The UK government, which will host the critical UN climate negotiations in Glasgow this November, has chosen ‘Nature-based Solutions’ as one of its five priorities. This is significant – it is the first time ‘nature’ has been up there with emissions reductions and climate finance in the international negotiations.
A Rocha UK welcomes this. The climate crisis is so imminent an existential threat to humanity and the rest of God’s creation, that we must deploy all sensible means to address it. It is exciting that there is fast-growing official recognition that activities like restoring wetlands, forests, grasslands, underwater kelp forests, as well as changing farming and fishing practices, could make a major contribution to ‘sequestering’ carbon – extracting it from the atmosphere and locking it safely away. Not only does it show more holistic thinking from world leaders about how we can tackle climate change but it also builds a strong link with those other great environmental crises of our time – the accelerating loss of habitats, species and soil.
We’re not just talking about the Amazon basin or Great Barrier Reef: there is huge scope in the UK. Take kelp forest as an example. It grows naturally around many parts of our coastline. It provides habitat and food for a large number of marine species and it is up to 20 times more effective at sequestering carbon than land-based forests. There used to be 177 km² of kelp off the coast of Sussex alone, but by 2018 this had diminished to just 6 km² thanks to harmful fishing practices among other things. Now a project between West Sussex County Council and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) is working to restore it, creating habitat for up to 1000 marine species.
Or look at simple farmland. A 2,000-acre estate in West Sussex is looking at a scheme to change the way they do arable farming. This would involve using a mixture of “heritage” wheat, new sowing systems and nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover under the wheat crops. A survey of the estate recently found that the retention of soil organic matter from their creative cropping systems had the potential to sequester over 23,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Exploring and implementing Nature-based Solutions to climate change could lead to massive ‘win-wins’ for climate and conservation. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, there are also two very clear dangers which must be avoided. The first is that one aspect of nature is deployed without due regard to the rest, causing even more damage to wider nature. For example, according to The Royal Society, 45% of expected tree planting over the next decade will be in commercial conifer systems – though not all of this is necessarily being planted with a climate mitigation objective. Nevertheless, these are poor for nature and often only lock in carbon dioxide for a short time frame anyway. Reforesting Britain to help with climate change must be done with the right mix of species, in the right places, if it is to be much use to nature too.
The even bigger danger – to climate change as well as nature loss – is that some politicians and businesses who were always reluctant to bite the bullet and get our economy off fossil fuel, will now promote ‘Nature-based Solutions’ as a magic bullet, to delay other necessary action they wish to avoid.
We will hear much more about Nature-based Solutions as the COP26 climate negotiations approach. Indeed, A Rocha UK is working with partners to promote them. We must be aware however of the trap of them becoming a diversion from other even more important action. In April the International Energy Association reported that the world now needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% in the next decade, to keep to the 2015 Paris Accord’s aim to avoid more than a 1.5 degree temperature rise above the pre-industrial average. In 2020 we reached 1.2 degrees.
There is absolutely no way we will avoid the human and wildlife catastrophe of runaway climate change without rapidly getting our economies off fossil fuel, still the greatest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. No amount of ‘natural solutions’, whether done well or badly, can replace that.
Originally written for our May 2021 eNews. With thanks to Andy Lester for guidance in writing this article.