Melanie Coath, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, Sustainable Development 

Today the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has published a landmark report on the critical role nature can play in the UK in addressing the threat of climate change and also helping us and nature adapt to a warming world.

The report comes at a critical time. We have a once in a generation opportunity, as we leave the EU and particularly the Common Agricultural Policy behind, to reshape the way we use our land. At the same time, the urgency of doing so couldn’t be greater: the IPCC has highlighted the very small window of time we have left to tackle the major threat of climate change. Every sector must play its part and our farmed landscape, which has made little progress in emissions reductions, must step up.

The CCC makes no bones about what we have been getting wrong: it cites unfertile soil as a result of intensive monoculture farming; major wildlife losses that mean that even our semi-natural habitats have reduced function; valuable carbon rich habitats such as peatlands are in poor condition and haemorrhaging carbon; and many of our woodlands suffer from inappropriate management.

 Yet the CCC also highlights the tremendous opportunities we could harness. The way soil and livestock are managed could save millions of tonnes of carbon for a start, and whilst many farmers are demonstrating really innovative and progressive ways of reducing their carbon footprints, much more action is needed across the piece. Just as important, yet often highly contentious, is land that is currently farmed but has significant scope to be converted or restored to habitats such as woodland and peatland – allowing megatonnes of emissions to be locked up in natural systems. Arguably even more contentious are the changes highlighted by the CCC’s report about changes needed in the production and consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods, for the good of the environment not to mention human health.

 The report is grand in scope, so here’s a focus on the key nature-based solutions that can play a significant role in tackling climate change

 Policies to protect and restore nature can help to lock away emissions

 What needs to happen to achieve the kind of transformative change envisaged in the CCC report? The RSPB is calling for policies that will protect, restore and create carbon and wildlife-rich habitats such as native woodlands, peatlands and permanent grasslands as well as those which secure significant shifts in agriculture to produce the food we need in sustainable and lower carbon ways. We’re working for these policies and measures to be included in the Westminster Agriculture and Environment Bills and subsequent policies, and the equivalent legislation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Below we set out in more detail what we believe this means for each of these important habitats and the policy actions we need the four UK governments to undertake:

Peatlands and wetlands

Large areas of the UK’s peatlands are in poor condition, with dry soils releasing greenhouse emissions, prone to erosion and failing to support wetland species.

ACTION:

  • Set a target and provide measures in the Environment Bill for restoring all designated upland and lowland bog habitats to favourable condition by 2030.
  • Remove barriers to peatland restoration on degraded habitats outside protected areas, with a target for all such areas to be healthy functioning wetlands by 2035.
  • End the practice of burning on blanket bogs and make restoration to wet blanket bog the priority
  • Meet the Government targets for ending the use of peat in gardening and horticulture.
  • Introduce the measures required to tackle the serious, ongoing loss of lowland peat soils under intensive agricultural production and develop economic uses and land management compatible with the sustainable management of these wetland soils.

Semi-natural forests and woodlands

The UK has lost much of its native woodland and is now one of the least forested countries in Europe.

ACTION: New land management schemes should ensure that the few remaining areas of ancient and semi-natural woodland in the UK are properly conserved and new woodland creation is supported in appropriate locations, at the right scale and supporting appropriate native species

Grasslands

Permanent grasslands have high levels of soil carbon and high biodiversity value.  They are now rare: for example 80% of the UK’s chalk grasslands have been converted to arable land since the Second World War.

ACTION: Government policies across the UK should protect permanent grassland from ploughing and overgrazing and the new environmental land management schemes must include measures to conserve and enhance permanent grasslands, as well as supporting appropriate reversion to species rich grassland.

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