The shackles need to come off our national parks to combat climate change
This post is by Andrew McCloy, chair of the Peak District National Park Authority. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Melanie Haiken recently outlined the dire implications of climate change on North America’s national parks if drastic action isn’t taken soon. US parks are warming at twice the national average and, without significant action, the outlook for their fragile ecosystems and varied biodiversity is bleak. Iconic parks like Sequoia, Glacier Bay and Joshua Tree could lose their namesake features altogether.
Britain may not have glaciers or deserts, but our 15 national parks represent many of our most sensitive landscapes and their sheer accessibility (people live and work there and freely visit in their millions) means that they are vulnerable. Whether it’s rising water levels in the Norfolk Broads and along the New Forest coastline, or moorland fires in the Peak District and Yorkshire, the risk is inherent. Already we are seeing the signs: changes in plant and animal species’ distribution and the spread of invasive species and tree pathogens; increased groundwater abstraction in heavily populated lowland parks like the South Downs; and the devastating impact of extreme weather events, such as the wildfires that have ravaged the Peak District’s heather moors, or flooding and footpath erosion in the Lake District.
National parks can help to educate and change behaviour
However, this vulnerability also suggests a way forward. The statutory purposes underpinning our national parks go beyond simply conserving and enhancing the landscape to encouraging popular understanding and enjoyment of the parks’ special qualities. In this, Britain’s national parks are uniquely placed to transcend conventional local authority or government agency approaches, to deliver key messages and shape low carbon lifestyles among their 90 million visitors each year.
Seventy years after national parks were first established, Julian Glover’s review of protected landscapes is due to report on their future later this year and it will make interesting reading. In the meantime, here are four areas where national parks should be helping to tackle climate change:
1. Sustainable land management
National Park Authorities (NPAs) must be allowed to play an active part in the delivery of the new and emerging environmental land management scheme, so that farmers and land managers in national parks are rewarded for caring for the landscape in a way that benefits people, wildlife and the wider environment. We know that intensive agriculture is a key source of emissions, so we should focus on locking up carbon by restoring degraded peat uplands and greater flood resilience in river catchments; supporting better soil and livestock management; and, where desirable, encouraging afforestation and exploring technologies like anaerobic digestion.
2. Influencing visitor behaviour
Nine out of ten national park visitors arrive by private car, so we need to pilot integrated transport solutions that have, at their heart, an irresistible walking, cycling and public transport offer. Whether park and ride schemes, e-bike hire or a roll out of charging points for electric vehicles, there are options to explore. More radical solutions could be national park congestion charges, low emission zones or the seasonal closure of minor road networks to visitors in honeypot sites at peak times.
3. Low carbon communities
National parks and partner organisations should promote greater energy efficiency and champion appropriately scaled renewable energy, most obviously through their role as planning authorities. From solar panels on the roofs of farm barns to mini hydro projects, there is scope to take this much further. Individual NPAs have already made significant carbon reductions in their own operations (the Peak District has achieved 29 per cent and the Lake District 25 per cent) and this could be rolled out much further.
4. Education and research: National parks are natural pioneers. For instance, the Moors for the Future Partnership has made the Peak District a leading hub for research into sustainable moorland management, building ties with academic institutions and developing a citizen science programme. National Parks England advocates that every schoolchild should be able to experience a national park. Surely an outdoor classroom is the ideal place to learn first-hand about environmental issues and climate change?
The government’s 2010 National Park Vision and Circular couldn’t be clearer on the way forward:
“The National Park Authorities are educators and in the area of climate change they have a vital role to play. They should spread important messages about the impacts of climate change and how individuals, especially visitors, can play their part in tackling it in ways which motivate lifelong behaviour change.”
From the restoration of peat bogs in the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District, through to the New Forest Tour & Beach Bus and the Go Lakes sustainable travel programme, national parks are already committed. But, to realise their full potential, they need practical, policy and organisational support from government departments (notably Defra but also across Whitehall). They also need freedom to develop new and active partnerships, and adequate funding and powers to make it all happen.
Now is the moment to take the shackles off and let national parks rise to the challenge of climate change.
[Image of Mam Tor, Castleton, Peak District Nationa Park by Ian Kelsall from Pixabay]