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Build Back Wetter after COP26

Dr James Robinson, Director of Conservation at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) explains why we need our political leaders to commit to creating, restoring and protecting our wetlands as part of COP26 climate action.

November 2021

We are now deep into the first week of COP26 and it has been an incredible if exhausting few days. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) has been co-organising and attending many events and discussions, flying the flag for wetlands and their role in climate mitigation, resilience and adaptation across the globe. You can find out more about what we’ve been up to here.

The interest in the power of wetlands to tackle the globe’s problems makes me optimistic but we need to turn interest into action, and fast. It’s time to Build Back Wetter!

I remain bamboozled why these multi-benefit super-habitats aren’t firmly on the agenda for the plenary sessions and only feature in the excitement of side events. The climate and nature crises are partly driven by wetland loss; we are depleting their natural capital, the stocks of natural assets that underpin our economy, livelihoods and wellbeing and as wetlands are degraded they release greenhouse gases.

Current demands upon natural capital are greater than supply. Despite its relatively high rate of return we are underinvesting in the natural capital held in our wetlands. We depend upon these wetlands for essential goods and services, including carbon storage, however they have declined dramatically. Up to 87% of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700 and we are losing wetlands three times faster than natural forests.

I could rattle on about the value of wetlands for people and wildlife for a very long time but I wanted to focus on a pressing issue for the UK Government and the devolved administrations at this critical COP. Jazz Austin from the RSPB wrote very eloquently earlier in the week about the value of coastal wetlands for helping us to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. It is the value of these habitats for carbon accumulation as well as their role in adaptation and resilience that I want to focus on here.

We know that saltmarshes and seagrass beds in the UK already store enormous amounts of carbon. We are also learning how powerful new coastal habitats can be at sequestering carbon and at pace.

At WWT Steart Marshes on the Severn Estuary, exciting new research from Manchester Metropolitan University and Jacobs has found that this one 250 Ha area saltmarsh (created through managed realignment funded by the Environment Agency and delivered by WWT) stores as much carbon over four years as just over one million new trees grown for ten years. It is burying organic carbon at a rate of over 19 tonnes per hectare per year, resulting in a total of over 18,000 tonnes of carbon (67,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide) being buried at the site over the four year study period. This is equivalent to taking 32,900 UK cars off the road for one year and the greenhouse gas emissions from powering almost 78,000 UK homes for one year.

The physical characteristics of the Severn Estuary lend themselves to these high rates of carbon accumulation but similar opportunities exist to exploit this rich nature-based solution across the UK’s coast.

Out of 118 countries that have submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (where countries outline and communicate their post-2020 climate mitigation measures) 71 have included coastal and marine nature based solution. Among these, 45 countries included coastal and marine nature based solutions for both mitigation and adaptation purposes such as the protection, management, restoration and creation of coastal wetland (blue carbon) ecosystems.

The UK has not done this to date and yet this could be a significant driver for the change we need to see to harness the power of these wetlands. This is ultimately a political decision that will need to be underpinned by a number of Government action that includes filling fundamental evidence gaps and the inclusion of these habitats in the UK’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory. However, we can’t just sit back and watch time tick by to gather data, time is not a luxury we can afford, we need to use every tool in the toolbox to tackle climate change, reducing emissions and storing carbon in nature.

We need to start acting now to create coastal habitat and we need to secure the public and private finance to implement on the ground (find out about our work with partners to create a saltmarsh carbon code that could drive significant investment here).

I think it’s high time our political leaders pledged to create, restore and protect the vital wetlands we need to tackle our twin nature and climate crises. I’d love to see a commitment announced before this COP has completed its vital business or very soon after.

Dr James Robinson is Director of Conservation at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT)

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.