Today's guest blog is by the Endangered Landscapes Programme which aims to restore natural ecological processes, species populations and habitats for a better and more sustainable future. It signals a shift away from a narrative of ‘slowing declines’ and ‘no net loss’ to a positive and creative conservation agenda in which the potential of our land and seas is recognised.

Scientists, policymakers and business leaders alike are grappling with the complex problems of both adapting to, and mitigating, the effects of climate change. Mitigation can include reducing the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere (switching to renewable energy sources, dietary changes, preventing emissions from deforestation), as well as finding ways to capture and store carbon to actively reduce CO2 levels.

There are no silver bullet solutions to emission reduction or carbon capture, but there is a growing interest in better utilising natural processes which do this already, rather than solely rely on technological solutions. These nature-based solutions to climate change are often referred to as ‘natural climate solutions’.

This thinking underlies the mounting attention that tree-planting is receiving (for example, the Trillion Trees Initiative campaign) at the global and national level. While tree-planting can undoubtedly be an effective mitigation measure, there are many other natural ecosystems which can contribute to locking up carbon. Peatlands, wetlands, seagrass beds and many other habitats have also been shown to lock up huge amounts of carbon and can therefore contribute to net zero emission targets.

But it’s not just the type of ecosystem that influences the potential to store carbon – it’s also the quality of that habitat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, habitats that are in good condition sequester (capture) more carbon dioxide than degraded areas. Therefore, conserving natural systems can help to limit climate change by preventing stored carbon from entering the atmosphere in the first place, while restoring degraded ecosystems can increase the carbon that they hold.

In addition to forests, other types of healthy habitat – such as wetland – can help to lock up carbon in the atmosphere. Photo credit: Annett Thiele.

Most ELP-funded projects are primarily focused on these two actions (habitat protection and restoration for biodiversity conservation), and therefore also provide an opportunity to deliver natural climate solutions. Ecological restoration projects need to ensure that the actions they are taking to increase carbon storage are consistent with their primary aims of supporting wildlife (for example prioritising the planting of diverse forests over monocultures), although many actions, particularly those focused on protecting pristine habitats, are likely to work effectively for both wildlife and carbon. Tools that allow these dual aims to be assessed together are needed to help in balancing these benefits.

One of the ELP’s Enabling Projects, which have the purpose of building capacity and developing new knowledge, tools and evidence, is looking into exactly this. This project, which is led by a partnership between RSPB, UNEP-WCMC and BirdLife International, is helping ELP projects to measure and maximise contribution of their restoration work to mitigate climate change.

Work began earlier this year, with experts from the RSPB mapping the habitat types in each of the project landscapes in their current state. They will then work with the projects on the ground to create maps of each landscape in the future, based on the intended outcomes of their restoration actions. The current and future maps will be compared to demonstrate the carbon benefits to be gained by restoration, compared to a business-as-usual scenario You can see in the example below a first draft map of current habitats in the Cairngorms Connect project.

An overview of the Cairngorms Connect project map. Image credit: Cairngorms Connect.

Jeremy Roberts, Project Manager at Cairngorms Connect tells us: “A key objective for Cairngorms Connect is to build understanding about the benefits of landscape-scale habitat restoration work – across many audiences, from local people to visitors, and to national policy-makers.  We can use the results of this project to show how restoration reduces carbon emissions and sequesters carbon at a meaningful scale. When you add in the extra benefits of climate change resilience and reduced biodiversity loss, it becomes a multiple ‘win’!”

These maps of the project landscapes will be used in the following stages of the project, when project partner UNEP-WCMC will evaluate the suitability of existing carbon accounting tools. These tools were originally designed for agricultural habitats, and so this comparison will be a key test of how well they work in other habitats. It will also result in recommendations for their wider application to natural habitats.

The knowledge gained from this project will also be applied to the individual projects, and help practitioners understand how they might increase carbon sequestration in project landscapes, without compromising biodiversity goals. More broadly, the project will help identify which landscape restoration approaches offer the biggest overall benefits for climate-change mitigation, thus sharing lessons for the wider restoration community.

This project is [funded by/supported by/part of] the Endangered Landscapes Programme, managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and funded by the Arcadia Fund – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. To find out more about this project, please visit the Natural Climate Solutions project page.

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