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Natural carbon-capturers - the neglected weapon in the climate fight

Imogen Cripps, Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link, discusses why protecting and restoring natural ecosystems should be key part of the UKs plans to meet emissions reduction targets.

December 2020

This week will see a long-awaited update of the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – a key commitment on greenhouse emissions, which is integral to us playing our part in the fight against global warming.

Under the Paris Agreement, every five years 195 nations, including the UK, must set out climate mitigation plans and their emissions reduction targets, the NDC. As our main climate emissions target for this decade, this is a major milestone.

Given the scale of the climate challenge, success will depend on action across the entire economy. However, while gaining increasing attention, the role that nature could play in ramping up global ambition on climate change is still under-utilised.

Nature-based solutions, defined as enhancing nature to help address societal challenges, could play a crucial role in tackling the climate crisis. Restoring natural ecosystems can both capture and store CO2, whilst helping wildlife recover and boosting resilience of local communities to climate change impacts like flooding.

Importantly, nature-based solutions are about more than just restoring the more commonly cited forests and peatlands. Making our grasslands, heathlands, wetlands, saltmarshes, seagrass meadows, and reefs into healthy carbon-capturers could contribute significantly to hitting our NDC target.

In the UK, the launch of the ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ and statements from COP26 President Alok Sharma demonstrate that Government is clearly thinking about how the two issues relate. This is a welcome start but must translate into action on the ground and go much further. The £640m Nature for Climate Fund lags behind the £800m promised for tech-based carbon capture and storage. By only mentioning peatland and forestry projects, it also fails to recognise the huge climate mitigation potential of other land and marine-based ecosystems.

In recent weeks, the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a green recovery left a lot to be desired on the nature front, focusing on more technological approaches. Yet, while many of these technologies are years down the line, the restoration of ecosystems could start immediately with the correct funding and management. Given predictions that net emissions from UK land use are likely to be 25% higher by 2030, as a result of degraded peatlands and changing forestry practices, we should jump at this opportunity for immediate action.

If being low-risk and immediately implementable isn’t enough of a convincing argument, nature-based solutions are also a cost-effective investment. Improved natural ecosystems would be a win-win. It would help deliver on the Prime Minister’s Leaders’ Pledge for Nature commitment to tackle wildlife declines. It could also contribute to the UK’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and the post-2020 biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as well as plans for a Nature Recovery Network. What’s more, expanding our green spaces would create thousands of jobs, improve access to nature, and deliver on a wide range of health benefits for people.

Investing in nature-based solutions is clearly a ‘no-regrets’ strategy on the path to net zero, but they can’t be used to offset the rest of the economy carrying on with business-as-usual. Nature-based solutions should be given much greater thought than they currently do, but this must be part of a wider and rapid decarbonisation effort that encompasses every sector.

It’s also important to point out that some nature-based approaches to emissions reductions – e.g. large scale, low-diversity plantations – can actually harm wildlife, the wider environment and affect public access to green spaces. Ensuring that all projects have positive impacts for climate, nature and people will be vital to avoid unintended consequences.

As the host of next year’s COP26, all eyes are on the UK government to show that it can live up to claims of being a global leader on the environment. Marking a clear role for nature in the UK’s NDC is a key opportunity to begin joining up our action on the climate and nature agendas domestically and make significant progress towards tackling both crises. This should be supported by robust targets for nature’s protection and restoration, and backed up by appropriate investment. The UK should also work with the Chinese government as hosts of the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Kunming next year, to ensure that the climate-nature nexus is a key theme uniting both conferences.

If the UK truly joins up the dots between climate and nature, we can turn the picture the Government has painted of a better environment for the next generation, into a reality.

Imogen Cripps is Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link.

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