A volunteer undertaking the UK Breeding Bird Survey
(Photo by David Tipling/BTO)

By Simon Gillings and Sarah Harris.

Read the full article here.

Much of what we know about how the natural world is changing is thanks to the efforts of the thousands of volunteers taking part in the monitoring of biodiversity. This critical information does not come for free, and an unrecognised cost is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted as volunteers travel to and from survey locations. Recent pledges aimed at minimising global warming require reductions in carbon emissions throughout society. Whilst it is essential that we have accurate information about how wildlife is faring in this changing world, we also need to be mindful of any side effects of our scientific activities. A key step is to estimate the emissions produced during biodiversity monitoring. 

We estimated how far volunteers taking part in the UK Breeding Bird Survey travelled to survey randomly-selected squares, and used a questionnaire to discover the modes of transport used. We found that c.92% of the c.286,000 km travelled to deliver annual surveys involved private cars. Overall, the equivalent of at least 47 tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted during travel for this critical survey. To put that into context, these emissions are equivalent to the total annual emissions of about four UK adults, or 15 return plane tickets from London, UK to Perth, Australia.

Why does this matter? These emissions may seem insignificant, accounting for 0.0001% of total UK emissions in 2019, but for a sector tasked with monitoring and conserving the natural environment they are concerning. Companies are expected to understand the emissions they produce, not just at their premises, but also in their supply chains; for example how much carbon is emitted to make the raw materials a company uses? In exactly the same way, research and conservation institutions need to understand the carbon emitted in the production of their raw materials: survey data.  They must also recognise that use of private cars is a barrier to participation, and one that may become harder to overcome as transport is decarbonised. Critically, research and conservation institutions need to find ways to balance the benefits of accurate biodiversity information with the carbon costs of acquiring it.