The CPRE (formerly the Council for the Protection of Rural England) seeks to protect our countryside and accepts that its biggest threat is from climate change.
CPRE’s strategy on renewable energy forms an important part of its remit, but some have questioned whether its approach is being influenced by a CPRE membership that is often negative about renewable energy, and even includes elements of climate denial.
What is CPRE’s strategy – and does it add up? Or could it stand in the way of rapid decarbonisation, and fail in its main and critical aim?
Ed Funnell investigates the forces and effects behind one of Britain’s most influential countryside organisations.
CPRE presents itself as the countryside charity. It is split into a national organisation and local groups such as Devon CPRE. Each of these are charities in their own right, and membership fees typically provide funds equally to the national and a local organisation.
The national organisation states that “the climate emergency is the biggest threat facing our countryside and planet. We need to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions”. It is positive about renewable energy and recognises that it is cheap, low-carbon and flexible.
CPRE’s policy on solar energy states that it “is committed to supporting solar energy but will always oppose harmful developments” using “huge greenfield sites”. It states that developments should limit landscape impacts, secure nature recovery and be supported by local communities, but it does not set out clear guidance determining when these criteria have been met: it only refers this judgement to the local CPRE group.
At the national level, CPRE leadership is understandably concerned about the impact of large-scale renewables on local communities and their environment. It has developed Community Energy Visioning, a constructive approach to finding suitable sites, where local residents identify preferred sites for renewables; three pilots have been completed so far. However, there is no agreement with installers to implement the schemes, and even if that did happen, not enough clean energy would be delivered even for the local community. Can CPRE really claim that this approach will “avert climate catastrophe”?
Another positive step has been to urge the government to invest in solar energy on rooftops, car parks (as has been done in France), and brownfield sites.
The concern is that the positive stance of CPRE at a national level is far outweighed by objections, often led by local CPRE groups, to proposed developments. Supporters of CPRE will be spared what they might perceive as unsightly solar farms and wind turbines (which can, after all, be dismantled and removed at the end of their working lives), but those same supporters will be inflicting irreversible damage to ecosystems and societies if we fail to reach Net Zero.
Let’s deal with some myths.
No, it will not. The area needed for solar panels is less than the area taken up by golf courses. As solar technology is improving rapidly, the area needed to produce the same amount of energy will decrease. To say that renewables industrialise our countryside is emotive and inaccurate; again, the space required is small, and agriculture itself is industrialised to such a degree that the UK is one of the most nature depleted counties in the world.
DEFRA’s recent report makes it clear that the impact on food security from climate change far outweighs the losses resulting from land being converted to renewable energy use. Even in the UK, climate change will reduce productivity and the amount of land suitable for crops, but globally the problem is massive. That matters, because for many, food security is linked to costs which are often set by global or regional markets.
Also, farmers need affordable energy, and renewable energy is the cheapest energy we have. We have to move away from using fossil fuels, and nuclear energy will be too slow to deliver and is more expensive than renewables.
We must not forget wind energy in this debate. We are in a race against climate change; land-based wind turbines are fast to deliver, but they cannot be put on rooftops or car parks. Geographically, the UK is very well placed for wind energy; land-based wind turbines provide the most economic source of electricity in the UK; and wind turbines can ‘cohabit’ with arable and pastoral farming. Sadly, however, the effective moratorium on wind energy projects looks likely to continue, and even if it were lifted, local CPRE groups would almost certainly oppose it.
Solar energy can also be generated alongside crops and animals and arrays of panels can provide useful shade and other benefits. However, this is currently rarely done and CPRE would do better to campaign for it to be given more support – or, alternatively, to encourage the creation of wildflower meadows to improve biodiversity.
CPRE prefers brownfield sites for renewable energy – but this is double-counting, as it also says they should be used for housing development. Housing should be the priority for most brownfield sites because they are close to urban areas and public transport routes.
