How carbon has become the 'cash cow' for the environmental lobby
There is a scene in a recent David Attenborough film where all sorts of predatory fish, birds and mammals hurl themselves at luckless little sardines jammed together in a bait ball. It is the perfect analogy for the financial frenzy taking place in this country amongst the environmental lobby groups and their focus on carbon.
Much of this country’s remaining stored carbon is found in upland soils, in the form of peat. But, unfortunately, most politicians have little understanding of why the uplands still have these carbon stores, when everywhere else has lost them, or any knowledge of how the carbon got there or how it needs to be kept safe.
What they do know is that they are under enormous pressure to meet almost impossible targets to reduce carbon emissions and that nearly everything that they could do costs billions and is likely to seriously upset the voting public.
At this critical point their office door opens and in walks an apparently altruistic collection of charities from the conservation industry, who say that "if you give us £10 million here, and a £100 million there, and control over what goes on in the uplands, we can work miracles and get you a positive reference on the BBC’s Springwatch".
If the politicians don’t agree, the environmental lobby will say “we will make one hell of a fuss and blame you for siding with a group of rich landowners who burn the uplands in vast quantities just to keep baby grouse warm.”
So money, public money, starts to flow into the conservation industry, and then they discover that the issue is bigger and more complex than they feared and they need more money for longer and more control.
The claims for need get bigger and the claims for outcomes inflate. Unlike any other industry, the actual outcomes are never audited and value for money is never considered. Why would it be? Aren't these people representatives of an industry so altruistic as to make Mother Teresa appear venal? Even so, wouldn't such angels welcome a chance to show just how efficient and effective they are, so others may learn and follow their example?
When, for example, they charge £50,000 to revegetate a hectare of bare peat, and a private contractor can do the same thing on the same ground for £10,000, surely they would welcome the chance to explain what the other £40,000 achieved in added value.
Similarly, it would be splendid to see the outcomes of the work which is costing so much and which is planned to cost ever more. Some within the conservation industry have shown the courage of their convictions by giving examples of what can be expected if they are only given enough money and enough control.
The Lancashire Wildlife Trust recently stated that, “One hectare of peatland can soak up the same amount of CO2 as would be produced by eight car journeys around the world”.
That sounds a lot, but surprisingly the circumference of the earth is only 40,000 miles, so what they actually claim is the annual CO2 production of eight busy family cars, which doesn't sound quite as dramatic, but even so, is it true?
Let us do the arithmetic. Eight 40,000 mile journeys gives a total of 320,000 miles. An average car will do 10 miles on a litre of fuel, which gives us 32,000 litres. A litre of diesel is equivalent to 2.6 kg of CO2. The CO2 absorbed by the peatland managed by the Wildlife Trust is therefore going to absorb 83,200 kg or 83 tonnes per hectare every year.
If you go beyond the propaganda and look at the science, you will find that near normal blanket bog can be expected to absorb or emit between -0.61 and +0.01 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year. That is what the science says. It is unclear why the claim formed in the minds of the LWT that the land they manage could absorb 83,200 kg, instead of the best typical performance of 610 kg. The difference is, after all, quite remarkable standing at a mere 82,590 kg or over 82 tonnes between friends.
This is a serious issue. Climate change is real and it is vital that the uplands play as effective a role as possible in contributing to our national response. What has happened to date is not edifying and is likely to hinder progress, rather than be constructive. With COP26 taking place in the UK in November this is not where we need to be.
The conservation industry has seen the problem of climate change through the prism of financial opportunity. As a result the emphasis has been on pretending that the uplands are the problem - they are not. The amount emitted by controlled burning on grouse moors is 0.01% of UK annual emission and is tiny compared with that emanating from the lowlands.
Where the uplands are vitally important is in regard to keeping the vast amounts of carbon, accumulated over thousands of years, safe.
Again, the conservation industry does not seem interested by this fact. They prefer to pretend that the most important issue is accumulating a little more. There is no money to be made in doing what the moor owners have done for generations, reducing the risk of catastrophic loss by cool rotational burning.
In fact it costs money. Far better to ignore the science and make wild claims about what you can achieve and pocket millions. No one can check, even if they wanted to, and with reasonable luck you will be paid forever to notionally sequester carbon by doing absolutely nothing.
The downside is that, without firebreaks and fuel load management, the tiny extra bits of peat you may have accumulated will disappear, along with stuff laid down a thousand years ago. Happily from the conservation industry's perspective, whilst this is a catastrophe for climate change, it is just another funding opportunity for them.
Any reasonable appeal can be expected to raise a few hundred thousand and the merry go round carries on.
There is a limited amount of money for even the most important purpose. Moor owners want to revegetate bare peat and re-wet drained moorland, they have already done vast amounts of this work at their own expense.
What is infuriating to local communities is the huge amounts of money being demanded by the conservation industry to carry out work that could be done more swiftly, more effectively and at far greater value for money by local moorland communities.
You don't need a doctorate to block grips. Revegetating bare peat is an agricultural process, not some mystery, the secrets of which are known only by savants in the conservation industry.
The amounts of money being demanded are, to normal mortals, eye-watering. The Great Northern Bog is demanding £200 million over twenty years. Whatever is intended, if that is what the conservation industry says is the cost and the time, we can say that it is a safe bet that the locals could do it for at least half the cost in half the time.
These projects should go out to tender and government should help to create local capacity to compete on equal terms. This would, at a stroke, increase value for money, generate essential local resilience and sustainability, and in turn make the resources go further and achieve more.
When the conservation industry makes a fuss, as they will, when the see the millions they are after slipping away. Ask them why birdwatchers are the natural choice to do agricultural engineering.