Kick-start nature’s recovery and absorb a third of UK emissions

New report from The Wildlife Trusts shows how investing in nature would reap big dividends in tackling climate crisis

Today The Wildlife Trusts publish a report ‘Let nature help – how nature’s recovery is essential for tackling the climate crisis’. Drawing on the latest research, the report shows how a variety of natural landscapes in the UK can store carbon and could absorb a third of UK emissions if these degraded habitats were to be expertly restored. It makes the case for addressing the climate and nature emergencies together, head on.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling on the Government, industry and local authorities to step-up investment in nature’s recovery and climate change mitigation by:

  • Restoring a wide range of land habitats such as grasslands, peatlands and wetlands to store carbon.  Government have missed targets to plant trees and help peatlands recover and now must identify, map and protect a wide array of ecosystems and restore them locally as part of a national Nature Recovery Network.
  • Restoring nature at sea by introducing effective management for our network of Marine Protected Areas and by designating a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas. These measures would bring our oceans back to health and enable them to function properly and absorb more human-made CO2 emissions.

The Wildlife Trusts know from experience that restoring nature can help soak up UK emissions whilst also contributing many additional benefits. For example, better natural habitats reduce the risk of flooding, help prevent coastal erosion, improve people’s health and ensure thriving ecosystems which provide the pollinators, soils, food and water which sustain us. Nature is, itself, at risk from climate change – yet its potential to store carbon means it can help us address climate catastrophe.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts says:

“We cannot tackle the climate crisis without similar ambition to meet the nature crisis head on – the two are inseparable. The climate crisis is driving nature’s decline while the loss of wildlife and habitats leaves us ill-equipped to reduce our emissions and adapt to change. It makes no sense to continue destroying natural habitats when they could help us – nature’s fantastic ability to trap carbon safely and provide other important benefits is proven.

“But nature in the UK is in a sorry state and important habitats are damaged and declining. Efforts to cut our emissions must be matched with determined action to fix our broken ecosystems so they can help stabilise our climate. Restoring nature in the UK needs to be given top priority – we’re calling on the Government, industry and local authorities to step-up investment urgently.”

The Wildlife Trusts are leading ground-breaking projects to restore and connect habitats across the UK, creating a network of re-wetted peatlands, wet agriculture schemes and new saltmarsh. We also advise thousands of farmers and landowners on how best to care for their land so that it sustains wildlife. ‘Let nature help’ draws on just a few of many Wildlife Trust examples of restored fenland in Cambridgeshire, huge-scale blanket bog restoration in Yorkshire, coastal realignment in Essex and beaver reintroduction in Scotland.

Craig Bennett says:

“The government has pledged to reach net zero by 2050 and the majority of local authorities have set net zero targets – but we know that the UK is not on track to reduce even 80% of its emissions.  It seems absurd that the government recently announced £27 billion for road building and is estimated to be spending over £100 billion on the hugely damaging HS2 rail project. They should spend this money on a green recovery instead. We are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world; restoring nature would help avert the climate catastrophe, create jobs, prevent flooding, stop our water being polluted, make us all healthier and allow wildlife to become abundant once more.”

In the March 2020 budget, the Government announced a £640m Nature for Climate fund to restore peatland and plant trees. The plan is to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025 – only around 1% of UK peatlands. The Climate Change Committee suggests we need to restore at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat to get on track to net zero.

The Wildlife Trusts believe that improving nature’s ability to store carbon cannot be at the expense of reducing emissions in other ways – but it is part of the solution. People can consider making sustainable lifestyle choices and Government policy needs to ensure that we significantly reduce emissions in every part of our lives – from leisure and food production to manufacturing and transport.

‘Let nature help’ draws on the latest research. For full bibliography please see this page: www.wildlifetrusts.org/nature-based-solutions-reference-list

‘Let nature help – how nature’s recovery is essential for tackling the climate crisis’ outlines key habitats that will store carbon if restored:

  • The UK’s peatland soils store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but are heavily degraded and release the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Restored peatlands can capture more carbon, reduce flooding, clean our water, and allow wildlife to thrive.
  • A hectare of seagrass may store two tonnes of CO2 a year and hold it for centuries, while providing nursery habitat for young fish. But we have lost half our seagrass meadows since 1985. Reducing water pollution and replanting would bring them back to health. Well-managed Marine Protected Areas are vital for nature’s recovery at sea.
  • A hectare of saltmarsh can capture two tonnes of carbon a year and lock it into sediments for centuries, but we are losing nearly 100 hectares of saltmarsh a year. Coastal realignment could restore much of it, and reduce flooding and erosion.
  • Wetlands can accumulate carbon for centuries, but in some areas of the UK we have lost over 90% of our wetland habitat. Restored wetlands provide rich habitat, clean water naturally and reduce flood risk downstream. Less drainage and over-abstraction, the return of beavers and naturalising rivers will lock up more carbon.
  • Oceans absorb 20-35% of human-made CO2 emissions every year. Carbon is incorporated into the tissues of plants and animals, and later into mud and sediment. Human activities release this carbon and also impact populations of marine animals. Introducing Marine Spatial Planning would integrate all activities to avoid unintentional harms and maximise benefits.
  • UK grasslands store 2 billion tonnes of carbon, but this is vulnerable to disturbance. Between 1990-2006, arable conversion of grasslands released 14 million tonnes of CO2. We can restore species-rich grasslands to lock up carbon and support abundant wildlife
  • About 1 billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in UK woodlands, mostly in the soils. Planting more woods could lock up more carbon, but this must be carefully planned to maximise benefits and avoid harming other habitats. We need to protect our existing woodland and help it to expand and join up and we’re calling for 40% more hedgerows to help reach net zero by 2050.

On land, 66% of carbon in nature-rich areas is outside protected sites. We need to identify, map and protect these ecosystems, and restore them locally as part of a national Nature Recovery Network. We also need to incentivise farmers and other land managers to improve their land for nature and contribute to this network. At sea, we need effective marine planning, and an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas.

Healthy ecosystems on land and at sea can absorb vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it away as carbon. However, human activities such as intensive arable farming, overgrazing, overfishing and irresponsible development release this stored carbon and drive nature’s decline. As a first step, we urgently need to protect important ecosystems so their carbon isn’t released and they can continue to absorb CO2. We also need to put nature into recovery across a third of land and sea, so the natural world can cope with the climate change that is already happening and contribute effectively to stabilising it. Doing this across a mosaic of connected habitats will also deliver countless other benefits:

  • Flood prevention
  • Coastal defences
  • Healthier lives
  • Natural resilience

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