A Net Zero Strategy for Nature

A Net Zero Strategy for Nature

The Government is due to publish its flagship strategy shortly for achieving Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions across the UK by 2050. Many are looking to this single document as a sign that the Government will ramp up much-needed domestic action on mitigating and adapting to climate change.

This is the last chance to put those policies in place before the UK hosts the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in November. There, it will preside over discussions aiming to achieve a huge uplift in action globally, to avoid the catastrophic impacts that are otherwise predicted to occur.

Net Zero needs Nature. Nature needs Net Zero. Both Need Adaptation. It’s as simple as that. The only kind of Net Zero Strategy that will be successful is one that integrates all three goals. Achieving Net Zero requires making the most of the natural carbon sequestration that can be harnessed from peatlands, woodlands, saltmarsh and other natural carbon stores. At the same time, these stores are at high risk of degradation and carbon loss from the more extreme climatic conditions that are already inevitable over the next 30 years; this is where adaptation comes in.

If global Net Zero fails however, adaptation alone cannot prevent an increase in damages, and the degradation of habitats and loss of carbon from extreme events like wildfire in a 2°C+ world will shift from dangerous to catastrophic even with the very high levels of adaptation that will still be required to at least reduce the impact. In this world, which we are currently heading to globally, there will be vastly increased carbon emissions from land-based sources and even more climate change.  We are running out of time to turn this picture around.

Here are my top five nature-based policies that would help to make the Net Zero Strategy a success, bringing it together with Nature and Adaptation and painting a new, much brighter picture.

1. Peat

The UK’s peatlands are our largest natural carbon store by far; they store an estimated 11,000 MtCO2e, an order of magnitude more than that stored in trees. That carbon needs to stay locked up, and much more added on top.  But that is not happening; the majority of UK peat is degraded due to intensive arable agriculture on lowland peat soils, and drainage on upland peat as well as burning for grouse shooting. Overall, our peatlands are emitting carbon.

Dry, drained peatlands – much of which are on designated sites but still degraded - are also highly vulnerable to losing more carbon from wildfires. Climate change will add yet another threat from hotter drier conditions, leading to loss of further degraded peat; up to two-thirds by 2050.  Peat accumulates at roughly 1 mm per year, so once it is gone, it is effectively irreplaceable.   Policy pledges to restore peat have been frequent over the years, but far too small.  The latest Peat Action Plan for England aims to only protect around 8% of upland peat.  The Government needs to think much bigger.

We need to see: a target of 100% upland peat restoration before 2050; a complete ban on rotational burning now; cessation of arable/horticultural farming on deep peat and replacing this with vertical farming and paludiculture (wet farming); a wholesale ban on the use of peat in all horticulture and compost products, including imports.

Peat bog

© Mark Hamblin / 2020VISION

The Wildlife Trusts are restoring peatland across the UK

The Wildlife Trusts are leaders in peatland restoration; together we have already restored more peatland than the Government has currently committed to restore by 2025

Discover more

2. The sea

The oceans are undergoing systemic alterations due to climate change, including acidification and de-oxygenation, and the recent IPCC report warned that further change is now locked in for millennia from sea level rise.  The ocean has already absorbed at least 25% of the CO2 generated by people each year, with some of this taken up by marine plants such as seagrass. The seabed has a significant role to play in sequestering carbon but will be unable to if it is being disturbed by fishing activities.

Seagrass is very vulnerable to pollution and recreational use, and around 50% is estimated to have been lost in UK waters in the last 35 years. Coastal habitats like saltmarsh also act as an important carbon store as well as a natural buffer against coastal flooding, and are declining on average.

We need to see: A UK-wide ban on bottom trawling; all seagrass habitats to be given highly protected status; renewed pledges to protect and expand coastal habitats including saltmarsh; a push for investment in large managed realignment projects.

Super seagrass

Discover more about these incredible undersea meadows, and what Wildlife Trusts are doing to help restore them. 

Read more

3. Agriculture

Voluntary policies to encourage emissions reductions from the agriculture sector have been in place since 2010; but have failed.  Agricultural emissions have barely changed in the past ten years, but need to drop sharply; the Climate Change Committee estimate by at least ~40% by 2050, taking into account the difficulty in reducing all agricultural emissions to zero.

Around 20% of agricultural land should also be released from food production to be used for carbon sequestration.  Incentives for managing land for nature through new agri-environment schemes could go a long way to achieve this, but will only work if those schemes have enough financial incentive behind them to drive regenerative agriculture at scale, and if compliance is monitored properly. Details of how this will happen in practice are still being worked up.

We need to see: a significant push towards regenerative agriculture in the Net Zero Strategy; quantified specifics on how the Environmental Land Management (ELM) and the devolved schemes will incentivise action to reduce emissions and protect soils and water; a proper policy on promoting diet change away from meat to help to free up land to focus on carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

Corn bunting (Milaria calandra) singing in oilseed rape crop at an arable farm in Hertfordshire. April 2011. - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

The Wildlife Trusts and Farming

Across the UK, Wildlife Trusts advise thousands of landowners and farmers every year, as well as managing 100,000 hectares of our own land. We also work to improve agriculture policy for wildlife, and manage 26 working farms where we demonstrate wildlife-friendly farming. 

More

4. Trees

Woodlands cover around 13% of UK land now.  It is recommended that tree cover across the UK increase to at least 18% by 2050 as a sensible contribution to Net Zero.  Short-term targets are being set through strategies such as the England Tree Action Plan, along with increased finance (£500 million from the Nature for Climate Fund in England) but planting rates remain lower than required and the phrase ‘right tree in the right place’ still lacks specifics for land managers on how to do it.

More trees need to be planted near rivers (riparian planting) to provide shade in order to protect freshwater species from rising water temperatures, and in places where they can slow down floodwater.  Much more guidance is also needed for private as well as public forest estates on how to plant trees to give them the best chance of survival in increasingly unpredictable conditions.

We need to see: UK-wide planting targets for between 2030 and 2050, with actions for how these will be met; requirements that a diversity of species are planted in every location to give the best possible chance that some survive in unpredictable and changing conditions; specific guidance for which species to avoid and where for all land managers; public information on how to give saplings the best chance of establishing in hotter, drier and more extreme conditions.  The Government should also clarify that indicators on new woodland creation are about establishment of trees and not just tree planting rates.

Birch woodland

Lianne de Mello

The right tree in the right place

Woodlands provide solace, are home to wildlife and soak up carbon from the atmosphere making them an important natural solution to the climate crisis.

However, it's really important that new woodland creation is planned carefully to make sure it's in the right place and not planted over the top of other valuable habitats like peatland or grassland, as this can lead to the release of carbon, rather than the opposite. 

More about woodlands

5. Adapt, adapt, adapt - and then adapt some more

The Government largely treats mitigation and adaptation separately; oversight sits in separate departments, there are separate strategies and separate teams. But adaptation is absolutely fundamental to achieving Net Zero. The latest independent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment spelt out over 20 different risks to achieving Net Zero from climate change. 

Risks to natural carbon stores from changing climatic conditions, including extreme heat, fire, and drought, were a top area for immediate action in the report. Adaptation cannot wait until the next set of strategies are due from 2023.  It has to be included in the Net Zero Strategy, now.

We need to see: Specific policies on how the resilience of natural carbon stores will be improved; including reducing the risk of wildfire, guidance on managing woodlands and farmland during drought and hot weather, and ensuring that targets for boosting natural carbon stores take into account some inevitable loss driven by climate change itself. Departments should be required to demonstrate progress on adaptation at the same time as progress on mitigation.

 

We’ll be coming back once the Strategy is published in October to see how the Government has done against our top five. Watch this space.