommend that solar PV developments should not be built on or near protected areas.”
Some people will oppose these installations on the grounds that ‘they don’t look nice’ but aesthetics aren’t the problem here. How can we argue we are trying to ‘save the planet’ by building on protected areas and destroying biodiversity in the areas we build on?
A Natural England publication titled Evidence review of the impact of solar farms on birds, bats and general ecology, published in March 2017 says: “When considering site selection for utility scale solar developments it is generally agreed that protected areas should be avoided.
“This is reflected in the scientific literature where modelling approaches include many factors such as economic considerations and visual impact but also often avoid protected areas such as Special Protection Areas. This is echoed by organisations such as Natural England and the RSPB that recommend that solar PV developments should not be built on or near protected areas.”
It would seem this advice is quite clear, “should not be built on or near protected areas” but it hasn’t stopped councils from pursuing studies or contemplating the idea of building solar arrays in AONBs or SSSIs. Unfortunately, it appears there hasn’t been a comprehensive national study on how building large solar panel arrays on or near SSSIs will affect biodiversity. A national study must surely take place before we make such decisions.
In Japan, developers are going to destroy 300 hectares of pristine forest to make way for the Kamogawa mega solar plant. Residents and environmentalists are horrified as it will kill the natural habitats of wild boar and deer and the irony of chopping down trees, which absorb CO2 in the air as they grow, to replace them with a solar array has not been lost on campaigners.
I get the feeling, because of local government funding shortfalls, that a ‘desperate times need desperate measures’ mentality has set in. Of course it is commendable to pursue green energy projects – but not at the expense of our protected natural spaces I would argue.
Many Councils are borrowing vast sums of money to prop up the commercial property market in the hope of generating profits and much needed extra cash. With a failing retail sector and an uncertain future for many large companies on the high street, that could turn out to be a very risky long-term strategy.
I would argue a better policy would be to establish a national, multi-council led consortium that would invest in very large off-shore wind projects. This type of scheme could generate vast amounts of green energy, while giving cash-strapped councils a return on their investment, without spoiling our precious countryside. A much better use of Public Works Loan Board money I would suggest.