RSPB NI Policy Officer Phil Carson looks at the value and power of nature in tackling Northern Ireland's climate and biodiversity crisis ...

Dungonnell peat dams. Photo credit: Henry McLaughlin, Northern Ireland Water

Not long ago our news feeds were filled with stories of devastating floods in England, extensive fires in the Amazon rainforest, deep peat fires in Siberia and unprecedented fires engulfing large swathes of Australia. These events brought the sight of burned wild animals, charred landscapes and lost livelihoods to the forefront of the public consciousness making us all more aware of the threats posed by climate change.

While these images may feel like distant memories, the climate crisis which precipitated these extreme events has not gone away, for instance we have just experienced the wettest February on record followed by an exceptionally dry spring; these climate impacts will become more common and severe unless concerted action is taken. While 2020 was identified as a critical year for agreeing decisive global action to tackle both climate change and the ecological emergency, the COVID-19 crisis has potentially stalled the political momentum that was developing to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis in Northern Ireland. 

As the UK, and Northern Ireland in particular, chart a path out of the COVID-19 crisis, it is vital that we do not exacerbate the existing climate and biodiversity crisis. A blinkered, short-term ‘economy at all costs’ approach will accelerate climate break-down and biodiversity decline. There has never been a more important time to demonstrate the value of nature in making the case for ‘building back better’ through a ‘green recovery’

The UK government is still committed to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 and is hosting COP26 in 2021. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Assembly has declared a Climate Emergency and the Executive’s New Decade New Approach contained a commitment to develop a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act alongside a Green New Deal.

Nature based solutions are key

These are important steps, but what are the practical measures which can be adopted at scale to deliver the climate safe, nature rich future that many are calling for? Whilst stimulating investment in green growth technology will be important, many of the solutions are already right in front of us. We’d written previously about the role of nature-based solutions in addressing climate breakdown and the importance of restoring protecting and managing these carbon sinks to achieve this aim; and the evidence for this course of action continues to grow.

A recent paper in the Journal Biological Conservation demonstrates that important habitats for nature could help lock away vast sums of carbon. The study looked at peatlands and heath, to estimate how much carbon could be sequestered if they were all restored to favourable condition. The results are astounding.  Restoring these habitats could help lock in 14 million tonnes of CO2equivalent (CO2e) per year. This represents nearly a third of the UK’s annual agricultural emissions. However, we are failing to utilise the full benefits of these important habitats as many are in poor condition, whilst two thirds lack any form protection.

Restoration in action

Garron Plateau views by Katy Bell
Garron. Photo credit: Katy Bell

We know what the solutions are and what it takes to restore them. A number of projects are already underway in Northern Ireland, to deliver these benefits for climate and nature. For example, the Garron Plateau in North Antrim is the largest single area of blanket bog in Northern Ireland. The 4650ha site is protected due to the presence of blanket bog, fens, mires, lakes, ponds and heathland. The site is also home to a range of priority species, including iconic birds such as Hen Harrier and Merlin. This landscape provides numerous nature-based solutions for climate, as well as providing drinking water for nearly 12 thousand homes and businesses in the surrounding area.

This site has been restored through raising the bog’s water table through blocking a large network of on-site drains. Blocking drains rewets the peat, stabilising the site’s hydrology and allowing the specialised peatland plants to recolonise. Carbon sequestration is increased as bare peat is covered to prevent carbon losses and as the vegetation rots its carbon is stored as peat. The unique natural balance of the site has been enhanced through habitat restoration which has improved drinking water quality and reduced treatment costs.

What next?

We know the vital role that nature plays in the addressing climate breakdown and the steps we can take to restore it. Now we need action to deliver restoration at scale. This will require a significant uplift in funding and capacity as well as the development of appropriate policy and legislation to mainstream sustainable land management. These must be at the forefront of our minds we emerge from the pandemic and chart our way towards recovery. A climate safe, nature rich future depends upon it.