Birds carry the news on environmental decline

African Penguins, like these on Boulders Beach, South Africa, have declined substantially owing to the changes in range of key fish species on which they feed. Photo: Daemonic Kangaroo (commons.wikimedia.org).
African Penguins, like these on Boulders Beach, South Africa, have declined substantially owing to the changes in range of key fish species on which they feed. Photo: Daemonic Kangaroo (commons.wikimedia.org).
Birds are the great messengers of the declining state of our environment, according to a newly published BirdLife study.

Birds are among the best studied species in the world, making them great messengers for the effects of climate change, announced BirdLife International and the National Audubon Societyin a new report, as world leaders gathered in Paris to negotiate a global climate change agreement at the UN COP21 summit.

The Messengers, released today, gathers hundreds of peer-reviewed studies from around the world illustrating the many ways climate change threatens us and birds, details the global severity of the threats from climate change. The fact climate change will result in more losers than winners is an overriding theme. It is likely that twice the number of species will be worse off from a changing climate than the number of species that will benefit. Most bird species are expected to experience shrinking ranges, which will increase the risk of extinction for some. Population declines may also be felt more widely where species are not able to shift their distributions as quickly as the climate is changing.

It’s not just birds who’ll be affected in this way – ecological communities and interactions between species will be disrupted overall. We, too, face many threats, with a rise in the number of extreme weather events and greater prevalence of disease. By the year 2100, it’s expected that an additional 52 million people in 84 different countries will be vulnerable to coastal storm surges, while lower crop yields will impact the amount of food we can produce, increasing the risk of malnutrition for many.

But the report also includes a strong message of hope. It details examples in which BirdLife Partners are helping birds and communities become more resilient in a warming world. Examples include the creation of a new mainland colony for African Penguin, with climate-induced shifts in fish stocks partly responsible for their dramatic decline in numbers in South Africa. In Europe too, conservation efforts are helping species to adapt to a changing climate; for example, with core breeding sites for Bittern under threat from rising sea levels in the south coast of Britain, the creation of new habitats is leading to population increases. The Messengers report hopefully demonstrates that nature can deliver many benefits, while at the same time offer an effective and accessible response to climate change.

In addition, as national energy ministers gather in Brussels to decide on the future of the Energy Union this weekend, the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) has produced a report for BirdLife and its UK Partner, the RSPB. It examines the energy policies which have worked well and those that have gone wrong up until now, and sets out what needs to happen next for the renewable energy revolution to be in harmony with nature.

In Europe, binding national targets and plans agreed at EU level have successfully driven investment since 2009. However, in many nations this has involved rushed and unplanned delivery of the lowest cost options, such as burning wood in old coal-fired power stations or haphazard wind farm planning, putting protected bird species at risk. BirdLife suggest that there are three key actions needed to make sure the transition to renewable energy can be a success: to ensure enough investment is being made by the EU and its member states towards renewables; to develop national energy plans that are in line with the resources available, rather than leaving investment decisions entirely to the market; and to make sure Europe’s current environmental protection laws are safeguarded.