Today's blog is by Conservation Scientist Tom Bradfer-Lawrence and Senior Conservation Scientist Rob Field. Tom led this work whilst working in the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, but is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Stirling. 

The extent and severity of 2021’s extreme global weather events are manifestations of the warnings contained in the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The message is crystal clear. We must explore every potential opportunity for both reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and increasing the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if we are to limit the worst effects of climate change.

What are Nature-based solutions?

Clearly, we need to reduce emissions across all sectors of society, including from transport and industry, but an area of interest that has gained increasing prominence in recent years are Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for climate change mitigation. These are actions that harness the power of nature to reduce greenhouse gas levels and help us adapt to the impacts of climate change. By protecting, managing, restoring, or creating natural or modified ecosystems we can mitigate climate change by absorbing greenhouse gases or by reducing emissions from land use.

Forsinard Flows in Scotland is an example of peatland being restored (c) Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Nature-based Solutions have become an accepted set of tools for attempting to reduce emissions and meet our climate targets. The UK’s independent advisory body on climate change matters, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), include ambitious NbS targets in their climate change mitigation pathways, and UK governments have pledged millions of pounds to implement actions such as increased woodland creation and peatland restoration.

This is all incredibly important to the RSPB. The RSPB is interested in NbS because they are potentially win-win solutions that involve enhancing nature at the same time as helping to address climate change.

A careful approach

But none of this is easy or straightforward. While there may be obvious wins in terms of habitat restoration – restoring upland peatlands for example – other options, such as woodland creation, involve land use change which needs to be approached carefully. There may be downsides to some of the changes envisaged in society’s drive to tackle climate change, so we have been trying to improve our understanding of how NbS could be delivered in practice and the issues that will arise, as well as the benefits for climate and nature. We want to ensure we maximise the synergies and minimise any negatives.

Our first step in assessing the importance of nature in relation to climate change mitigation looked at the carbon stored in the UK’s semi-natural habitats, much of which is in poor condition due to mis-management and so contributes considerably to the UK’s ongoing emissions. Further habitat restoration and creation will potentially involve land use change, something we acknowledge can be contentious at times.

Our latest research

Our new paper explores on the potential of three terrestrial NbS for additional climate change mitigation in the UK over the rest of this century. We focus on peatland restoration, woodland creation and saltmarsh creation, as these have both high carbon storage and sequestration per hectare and potentially compete with other land uses, and therefore represent the options where trade-offs may be most apparent.

Using existing data, we sought to calculate the potential reduction in emissions from peatland restoration and levels of sequestration from woodland and saltmarsh creation, following scenarios proposed by the CCC.

One immediate concern was whether there is enough ground available for new woodland, as the CCC’s most ambitious scenarios require almost 2 million hectares. We determined there is just enough land potentially available, while minimising impacts on agricultural production and semi-natural open habitats important for biodiversity.

We found that, by the end of the century, ambitious roll-out of these three NbS could mitigate the equivalent of three years’ worth of the UK’s total current emissions. Though this might be proportionately lower than the considerable role suggested for NbS globally, this is still a significant chunk in the context of a country with high population density and high per capita emissions from key sectors such as transport, housing and industry.

These emissions dwarf the potential gains that can be made by changing land use or land management (although it is worth noting that in individual countries within the UK, such as Scotland, the importance of NbS is larger because of the nature of the land and the smaller contribution of industry and housing to national emissions).   

Climate change mitigation

Does this mean the UK shouldn’t invest in NbS to aid efforts in climate change mitigation? Absolutely not. While NbS are not a magic bullet to solve climate change, they need to be part of a holistic strategy that includes a big focus on emissions reductions via reduced demand and clean energy. Furthermore, NbS  play an important role in sequestering historic emissions, providing a natural remedy for a problem which otherwise requires carbon capture and storage, a technology with still limited capacity .

We need to remember that careful implementation of NbS can also realise a host of valuable co-benefits. Here are just three examples. First, new and restored habitats could provide essential respite to wildlife, as a long history of intensive land management has left the UK one of the most depauperate for biodiversity in the world. Second, coping with climate change involves adapting to its impacts, as well as mitigating future effects; extreme weather events require ever more costly mitigation efforts, but NbS can help moderate these impacts before they even arise – think Natural Flood Management to reduce downstream flooding. Third, semi-natural habitat creation can offer the UK’s predominantly urban population critical access to new green spaces.

New woodland must work for woodland species such as willow tit (c) Mark Eaton

Next steps

We will continue, therefore, to urge the governments in the UK to embrace NbS. It is clear that NbS are not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. We still need transformative reductions in ongoing emissions right across society. But NbS absolutely must be part of our efforts to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises together.

In the next phase of our work in this area we are further exploring a range of scenarios using Nature-based Solutions. We want to quantify the trade-offs that arise. For example, if we plant more trees, what are the impacts on food production or bird populations? This is critical work. We, as a society, need to think together about the desirability and consequences of major land use change.

We absolutely must do everything we can to reduce emissions and the land, land management and nature have an important role to play. But it is also crucially important that we approach change with open eyes and think through the impacts in advance so that we can minimise negative unintended consequences. We hope our new paper provides a useful contribution to this discussion.

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