Europe and Central Asia
19 Nov 2015

Birds are the neglected victims of global warming, says new RSPB report

A Black-legged Kittiwake. The species population has declined by 70% in the UK in the last two decades. Photo: John Fox/BirdLife
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

Climate change is one of the greatest long-term threats to nature and wildlife. Today, the rate at which the Earth is getting warmer is faster than the ability of some species – plants, animals, birds and even humans – to adapt. This is especially true because nature’s resilience to climate change has already been weakened by habitat loss, over-exploitation and other human activities.

The RSPB (Royal Society for Protection of Birds, BirdLife in the UK) has been involved in some of the scientific research that has improved our understanding of the effects of climate change. To spread awareness, they have released a new report bringing together scientific evidence on the effects climate change is already having on wildlife across Europe.

It aims to document the impact of global warming on wildlife that we’ve already seen, changes we might expect in the future, and some conservation responses that could benefit both nature and people.

In the UK and across Europe, climate change is already changing the natural world. Plants and animals can survive only under certain climatic conditions. As the climate changes, species will be affected by, and will have to respond to, the new conditions (they are already doing so by moving north geographically and/or in altitude). From extreme weather events causing mass deaths of some wildlife to rising temperatures forcing species into areas that may not be a suitable habitat, climate change poses big challenges for Europe’s wildlife.

If the global temperature rises by up to three degrees Celsius, the average potential ranges of European species of breeding birds are projected to be 550km further north by the end of the century. Birds are likely to lose 20% of the extent of their breeding ranges, just from changing climate.

And research shows that wildlife will face an even tougher environment than today as a result of rising temperatures, unless we act now and we act fast.

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In each section of the RSPB’s new report, examples are presented to illustrate the impact already occurring and effects expected in the future. Each section also provides more detailed case studies focussing on the science and conservation work to which the RSPB has contributed.

For example, the report highlights the plight of the bird species kittiwake, whose population has declined by 70% in the UK in the last two decades, partly due to species mismatches caused by climate change. (In the North Sea, warmer waters are altering plankton communities. The incoming plankton species are less suitable as food for sandeels – a small fish that is the main food source for the kittiwakes, causing a loss of food resources for the birds.)

But the report is not all doom and gloom. It also explains that to survive, species are rapidly colonising new areas. Since 1900, at least 120 species, including Black-winged Stilts, Little Bitterns and Cattle Egrets have colonised the UK. But at the wider European scale, and over coming decades, changes will be more challenging than beneficial.

Yet, wildlife will only be able to adapt to climate change if there is enough suitable habitat available. The report advocates for better management and connectivity of existing protected areas and the creation of new terrestrial and marine protected areas, alongside measures to make the wider landscape more wildlife-friendly to enable species to move.

Consequently, in addition to sustainably reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives need to be better implemented by the EU and Member States, who should oppose any changes to these important laws under the European Commission 'fitness check'.

Most importantly, the report calls for nature-based solutions (ie restoring ecosystems through partnerships between conservation organisations, governments and industry) that can aid human adaptation to climate change and benefit biodiversity at the same time.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.