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It’s time for nature to be at the heart of climate strategy

This post is by Matt Williams of the National Trust, Melanie Coath of the RSPB and Shirley Matheson of WWF UK, the co-chairs of the NGO Climate and Land Use Group.

This Saturday, the UK will host an international summit on climate change. It will mark five years since the Paris Agreement was signed and less than a year until the UK hosts the delayed UN climate talks in Glasgow.

In readiness for this, the government made a new emissions pledge for 2030, required under the Paris Agreement, of at least 68 per cent emissions reduction on 1990 levels. However, we know that the UK could go even further, and should, given that it has been responsible for emissions longer than any other nation.

There’s a clear role for nature
We need a clear recognition of the role that nature can play in this. Recent WWF analysis, with Imperial Consultants, showed that the UK could feasibly deliver a 72 per cent target to cut to greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 2030. Some NGOs have called for the UK to achieve a cut of 75 per cent by 2030.

In its new sixth carbon budget advice (for 2033-37), the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has given its view on what the government will need to do after 2030 to cut emissions. It identifies four routes to a 75 per cent cut by 2035. We welcome the committee’s increased ambition for what can be achieved from the land use sector. Increasing tree cover, done well, can benefit climate and nature and we are pleased that the CCC highlights the importance of planting the right trees in the right place, with a pathway that focuses on broadleaf species that are good for biodiversity, while also achieving higher levels of sequestration.

The CCC has also made strides in its recommendations on peatlands: targeting restoration of 100 per cent of upland peatlands by 2050 and calling for an end to destructive practices. In the agriculture sector, this includes new measures for less carbon intensive practices that help to store more carbon and even release the land from farming altogether.

Bioenergy is a risk to sustainability
However, the committee also suggests a significant increase in bioenergy crops, that would cover almost three per cent of the UK’s land. This poses a significant risk to sustainability through direct or indirect land use change. The CCC foresees a major role for Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) a carbon dioxide removal technology yet to be demonstrated at scale. There is also little mention of important natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, nor of the so-called ‘blue carbon’ stored in marine ecosystems such as sea grass meadows.

New analysis by WWF UK and RSPB shows the significant role that natural ecosystems should play in meeting emissions reduction targets, showing that, with the right choices, biodiversity can also be protected. With the equivalent of over 36 years’ worth of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions stored in our ecosystems, many of which are degrading, their protection and restoration will be crucial to reduce UK emissions.

We believe the government should follow a three-pronged approach:

1. Protect and restore nature
The land use sector should be drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. But the UK’s degraded peatlands have been put into reverse gear and are pumping out their millennia-old carbon stores into the atmosphere. The first step should be to end damaging practices and protect the carbon stores we have, including banning the use of peat in compost, as the CCC advises. Recommendations to restore lowland peat are a step forward. Defra’s new Lowland Peat Taskforce will need to go further and faster on this, given the scale of emissions coming from lowland peat soils. Research by RSPB shows that some of the UK’s most important stores of carbon are outside the existing protected sites for nature. It also highlights that almost 80 per cent of the UK’s peatlands are degraded (with only two to four per cent restored in the past 30 years) suggesting where they could be restored.

Once these carbon stores have been protected, restoring natural ecosystems can play a critical role in cutting emissions and shielding us from the impacts of climate change, this could be through re-wiggling rivers, increasing native tree cover, creating wetlands and restoring marine habitats.

2. Expand funding and sharpen policy
The CCC highlights the importance of investing early across all sectors. The Westminster government can do this for England, and has already announced the Nature for Climate Fund to provide £640 million of funding for peatlands and trees. However, we know that this is only a small proportion of what is needed.

The recently completed Agriculture Act could transform the way the countryside is managed, directing public money to pay for public goods and environmental outcomes. At Hope Farm (RSPB) and Wimpole (National Trust) we’ve shown that food production can go hand in hand with restoring biodiversity and cutting carbon.

The new agricultural system must be generous to pioneer farmers and fund measures that benefit nature and carbon on the farm and across the landscape. Private sector funding can play a role too, and National Trust and Green Alliance have investigated how markets for ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, could be developed.

3. Follow principles and establish safeguards
Driving investment and activity towards cutting carbon can result in perverse outcomes. The burning of millions of tonnes of wood pellets in UK power stations is ample evidence of this. To ensure that the outcomes for the climate also benefit, rather than harm, nature, strong principles are needed for ecosystem management. These include protecting human rights, supporting a just transition and ensuring biodiversity is not damaged. A set of international guidelines has been developed and these should be supported and advocated by governments over the next year, ahead of the UN climate conference.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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