Restoring nature to tackle the climate crisis

Adam Barnett is Senior Parliamentary Officer at RSPB. He tweets at @admpbntt and here argues how Labour can restore nature and mitigate climate change with a radical manifesto for nature’s recovery and the protection of the UK’s vital carbon and wildlife-rich landscapes. This piece was first published the Summer 2019 edition of our magazine New Ground, exclusive to our members.

Our environment and climate are locked in twin crises. The rate of species extinctions is accelerating and we’re on track to miss our emissions targets by a huge margin (including our shiny new 2050 target). It’s undeniable that urgent action is needed - so the next step must be to take Labour’s enthusiasm and the current political consensus, and drive through the immediate implementation of a suite of radical policies.

When thinking about woolly ‘future’ problems, it’s easy to attribute woolly solutions. Instead of relying on the vague potential for technology-driven ‘negative emission’ fixes or geo-engineering, we need to be looking closer to home for inspiration. As close as your back garden or local park, in fact. There’s a handy ‘negative emissions technology’ that’s been around for quite a while now - it’s called photosynthesis. The best way to suck carbon out of the atmosphere is by restoring nature – like planting trees or expanding wetlands. No need to rely on Jurassic Park-style genetic hoarding. Nature already contains all the solutions and more that are needed to tackle the twin climate and ecological crises.

We call these ‘Natural Climate Solutions’. It might just sound like more jargon, but it describes the umbrella of tools that nature can wield to fight climate change. These ‘solutions’ include landscapes such as peat bogs, ancient woodland, wetlands and permanent grasslands – all of which provide valuable habitats for wildlife whilst sucking carbon out of the atmosphere when managed correctly. However, when managed incorrectly, these landscapes degrade and turn from being vital carbon sinks to sources of emissions, as their carbon stores are released into the atmosphere.

The RSPB recently undertook a piece of research to map these carbon-rich and ‘best for wildlife’ landscapes across the UK. We found that the total carbon stored in these landscapes amounted to 2 gigatons of CO2 (2000 million tonnes). This is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of 275 million EU citizens, or alternatively 4 years of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Though even this gargantuan figure is a vast underestimation due to the realistic limitations of the data available. One example of these limitations is the fact that we can only assess data on the top 30 centimetres of soil – but some peat bogs reach a depth of 10 meters.

Our research identified sites across all corners of the 4 countries – from large uplands in Scotland and the north of England to countless smaller areas, such as patches of ancient woodland and wetlands in Wales and Northern Ireland. However, of the 2 gigatons of carbon that we found stored in these landscapes, 66 percent lies outside of areas that are protected for nature (such as National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – AONB’s). This means that they are receiving no specific, additional support or legal protections against damage. These vital landscapes are being degraded in a number of ways – including through over or under-grazing, invasive species, commercial forestry, intensive agriculture and management for grouse moors. These landscapes are vulnerable and in many cases their condition is ever worsening. The result? The huge stores of carbon they have accumulated over several centuries is rapidly leaking into our atmosphere and wildlife is being lost.

The story gets worse. Even when a landscape does possess some form of specific legal protection, it’s condition (whether it is healthy or not) is still a huge cause for concern, to the extent that carbon is being routinely lost from these protected sites due to the rate of soil and vegetation damage. The Government’s own data shows that only 40 percent of protected areas are in good condition. We therefore can only assume that the condition of the unprotected land is even worse - but we can’t prove this as they don’t even receive any monitoring or assessment!

Perhaps the most shocking finding is that SSSIs inside England’s National Parks and AONBs are, on average, in a worse condition than the SSSIs outside of these protected landscapes. For example, 12 percent of SSSI’s in the North Yorkshire Moors and 16 percent in the Peak District are in good condition – compared to 43 percent SSSI’s being in good condition that are outside of National Parks and AONBs. This is despite National Parks and AONB’s having statutory purposes to protect and enhance nature (though their condition is often due to over-tourism and lack of funding).

Not all SSSI’s in protected areas are equally bad however. SSSI condition in the three lowland National Parks – the Broads, New Forest and the South Downs – and some AONBs is better although significant improvement in these areas is nonetheless needed. Dragging the average down considerably are several upland areas where the cumulative effect of decades of intensive agriculture and grouse moor management practices is eroding the ability of habitats to store carbon and support wildlife. Damaged peatland in England’s uplands releases the equivalent carbon of 140 thousand cars annually, and 75 percent of this is the direct result of the vegetation on the peatland being burnt. This is done to encourage new heather growth to support increasingly large populations of grouse for shooting.

But all is not lost! To restore nature and mitigate climate change, Labour must be bold and propose a radical manifesto for nature’s recovery and the protection of the UK’s vital carbon and wildlife-rich landscapes. For peatlands, this must include a ban on the burning of blanket bogs (replacing the current ineffective system of voluntary agreements) and the planting of trees on peat, halting the use and sale of peat-based products in horticulture, and rapidly increasing funding for peatland restoration. Areas of ancient and semi-natural woodland must be protected and restored, and tree planting expanded drastically (abiding by a ‘right tree in the right place’ approach, with an emphasis on creating nature-rich habitats using native tree species). We should avoid further conversion and ‘improvement’ of our remaining permanent grassland, as well as revert more land back to this state. National Parks and AONB’s should have a statutory duty to manage the land for carbon and nature, with the associated agencies (such as Natural England) being much better resourced and having improved governance structures to deliver this.

Carbon and nature rich areas should be included in the ‘Nature Recovery Network’ – a set of spatial maps that will inform local planning decisions – alongside the mandatory implementation of the ‘biodiversity net gain’ principle for all new developments. We need to see a UK Agriculture Bill that prioritises the preservation of nature, accompanied by a new Environmental Land Management Scheme that funds the restoration, creation and maintenance of nature and carbon-rich habitats. And above all else Labour must continue to push for a genuinely ambitious Environment Bill that includes legally binding targets for nature’s recovery, with 5 year milestones outlining how to get there, including targets for the restoration of upland and lowland bogs and wetlands. Labour also has to play a leadership role to align these bills with the other countries around the UK as they replace their agricultural and environmental laws too - so nature, farmers and communities get the best deal no matter where they are. 

Earlier this year, figures including Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein and Rowan Williams signed a powerful joint letter stating that ‘by defending, restoring and re-establishing crucial ecosystems, a very large amount of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. At the same time, the protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help to minimise a sixth great extinction’. Never has the urgency to act been greater – nor the route that’s needed to be taken more obvious. Natural climate solutions wrap up countless win-wins and offer a unique opportunity to fight both the environmental and climate crises, at the same time presenting a positive vision for the preservation of our precious landscapes and the wildlife that call it home. Securing nature’s recovery requires brave and visionary leadership – and Natural Climate Solutions must play a key role in this.

Adam Barnett, Senior Parliamentary Officer, RSPB

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