Seahorse Summaries August 2019

Seahorse Summaries is a monthly round-up of the top environmental news stories. Launched in April 2019, it provides you with Seahorse’s insight on what we’ve seen and heard in the news, covering both the important and the intriguing.

Amazonian wildfires and major power blackouts dominated the environmental headlines in August, causing outrage far and wide. However, August wasn’t all bad; the month also brought a glimmer of hope for a number of threatened species whose protection has now been ramped up at the latest Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting.

Blackout chaos

On 9th August, a major power cut left one million people across large parts of England and Wales without electricity. This was Britain’s most severe blackout in the past ten years, the power cut happened at possibly the worst time (Friday evening rush hour), angering commuters, with serious impact on rail and road services and hospitals.

Unsurprisingly, the blackout raised several imminent questions for the Government and the National Grid, yet the National Grid became reluctant to reveal the cause of the chaos. Questions, speculation, and anger began to mount.

After it was revealed that the power outage was caused by two power plant failures at a windfarm and a gas-fired power station, some incorrectly used the blackout as supporting evidence that a power supply based on renewables will be risky for consumers. However, there is no evidence that variations in renewable energy have caused grid failures. Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the UK’s battery storage helped prevent the blackout to be much worse than it was through pumping much-needed power into the system.

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State at BEIS, then confirmed that the incident was not linked to the variability of wind power and argued that the blackout proved the need for a diverse energy mix to legitimise the place of renewables within the UK’s strategy for net-zero.

However, ironically, later in the month, Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee concluded that the Government is failing to implement low-carbon technologies as part of the net-zero transition. Although the official cause of the blackout is yet to be determined, it has shown that the Government must help facilitate the rollout of new grid management technologies as we inevitably move towards a decentralised and low carbon energy system.

Amazon fires

August saw all eyes turn to focus on the catastrophic Amazon forest fires; there has been over 72,000 fires across Brazil this year, which is an 84% rise to last year, with toxic smoke from the fires so intense that Sao Paulo was plunged into darkness. Outrage grew as the Brazilian President blamed NGOs for starting the fires on purpose to discredit his government.

Along with the world, Emmanuel Macron, Sadiq Khan and Donald Tusk took to Twitter to voice their outrage using the #PrayforAmazonia tag and to address the lack of media coverage. Efforts to publicise the fires on social media then put pressure on world leaders to address concerns at August’s G7 summit.

The G7 did offer an aid package of $20million to help finance the fires but this received backlash from officials, including Cristiana Palmer (UN), who argued that the costs of extinguishing rainforest fires is close to a billion dollars. It was also pointed out that this is very much a structural development issue, linking to trade and the economy and will require much more than the G7 offered. The President of Brazil went on to refuse the G7’s aid offer, accusing Emmanuel Macron of adopting a “colonialist” mindset.

In response to the fires, the Brazilian government set a 60-day prohibition on deliberately burning the Amazon and deployed 44,000 troops. Despite this, within 48 hours almost 4,000 new forest fires were started.

August has shown that it’s not enough to deal with solely the symptom of these fires; putting out the flames will not rectify the biodiversity lost and it also won’t prevent future fires. Instead, these devastating fires are a product of the world’s increasing consumption of resources and therefore another vital wake up call for the world to reassess its land management, which involves the UK to think seriously about its beef, soy and timber trade.

Wins for wildlife

Delegations from all over the world gathered in Switzerland to discuss the protection of more than 500 species, at the 18th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The treaty was enacted more than 45 years ago to enhance the protection of wildlife and this specific meeting shed light on the future of the ivory trade, illegal killings of rhinos, management of African elephant populations and enhancing protection for marine life.

During the final two days of the meeting, almost all the decision from earlier in the summit were approved. Many critically endangered marine life gained a much-needed safety net, as 18 species of mako shark, wedgefish and guitarfish secured increased protection. Giraffes also gained increased protection and will now be listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable to restrict the trade.

However, there was some disappointment as a proposal to list the more than 100 species of glass frogs failed to get the required two-thirds majority.

The importance of CITES as a mechanism to protect wildlife has never been more critical and while there is still progress to be made, the 18th meeting in August showed key progress in protecting some of the world’s vulnerable animal and plant species. Costa Rica has offered to host COP19, which will take place in 2022.