This post is by Tom Fewins, Head of Policy and Advocacy at WWT.
Recently, I attended a reception in Westminster on woodlands. It was an impressive event, where a packed room heard about fantastic conservation work. However, on leaving I couldn’t help feeling a little bit green. Not so much in an environmental sense, more one of the green-eyed monster variety. What was behind it? Well, it was the trees.
I love trees, and the many benefits they provide. I love climbing them, hugging them, hell, even reading about them (check out Peter Wohlleben’s excellent The hidden life of trees), but I can’t help feeling slightly frustrated by the amount of attention they attract.
In public discourse, politicians appear to reach for trees almost by default for demonstrable green credentials. In the recent UK general election this escalated into some kind of bidding war, and across the world countries are knocking on wood in response to the climate and nature crises.
Wetlands beat other ecosystems as a nature-based solution
Isn’t this a good thing? Well, yes of course it is, and the increased attention on the use of nature-based solutions gives new cause for hope. But this attention must extend beyond the use of our arboreal allies. What about other ecosystems? What about wetlands?
These habitats – lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs and human-made sites, such as ponds, rice paddies and reservoirs – together provide critical ecosystem services which support life on Earth and that far outweigh those services provided by terrestrial ecosystems. Yet, when it comes to government policy, they are largely overlooked.
Take action to address climate change. Healthy wetlands such as peatlands, saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass beds store more carbon, more efficiently, than any other natural ecosystem.
Take mitigating the impacts of climate change. As the UK mops up after the latest devastating floods, it is worth considering how wetlands can provide important defences, offering natural and effective ways to tackle flooding by slowing the flow of water and storing it away from housing and businesses.
Take biodiversity. Wetlands are amazing for wildlife, with 40 per cent of all the world’s species living and breeding in them.
And, finally, take our own wellbeing. Limited exposure to nature contributes to health problems, and in an age of eco-anxiety we need ‘blue spaces’ which provide enhanced benefits for health and wellbeing.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow recently experienced these benefits for herself when she visited WWT’s Steart Marshes site on the Somerset coast. This 450 hectare ‘working wetland’ accumulates many hundreds of tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, reduces flood risk, supports local wellbeing initiatives and is home to an incredible array of wildlife.
Our wetlands are in serious decline
However, despite this, wetlands overall are in decline. In the UK we have lost 90 per cent, and globally a third have been lost since 1970. As they decline, we are squandering the chance to use some of nature’s best solutions to the environmental crises. As the UK is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, the international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, and is home to more Ramsar sites than any other country in the world, this is perverse.
The good news is we have an opportunity now to address this, in what is being billed as a super year for the environment. Key summits are being held on climate change in Glasgow and biodiversity in Kunming and, as the UK government prepares for these, an optimist can discern some promising signs on the domestic horizon. Potential game changers include a new Nature for Climate fund, a new system of agricultural support, a new flood strategy (with £4 billion funding) and an HM Treasury review into the economics of biodiversity.
These are big opportunities to turn the climate and nature crises around, but they will be missed if they overlook wetlands, with serious consequences if they are. Given what is at stake, policy makers cannot afford to ignore wetlands, acknowledge their value and place them at the heart of a nature based solutions approach.
From climate change and flooding, to biodiversity and wellbeing, wetlands can play a critical role in helping to make 2020 the super year promised. Let’s make this happen so we are left feeling green for all the right reasons.