Yes, but fossil-fuelled facilities are about 17 times more dangerous per gigawatt hour of electricity produced. Also, pesticides – supposedly protecting food security – kill hundreds of times more birds.
More importantly, climate change will disrupt entire ecosystems; the Bat Conservation Trust tells us that “climate change is one of the major menaces to the survival of many bat species.” The RSPB wants us to “take small actions, like switching to green [renewable] energy”; the design, siting and operation of turbines can reduce bird and bat deaths.
CPRE should take more note of these practicalities:
- Speed of deployment. We have to progress faster, and delivering energy from rooftops and even smaller ground-based implementations will take longer than from large solar farms or wind turbines.
- Cost of deployment. Scaffolding has to be erected on every building for rooftop solar panels; this increases the costs. Car park solar requires frames to be built, and health and safety issues to be managed in areas which are accessible to the general public. Neither rooftops nor car parks are suitable for wind turbines, our most effective source.
- Funding arrangements. It is clear that funding for grid-scale renewables is ready and waiting. Who is going to fund solar on rooftops? It will take a long time to design a system that could deliver funded solar on enough rooftops to help us meet our targets.
- Grid integration. Not all solar energy can be used at the site of production. You have to put solar in places where it benefits the wider grid. Grid enhancements take time and analysis shows that – at least in some regions – brownfield sites, carparks and many large roof areas cannot be supported by the grid.
- Energy storage issues. As we scale up renewable energy, storing it will become increasingly important. This is a rapidly developing market, with alternatives to lithium such as iron air and sodium ion batteries progressing quickly, possibly reducing the cost by a factor of 10 in the next five years or so. Gravity, pressure, heat and green hydrogen also offer solutions, but these options are not suitable at most rooftop or carpark sites.
Land-based renewables are the more certain way to deliver the renewables we need, within the timeframe necessary to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, and can be enhanced – though not replaced – by mandating rooftop solar on new builds and by encouraging rooftop solar more generally.
At a national level, CPRE’s opposition to fracking and coal mines is welcome, as is its support for soil and peatland restoration. The national stance on renewables has some positive elements but at a local level, the situation is often far less helpful.
This is certainly the case for Devon CPRE. Its energy spokesperson Dr Philip Bratby expresses opinions that many would consider to be climate denial. He also makes use of references to the hugely climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation to back up some questionable assertions. His outspoken comments are remarkable not just for their lack of scientific rigour, but they also have the effect of encouraging climate scepticism, a mistrust of renewables (including rooftop solar), and a favouring of fossil fuels. And meanwhile, Devon CPRE is vigorous about blocking or delaying renewable energy projects on farmland.
In Somerset and Dorset the benefits of renewables are recognised, but the stance can be characterised as ‘yes’ in theory and most often ‘no’ in practice. Looking at Cornwall CPRE’s website I can find little about renewable energy, but this local newspaper report suggests a similarly negative stance.
Local CPRE groups are empowered to act independently of the national organisation and to make the decisions on whether to support or oppose renewables in their region. They portray themselves as acting for the benefit of the local community, but don’t necessarily represent the views of the majority of local people.
After more than a decade of campaigning against renewables developments in the countryside, local CPRE groups appear to have attracted and fostered members with negative views on renewables. The result is that the national CPRE’s stance on renewables is likely to be constrained by misinformed supporters trying to protect a landscape rather than nature, or farmland rather than food security.
CPRE’s strategy of largely trying to keep renewables off greenfield sites is impractical, given the urgent need to decarbonise. The amount of land required neither jeopardises food security, nor justifies the level of concern raised by CPRE. Nature and food production can coexist with renewables in the countryside.
If CPRE wants to support action on climate change, it needs to show leadership to help overcome local opposition to what is a vital and urgent issue. There is too much at stake, for those of us who live in developed countries to reject compromises or to put aesthetics before speed.
If you are a member of CPRE, please write to them and tell them their strategy will not work.