50 for the Future – Avoid building energy infrastructure on sites of wildlife importance

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive of the John Muir Trust, outlines why strategic planning is needed to protect iconic landscapes and fragile habitats from the impact of energy developments. 


Number 7: Avoid building energy infrastructure on sites of wildlife importance, including blanket bogs and protected areas


Few people today dispute that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, impacting on billions of people and ecosystems worldwide. Equally, few people would dispute that the expansion of large-scale energy infrastructure, particularly onshore windfarms in the Scottish uplands, is having a significant impact on our iconic wild landscapes.

This tension tends to grab the headlines and has led to significant conflict, protracted planning disputes and most recently in the case of my own organisation – the John Muir Trust – a judicial review in the Scottish courts. But as well as disfiguring wild landscapes, large-scale industrialisation can have other damaging impacts on our natural environment.

Wind turbines should be sited away from important areas of peatland. © John Muir Trust

Wind turbines and transmission lines kill birds, while the construction of the infrastructure can disrupt habitats and cause displacement of species. For birds in particular, a great deal of effort goes into assessing the potential impact that a development might have. Where developers follow best practice guidelines and undertake good quality environmental impact assessments, negative impacts can generally be avoided. But while they may be mitigated, they cannot be removed altogether, so our decision-making involves balancing benefits against costs to the environment, the local community, the public and the nation. This is a complex assessment involving evidence and values-based judgements. 

The Scottish Government’s headline energy policy, coupled with high profit margins underpinned by subsidies, has driven rapid development in new energy infrastructure in Scotland. Planning departments, government agencies and organisations concerned with potential impacts have all struggled to cope with the scale of development pressure – it takes time to make those complex judgements. We have tended to proceed empirically, adjusting policy on protection, spatial planning and natural heritage in response to the mistakes we have made.  

At the heart of this problem is a lack of strategic planning that looks at both the energy infrastructure that we need in order to provide secure, cost effective and low carbon energy and also, crucially, at where such infrastructure should be located. Until now we have been on the back foot, reacting to individual development proposals rather than setting out an alternative path that can reconcile our needs with the needs of nature. 

In that context we should welcome RSPB's 2050 Energy Vision: Meeting the UK’s climate targets in harmony with nature. The report sets out a ten-point plan to help the UK meet its climate targets in harmony with nature. I won’t go through them all, and I make no comment on their proposed energy mix scenarios – but spatial planning is key, allowing us to identify and map opportunities, constraints and ecological sensitivities.

So what might that look like in Scotland? The National Planning Framework already sets out some constraints: National Parks and National Scenic Areas are no-go zones for onshore windfarms and the 42 Wild Land Areas (WLA) go a long way to protecting the majority of the nation’s best-loved wild landscapes. These remain under challenge from developers – but up to this point at least, the Scottish Government has held firm and rejected recent proposals in WLAs. 

Emma Goodyer
Peatlands cover 20% of Scotland. © Emma Goodyer 

The policy framework should be strengthened to prohibit development on sites designated for their natural interest, but that still leaves us with some significant gaps. Mobile species such as birds, cetaceans, fish and bats don’t respect planning boundaries. Moreover, some large developments which might involve 100 or more turbines on land and sea – plus their associated infrastructure – have the potential to devastate internationally important populations of protected species.

Developers and Ministers regularly ignore the precautionary principle and consent development even in the face of scientific evidence predicting such impacts and against their own advisors (Scottish Natural Heritage) – as with the recent case now being fought in the courts over consent for four offshore schemes, totalling 335 turbines, located in the Firth of Forth and Tay.

Perhaps below the radar and out of public consciousness is the impact of energy developments on peatlands. Peatlands cover more than 20% of Scotland, much of it outside designated areas. There is a double whammy here in that peatlands are a natural solution to climate change – they store carbon and have been doing so for 10,000 years in Scotland. When we drain and disturb them, we not only prevent them from doing that job, but we also release the carbon that has been stored.

Scottish Natural Heritage doesn’t collate statistics for the volume of peat extracted for built development schemes (I suggest this would be a good idea!) but I’m pretty confident the energy sector and the windfarm developers in particular are now the UK’s biggest source of peat extraction. Developers try to convince planners that the peat will be ‘reused’ on site, but any peatland hydrologist will tell you this is nonsense.

Let’s not look back in 50 years and lament the decisions to industrialise our natural heritage – the cost certainly does not equal the benefit. We need to rapidly strengthen planning regulation, guided by a spatial strategy to get the best of what we need without losing what we’ve got.

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Stuart Brooks is Chief Executive of the John Muir Trust and Chairman of the UK National Committee of the IUCN.



Banner image © Thomas Nugent (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, Stuart Brooks outlines why strategic planning is needed to protect iconic landscapes and fragile habitats from energy developments such as wind farms. 

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