The UK Government decided to fully adopt the Climate Change Committee’s recommended Sixth Carbon Budget last month. This means that the UK will be legally required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by almost 80% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, with nature-based solutions (NbS) playing a major part.
NbS is a broad concept, which describes how protecting, restoring and managing natural systems can mitigate climate change and enhance biodiversity. The latest Natural England Research Report clearly sets out how NbS can tackle both climate change and biodiversity loss.
It is also important to consider the wider benefits of the natural environment to people, including to their health and wellbeing. The recent lockdown, due to Covid-19, has made this point clear. Natural England makes the example of how a new native broadleaved woodland, strategically placed in a catchment, can sequester carbon, provide a habitat for many species, reduce flood risk and erosion into rivers, lakes and estuaries, and provide a place for people to exercise.
The report provides a list of key NbS. The following are only some of the principles listed:
Protect and restore peatlands
Peatlands are the UK's largest natural carbon stores and also vitally important for biodiversity conservation, water regulation and cultural heritage. However, England’s peatlands have been severely degraded and their restoration is recognised as a priority for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from land use in the UK.
Create new native broadleaved woodlands
Non-native woodland can deliver comparable carbon uptake to native species over much of England, but native woodland tends to provide more benefits for biodiversity. Growing the right trees, in the right place, is critical to maximise these benefits. Trees outside woodland such as hedgerows, wood pasture systems, traditional orchards and scrub can contribute to carbon sequestration, carbon storage and biodiversity enhancement.
Protect existing semi-natural habitats
The protection of all existing semi-natural habitats is vital as they are rare fragments of England’s native species. Many of these store a significant amount of carbon in their vegetation, undisturbed soils and sediments. Semi-natural habitats may have taken up to millennia to become established and can be quickly degraded if disturbed.
NbS is a key concept for tackling the climate and biodiversity crises. However, there is a limit to what NbS can do. It will not be possible to offset the UK current emissions across the whole economy through better environmental management alone. A decarbonisation process is required from all sectors in the economy, with offsetting reserved for a small amount of hard-to-eliminate emissions.
What does this all mean for the CLA members?
Land managers represent the only sector that can deliver NbS at scale, but this will need funding and collaboration. NbS already exist but most are still in test or pilot phase. Legislation through Environment Bill and in the Climate Act will underpin many of these changes such as biodiversity net gain and carbon offsetting, opening up new market opportunities for land managers. The principles are also being applied in some government schemes such as the Environmental Land Management Scheme in England.
There are questions that still need to be resolved in relation to natural capital assessments, measuring change, about how the climate benefits from NbS are accounted for through stacking with other benefits such as biodiversity, or water quality improvements. There is more work to do, but a good starting place is the CLA guidance note on natural capital: Natural capital tools, assessments and plans. To access the guidance note (cla.org.uk/advice), you must be logged into the website.