Climate Change and Nature Blog Series No 5
by James Pearce-Higgins
Having considered the potential impacts of climate change on nature, how should we respond?
“The risks posed by climate change are fundamental to every aspect of life in the UK: our natural environment, our health, our homes, the infrastructure on which we rely and the economy.”
The third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, June 2021.
In this series we have so far considered the impacts of climate change on the timing of biological events, on the abundance and distribution of species, and on ecological communities, and how future climate change may exacerbate these impacts.
The above quotation, from the third UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, warns of the life-changing impacts of climate change for the UK. The report highlights the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a result, which will also deliver expected benefits for biodiversity.
Lessening, or mitigating, the impacts of climate change covers a range of approaches; from encouraging changes in behaviour that reduce energy consumption and technological developments to increase energy efficiency, developing more efficient or renewable sources of energy and taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. We’ll now explore renewable energy and the ability for land management to lock away carbon.
A range of different renewable sources of energy exist, from low technology bioenergy crops to high-tech wind turbines and solar power plants. Bioenergy relies on the photosynthetic activity of plants to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to plant matter that can either be used directly as biomass, such as wood, to heat homes or generate electricity in power-stations, or converted into other sources of fuel such as liquid biofuel. This process requires relatively large areas of farmland or woodland to generate energy. As a result, large-scale reliance on bioenergy for climate change mitigation has the potential to be more damaging to biodiversity than the climate change that it seeks to avoid.
Already, the conversion of natural habitats to intensive energy production has contributed to the large-scale destruction of biodiversity in tropical forests in other countries. More efficient sources of renewable energy, such as from wind farms or solar power plants are associated with less habitat loss per unit of energy generated, but can still be damaging to biodiversity. Wind turbines in particular pose a collision risk to birds and bats, particularly large soaring birds such as eagles, and therefore should be located away from biodiversity hotspots of vulnerable species. Aside from the direct habitat loss, the impacts of solar power on biodiversity are likely to be less, but remain poorly studied.
Climate change mitigation can also be achieved through land management to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, or to promote carbon sequestration from the atmosphere by plants, often referred to as nature-based solutions. Take aforestation, which is driving significant tree-planting initiatives across the UK and elsewhere. For example, in Scotland, 13,000 hectares of new woodland were approved in 2020. Whilst native woodland planting has the potential to significantly enhance woodland biodiversity if managed appropriately, care needs to be taken that such tree planting does not threaten open-country species of conservation concern, such as curlew. Perhaps less obvious, is how we manage other carbon-rich habitats, such as the blanket-peatlands of the UK uplands. These peatlands are also critically important, as these carbon stores can be lost through drainage and wildfire. Managing our peatlands correctly can also reduce their vulnerability to climate change whilst also benefiting peatland specialists from sphagnum moss and sundews to white-faced darters and golden plovers, something we will learn more about next month.
About the author: Professor James Pearce-Higgins is the Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology and a trustee of A Rocha UK.
This blog was written for A Rocha UK’s Wild Christian email, July 2021. Read part 6 in our climate and nature blog series here. Sign up here to receive future Wild Christian emails