Saturday, April 04, 2015
Which is more Important: Climate Change or Environmental Protection?
Comments due by April 10, 2015
Does the need to mitigate the effects of man-made climate change override the need to protect nature?
Climate change is with us, and is one of nine reasons why scientists are now concerned that the rate of environmental degradation is a threat to the future of human life on Earth. The loss of biodiversity, dubbed the Sixth Green Extinction by some, is another threat to humanity, with nearly half of the world’s amphibians and a fifth of its plants at risk of extinction.
We do not have the luxury of choosing which of these nine challenges to tackle; they are all critical to our survival.
Yet last week, here in West Dorset, the council unanimously approved the development of a 25MW 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 70ha of heathland and nature-rich grassland, known as lowland acid grassland at Rampisham.
Natural England estimate that there is only 5000ha of 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.
After the radio station closed in 2011 it was acquired by a solar farm developer.
British Solar Renewables (BSR) and its 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. 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 weeky to decide whether to give the Solar Farm planning permission. They listened to the evidence against it from Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, and for it, from the developers, their witnesses and local councillors. 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.
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 has 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 committee 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.