This post is by Georgina Mace, professor of biodiversity and ecosystems at University College London.
The recent UN IPBES Global Assessment on biodiversity and ecosystems exposed the dramatic decline of nature. Seventy five per cent of the land surface has been significantly altered, and among assessed groups of mammals and birds, one in four species are at risk of extinction. The average abundance of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20 per cent and land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 per cent of the global terrestrial area.
This crisis not only threatens the diversity of life on Earth. Ongoing degradation and changes to ecosystems pose further risks to people through threats to food, energy and water security, as well as being a significant driver of climate change.There’s no single, simple answer to this emergency, but there is one, currently neglected, area that could and should be part of the solution. A radical shift in land use would substantially cut net greenhouse gas emissions, while also improving biodiversity and resilience.
It helps the environment and people
Planting many more trees, and protecting and restoring our peatlands and soils would increase the capacity to store carbon. And more sustainable farming practices can help to minimise emissions from arable and livestock farming.
But these activities also support conservation goals by improving and creating new habitats for wildlife. They provide goods and services vital to the economy and enhance societal wellbeing, including by supporting a more productive and resilient food system, helping to reduce flood risk and providing us with recreational areas and cleaner air and water.
Land use could become one of the biggest emitters
The potential of land based solutions to tackle climate change and protect our environment for the future has been largely ignored. Agriculture is responsible for ten per cent of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of storing carbon, degraded peatlands are releasing 18.5MtCO2e each year, and the carbon sequestration trees provide is expected to decline in the future unless afforestation increases dramatically.
The fact is that without action this sector could be one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the UK by 2050, alongside aviation, and above industry, transport and buildings.
But this doesn’t have to be the picture. Green Alliance’s recent report shows that with new measures, along with higher consumption of low carbon foods, the UK could reduce its land use emissions by nearly 60 per cent by 2030. This would put the UK on track to meeting the National Farmers’ Union goal for the sector to become carbon neutral by 2040.
Incremental change isn’t good enough
There are many ‘locked in’ practices, based on knowledge, custom and capital, that need to be addressed if we are to transform how we produce and consume goods from the land. And the extensive degree of peatland restoration and afforestation required will be a challenge for our planning system.
The radical shift will have to involve everyone, but a strategic approach from the government will be the first necessary step to drive changes. Only through new regulation and incentives, on both the supply and demand sides, will we see the adoption of low carbon land use at the scale needed.
It’s encouraging that nations across the UK are looking at new systems to support landowners and farmers post-Brexit that will underpin future enhancement and restoration of the environment. Under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) system that Defra is developing, the emphasis will shift towards public goods such as carbon sequestration, water and air quality, and wildlife protection. But the need to act is so urgent that we can’t wait five or so years for these new systems to start (the ELM system is not likely to be fully up and running until 2025).
We must start now. The IPBES assessment has raised the alarm and we have no time to lose.