This July I took a boat trip with my family to Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles sitting in the Sea of the Hebrides between Mull and Tiree.
Lunga is famous for its puffins, the stocky little seabirds with a seemingly oversized multicoloured beak. On Lunga you can view the birds quite close to the burrows where they nest and watch them whirring above your head with their stumpy wings as they come into land after an exhausting fishing trip.
Some puffins will have travelled many miles, stopping at points to dive beneath the waves and hunt for sand eels, one of their preferred foods, before carrying a dozen or more back to the burrow in their serrated beaks.
We also watched the raucous colonies of guillemots and kittiwakes perched on the narrow ledges of Lunga’s Harp Rock. However, not all seabird cities around our isles are doing well and the cliffs are becoming quiet.
Marwick on Orkney and Sumburgh Head on Shetland have seen declines in kittiwake numbers of more than 80 per cent in the past 30 years. A recent count of occupied puffin burrows at Hermaness in Shetland found declines of 69 per cent since 2002.
For a seabird, climate change is not a future problem, it’s affecting them now. Climate change is warming the oceans much faster than the land and is putting intense strain on the marine food web.
The North Sea has warmed by nearly 2C causing an influx of warm water plankton which are less nutritious to the sand eels which consume them. This means the sand eels caught by puffins, kittiwakes and other seabirds are smaller, fewer and less packed with the energy that a growing chick needs. This chain reaction in the food web is causing seabird populations to decline.
The IPCC report published last month had a stark warning about the effects on wildlife if we allow the planet to warm more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels; we already have 1C of warming.
The IPCC experts showed that warming from 1.5C to 2C would result in twice as many plant species and vertebrate animals losing more than half of the space they can inhabit in the world. This range contraction would for some lead to extinction. Three times as many insects would be affected in this way at 2C compared to 1.5C. For many species, a world warmed by 1.5C will be bad but a world warmed by 2C will be much worse.
Fragile marine food webs, like those around Scottish coasts which puffins and kittiwake are part of, would experience much more disruption at 2C. Further afield coral reefs in tropical waters are particularly vulnerable to warming seas. In a 1.5C warmer world we will lose 70-90 per cent of coral reefs but at 2C virtually all will be lost. The warning for our marine world could not be clearer.
The Scottish Parliament is considering a new Climate Change Bill which aims to reset and strengthen our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets so that Scotland does its bit of global efforts to keep warming to no more than 1.5C.
The Scottish Government has proposed that we fix a 90 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 but the headlines in the IPCC report are clear that by this date we need to be at net-zero emission. Net-zero means balancing small amounts of emissions with activities such as tree planting or good soil management which remove and store CO2 from the atmosphere.
RSPB Scotland is part of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition which is calling for this target of net-zero emissions by 2050 to be in the Bill along with a 77 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. These targets, placed into our nation’s laws, will help protect vulnerable wildlife from the worst effects of climate change.
We have a moral responsibility to the wildlife around us, like our precious puffins, to prevent global warming rising beyond 1.5C. We also have the moral responsibility to put in place solutions which don’t harm wildlife, such as planting trees and locating windfarms in the right places.
The millions of wild species that we share the world with have done nothing to cause climate change but many are struggling now and some may never recover. If we act now in Scotland with a strong and ambitious Climate Change Bill we have a chance to prevent many more extinctions and ecosystem collapse.
You can add your voice for stronger targets by going to bit.ly/SCCS-Act
Jim Densham, senior land use policy officer – climate, RSPB Scotland.