Does tackling climate change matter more than protecting nature?

rampisham-photoThis post by Miles King first appeared on the Guardian website.

Human-induced climate change is with us, and is one the nine reasons why scientists are now concerned that the rate of environmental degradation is a threat to the future of human life on earth.

Another reason scientists have identified as a threat to humanity is the loss of biodiversity, which is the variety of life on earth. Evidence suggests that humans are the cause of the Sixth Great Extinction event, which has already started. Forty one per cent of amphibians, 22% of plants and 13% of birds are now at risk of extinction, thanks to human activity. The rate of extinction is now between a thousand and ten thousand times the background rate.  We do not have the luxury of choosing which of these nine challenges to tackle; they are all critical to our survival.

Nationally important wildlife site to become solar farm
Last week, here in West Dorset, the council unanimously approved the development of a 25 megawatt solar farm on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Rampisham Down was designated as a SSSI because it is nationally important for wildlife. There are 70 hectares of heathland and nature rich grassland, known as lowland acid grassland, at Rampisham. Natural England estimates that there is only 5000 hectaresof this lowland acid grassland type left in England. Rampisham is in the top ten largest surviving fragments in England. It is especially rich in grassland fungi, for which Britain has an international responsibility. It is also highly unusual in that the underlying chalk influences the plant communities, creating areas of the extremely rare habitat known as ‘chalk heath’.

Rampisham Down escaped the ‘green revolution’ that wiped away most other nature in England, because it was a wartime and cold war radio transmitting station, a piece of strategic infrastructure. West Dorset residents have lived with the ‘Rampisham Masts’ for 70 years, and these radio masts have dominated the West Dorset landscape, with many feeling they are an eyesore and wishing them away.

The radio station was declared surplus to requirements (after a last transmission to Libya during the war there) and sold off in 2011. It was acquired by solar farm developers British Solar Renewables (BSR). BSR and their supporters have continually claimed that the grassland at Rampisham is of little or no value and by building a solar farm they will actually enhance the environment.

Developers’ own experiment confirmed change to environment
To counter the concerns that erecting over 100,000 solar panels across over half of the area of Rampisham Down would damage the grasslands, BSR instituted an experiment, involving a few solar panels, some with ‘windows’ in them, to let more light through. The results of their own experiment has showed that, under the panels, even with windows, the grass was darker, damper and cooler. Natural England’s view is that this would be enough to change the plant community from the valuable one for which the site was protected, to a more common community akin to what might be found growing along a hedgerow.

The West Dorset planning committee met last week to decide whether to give the Solar Farm planning permission. They listened to the evidence put forward by Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust against the development, and from the developers, their witnesses and local councillors, in favour. They discounted the nature value of the Down, viewed it as brownfield land which would benefit from being developed; and decided that the production of renewable energy and the small number of jobs the development would bring, were of greater benefit to society than protecting the wildlife. They may have been swayed by erroneous comments from BSR’s witnesses that the grassland was “degraded, impacted habitat”. If it had been, Natural England’s board would never have notified it as an SSSI.

The law says SSSIs should not be destroyed
The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that SSSIs should not be destroyed, unless the benefit outweighs the harm. This is a classic cost-benefit analysis approach, which wilfully ignores all the intangible benefits nature provides us. Even so, as the planning officer laid out in his analysis, the costs of developing Rampisham Down far outweigh the benefits. And, in any case, there is a perfectly good location for a slightly smaller solar farm on arable land adjacent to the SSSI, where BSR have already applied for planning permission.

Another large SSSI is also under threat from development: Lodge Hill, in Kent. There are many parallels between the two sites: they are both ex-strategic infrastructure, publicly owned land that has been sold off for development; they were both notified as SSSI on account of their nationally important wildlife; and, in both cases, local authority planning committees have unanimously approved their development.

Both Lodge Hill and Rampisham Down are tests of the National Planning Policy Framework and whether it is capable of protecting nature from development. But there is a bigger challenge: to society. Protecting nature is no more an option than tackling climate change, both are necessary and one cannot outweigh the other.

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