The carbon cost of monitoring UK birds

The carbon cost of monitoring UK birds

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has for the first time quantified the carbon footprint of volunteers traveling to randomly assigned survey locations.

The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country are vital in establishing population trends in Britain’s birds and other wildlife. The information collected is essential for conservation work, but the carbon cost of associated travel has never been assessed before.

BTO researchers estimated the distance volunteers traveled to participate in the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) in 2019. This long-term survey includes two visits each breeding season to each randomly assigned 1 km square. Interviewers were asked what mode of transportation they used to travel to their survey area. Excluding the “Upland Rover” squares, which are often combined with personal trips, the average round trip was 22.5 km (14 miles).

Some 2,765 volunteers participated in the Breeding Bird Survey in 2019 (David Tipling).

It was found that 92% of the 286,000 km traveled for the survey were traveled by private car, which represents a minimum of 47 tonnes of CO2. This is comparable to the combined annual emissions of four adults in the UK, or 15 return plane tickets between the UK and Australia.

Meanwhile, only 10% reached their allocated spot on foot or by bike, and only 1.4% of visits were made by public transport.

Dr Simon Gillings, lead researcher on the paper, said: “Why is this important? These emissions may seem insignificant, representing 0.0001% of total UK emissions in 2019, but it is important that our sector , which is responsible for monitoring and conserving the natural environment, should quantify and report on its own carbon footprint in an open and transparent manner.

“Companies are expected to understand the emissions they produce, not only on their premises but also in their supply chains, and it is only right that research and conservation institutions do the same, determining their own footprint. and taking action to reduce it where they limp.

“We want to understand the collective footprint of this baseline monitoring program and encourage others working in conservation and research to quantify the impacts of their activities.

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“In our sector, the responsibility for decarbonization rests firmly with the organizations that run monitoring programs, and research and conservation institutions must find ways to balance the benefits of accurate biodiversity information with the carbon costs of their acquisition. By being transparent and open about our impact, we can encourage other industries to do the same.”

It has long been clear that the ability to reach randomly distributed survey squares, which are often far from population centers, has been a barrier preventing those without private transportation from contributing to the survey. As transportation decarbonizes, this may present a more serious challenge to the survey, which relies on random assignment to generate robust population trends.

The 2020 Breeding Bird Survey revealed that the Willow Warbler has suffered a 45% decline in 24 years (Mark Woodhead).

The BBS began in 1994, when it replaced the Common Birds Census (CBC). Data from the two charts can be combined to produce population trends for common birds dating back to the 1960s.

Professor James Pearce-Higgins, Scientific Director of the BTO, explained: “Due to its design, the Breeding Bird Survey is an extremely important tool, providing an annual assessment of the changing fortunes of breeding birds, including the monitoring the impacts of climate change. this work highlights a previously unrecognized cost to such monitoring, the resulting evidence base remains essential to support informed decision-making and conservation action, and we are incredibly grateful to all of the birdwatchers who participate.


Gillings, S & Harris, S J. 2022. Estimating the Carbon Footprint of Citizen Science Biodiversity Monitoring. people and natureDOI: