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The bureaucracy’s carbon obsession is distracting

I have an
in this week’s Spectator about ash trees and exotic

I’m pessimistic about the ash trees. It seems unlikely that a
fungus that killed 90 per cent of Denmark’s trees and spreads by
air will not be devastating here, too. There is a glimmer of hope
in the fact that ash, unlike elms, reproduce sexually so they are
not clones – uniformly vulnerable to the pathogen. But it’s only a
glimmer: tree parasites, from chestnut blight to pine beauty moth,
have a habit of sweeping through species pretty rampantly, because
trees are so long-lived they cannot evolve resistance in time.

The Forestry Commission’s apologists are pleading ‘cuts’ as an
excuse for its failure to do anything more timely to get ahead of
the threat, but as a woodland owner I am not convinced. An
organisation that has the time and the budget to pore over my every
felling or planting application in triplicate and come back with
fussy and bossy comments could surely spare a smidgen of interest
in looming threats from continental fungi that have been spreading
out from Poland for 20 years. The commission was warned four years
ago of the problem.

Here’s what the commission was up to instead. Just last year, I
received a letter from the Forestry Commission demanding access to
survey one of my woods to answer the question ‘what are the
forecasts for timber, biomass and carbon?’ in order to ‘help the
United Kingdom meet international commitments, such as reporting
for the Global Forest Resources Assessment and the Ministerial
Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE)’.

Notice the Sir Humphrey-esque circular argument: surveys must be
done so that the results can be reported to assessment meetings. In
other words, as far as I can tell, the Forestry Commission’s
priority has been, as in so many government bodies, to supply
talking points for the international carbon-obsessed bureaucracy.
The implicit assumption here, of course, is that climate change is
the greatest threat to Britain’s trees, when in reality far greater
threats come from diseases carried around by foresters

This is happening throughout the world of nature conservation. A
climate fetish has sucked all the oxygen from the real threats to
species and habitats – indeed it has actually begun to make those
threats worse. Remember, climate change has extinguished no species
in modern times, not one. For a while the scientists thought they
had one – the golden toad of Costa Rica, supposedly extinguished by
the loss of cloud to moisten its cloud-forest habitat. Climate
alarmists like Tim Flannery made much of this pitiful and beautiful
harbinger in their books.

But the awkward fact was that the temperature had not changed in
Costa Rica. The forests were drier, true, but only because so many
of the trees had been cut down on the lower slopes of the
mountains. And in any case, the golden toad actually succumbed,
like so many other amphibians, to a fungus brought in perhaps on
the boots of conservationists. I have lived long enough to see the
great amphibian decline blamed on acid rain, ozone depletion,
climate change and all sorts of other red herrings. Those in the
know now admit that the true culprit was probably the international
laboratory trade in African clawed toads carrying a chytrid fungus.
Was that conclusion delayed by the other obsessions? I think

As an ardent champion of free trade, by the way, I make one
exception: we are far too free in trading live creatures that can
carry diseases or smuggled pests. We need to get more serious about
this issue.

Instead, the perpetual urge to elevate climate change as an
ecological threat has distracted the world from the truth that the
greatest cause of species extinction is the invasion of alien
exotic species: fungi, weeds, snakes, rats, cats, goats, mink, grey
squirrels. No other cause even comes close to this one. Of the 181
species of bird and mammal that have died out since 1500, just nine
were on continents. The rest were on islands (Australia counts as
an island in this respect, having an isolated and vulnerable

Island animals and plants are far more vulnerable to introduced
predators, parasites and competitors than continental species, but
even on continents invasive aliens are the biggest problem: in the
British countryside, mink, grey squirrels, Spanish bluebells,
Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed. Every chance I get I tell
wildlife charities: if you want a donation from me, shut up about
carbon and speak up about invasive aliens. But government
effectively tells them the opposite, so they smile politely at me
as if I was mad.

The Forestry Commission’s comparative neglect of ash
bio-security as it flits off to MCPFE meetings about carbon is
emblematic of the entire problem. Indeed, the Forestry Commission
was until very recently urging and bribing us to bring exotic
aliens into the countryside: sitka spruce and lodgepole pine were
their idea. The latter was a commercial disaster as well as useless
for red squirrels and crossbills. It is a startling fact that in
the 20th century, ancient semi-natural woodland in public hands had
a higher probability of being felled and replanted as regiments of
sitka than if it was in private hands.

The carbon fetish is not just distracting us from real
conservation problems; it is actually making some worse. In the
name of supposedly fixing the climate at some imaginary
equilibrium, we are dashing for biomass. On current plans, by 2020
Britain will be burning 60 million tonnes of wood in power
stations, 10 per cent of our transport fuel will be biofuel and
large areas of the countryside will be producing crops of anaerobic
digesters to make gas for electricity.

Much of this biomass will be imported. The land required to grow
it will not be available to grow food, which will be displaced on
to other land cleared from forests, which as the University of
Leicester found in a recent study will ‘actually increase emissions
relative to petroleum fuels’. So we will be increasing our
dependence on imports, driving up energy bills, driving up food
prices for the world’s poor, cutting down precious rain
forestsĀ and increasing carbon emissions.
Quintuple whammy: good work, lads.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  spectator