Nature as a solution

Melanie Coath, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, responds to the Committee for Climate Change report on land use published today, and its relevance to England …

The Committee for Climate Change report on land use published today is a timely reminder of the crucial role our land has in meeting the challenges of the climate and ecological emergency.  If we are going to have any chance of achieving net-zero by any of the suggested dates, we will need to rethink the way we use our land, and indeed, what it is for.

What we do know though, is that if approached in the right way, with intelligence and wisdom, the land is our friend. And done well, nature-based solutions in the land sector can both help reduce our carbon emissions AND lead to a host of co-benefits including biodiversity, soil health, air quality, quality of life and so forth, as Lord Deben, Chair of the CCC, acknowledges.

 However, what does “doing well” mean in practice? The devil, as they say, is always in the detail. And this year is going to be a crucial year for working out that detail. We have now twelve months in which we have the chance to make many historical decisions, whether that be through the Environment Bill, the Agriculture Bill or through our approach to the two crucial UN-led Conferences of the Parties (COPs) on biodiversity and climate (the later gathering in Glasgow in November).

Let’s look, briefly, at some of the detailed issues the report raises. Because we need to get this right.

Tree planting is all the rage at the moment – I have never known a time when our national passion for trees has been more palpable. The report states that we should be increasing UK woodland cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares (90 - 120 million trees) of woodland each year. We say this is not enough.

We believe even higher levels of tree planting will be needed. Naturally, there will be differences between the four countries that make up the UK, with some more robust in terms of accommodating numbers than others. But nevertheless, we need ambition. This is to address the fact that the climate is responding more sensitively than envisaged and to ensure the land sector genuinely walks the talk on this one.

Here, and this is vital, we must ensure that the right trees are planted in the right places. A ‘free for all’ will damage some of our most precious habitats, for example our heathlands and some of our species-rich grasslands.  And the trees must be the right sort of trees. While some in the forestry sector view quick growing conifer monocultures as a commercial priority, what nature needs is diverse native species, which as natives should be largely deciduous. Native woodland will also have huge benefits for the climate.

This leads to a second point about forestry. Trees are great carbon capture devices, but to be effective, the carbon needs to be locked in the wood for as long as possible. Burning it or using it in short-lived wood products can result in rapid emissions release – our evidence suggests it is a better climate change mitigation practice to store it in natural ecosystems.

On the subject of burning, and the conversion of biomass into energy, the reports suggests expanding UK energy crops to around 23,000 hectares each year. This we are very concerned about. The UK’s own review of the evidence on biofuels highlighted the impacts of such indirect land-use change, especially on marginal land which naturally can be of higher wildlife value. Marginal land would be better placed to host natural ecosystem regeneration than as a source of crops to provide power.

The report also considers food. This is fundamental and food justice must be delivered if we are to have any chance of reducing emissions. We therefore fully agree with the report’s conclusion that we must reduce the consumption of meat and dairy and reduce the food waste we produce annually. However, we believe the report does not go far enough to meet the emergency. We believe that we should eliminate food waste and look at a wide range of ways in which we can significantly reduce meat and dairy consumption. 

 We also need more ambitious peatland targets. The proper management of these vital carbon stores is hugely important. We welcome the report’s call for a ban on burning peat and extraction of peat for the gardening industry. However, the report’s target of restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat are simply not enough – and even below government ambitions in Defra’s draft England peat strategy. Peat is currently being badly managed, and its erosion is adding to our national emissions. It needs better management on both uplands and lowlands, and we must guard against conversion to food production.

Finally, we need to look at the investment required.  The report estimates that its recommendations will cost £1.4 billion, in comparison to the £3.3 billion that the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) costs. We know that restoring nature will cost more than £1.4 billion. So, when comparisons are made to land management support delivered through the CAP, we must be realistic. Restoring nature in the UK is not a bottomless pit, but we should not underestimate the level of investment required and the significant societal benefits that will be delivered in return.

We live in exciting times.