Natural Solutions

Healthy habitats are not just good news for wildlife, they’re also good for the economy and a powerful ally in our fight against climate change.

Nature can work for us

As we work to fight climate change, nature is right there beside us. Although the climate crisis remains one of the most serious, long-term threats we face, healthy ecosystems are a powerful ally as we try to mitigate and adapt to its impact. In short, nature can do some of the work for us, if we let it. If we look after nature, nature will look after us.

The UK’s potential for carbon storage

In the UK, roughly 6% of land is built on, with a further 2% occupied by urban green space and a large proportion of the rest used for agriculture. However, about 20% can be classed as semi-natural habitats. Collectively, these habitats have huge potential for carbon storage.

The UK and Ireland hold 20% of the world’s blanket bog, mostly in Scotland, and boast forests dating back hundreds of years. These, along with grasslands and saltmarshes, can store vast amounts of carbon for us, but they need to be protected in order to do so.

Nature's Carbon sinks and Climate-Friendly Farming

So how do habitats store carbon?

Decayed plants are recycled into the soil, which retains the carbon that those plants removed from the atmosphere, via photosynthesis, during their lifetimes. If the soil is in good condition, that’s where most of the carbon will stay, locked away.

But sadly, many of our soils aren’t in good condition, and when damaged these habitats release the carbon they had already stored. In England alone, it’s estimated that damaged upland peat bogs release the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as 140,000 cars annually.

The world’s largest single expanse of blanket bog covers 200,000ha of the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, with RSPB Forsinard Flows at the heart of this. Here, drainage and ploughing for nonnative, commercial tree plantations in the 1980s damaged large areas of the Flows, and put this huge carbon store at risk. The RSPB has been working to restore this landscape through projects including the Peatland Partnership-run Flows to the Future project, and with support from the Peatland Action Fund, helping keep around 400 million tonnes of carbon locked away in the process.

Blanket bog is a crucial weapon in the fight against the climate emergency, but it doesn’t let us off the hook.

“We shouldn’t see this as an alternative to cutting fossil fuel use,” says Paul Walton, RSPB’s Head of Habitats and Species Scotland. “But we should recognise these natural systems for what they can do.”

We can all help. What nature needs is a wholesale rethink of the way we use our land. This doesn’t mean we have to stop using it altogether, but we need to adapt our land management practices. The first step is protecting and restoring what we have, and projects across the country are working to do just that.

In the Scottish Highlands, the RSPB is a part of the vast Cairngorms Connect partnership project, funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme. The project is working to restore the Caledonian pine forest, along with the area’s carbon-storing bog woodland and curvy, flood-slowing watercourses.

In Northern Ireland, the RSPB is improving the nation’s most extensive area of surviving upland blanket bog, Garron Plateau, Co. Antrim. Meanwhile in Wales the RSPB is restoring an area of peat bog damaged by decades of conifergrowing at Ynys-hir.

Old-growth forest also deserves protection. Of the remaining ancient woodland in the UK, 40% has been cleared and replanted with non-native plantations. The RSPB manages ancient woodlands at Gwenffrd-Dinas, Mawddach Valley, Abernethy and Wood of Cree.

But while wild places provide these carbon storage services in abundance, they cover just a fraction of the UK.

How can agriculture benefit nature?

If we’re to have any chance of achieving net-zero emissions, we will need to rethink the way we use our landscape. And as most of it is managed by farmers, it is essential that we help them to make the most of their fields and soils as well as managing their land to help species.

In a similar way to our peatland bogs, farmland soils are a hugely important reservoir of carbon. Inorganic fertilisers are one of agriculture’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but there are organic alternatives with a lower environmental footprint, that have other potential benefits for the soil health and diversity too. When properly managed, soils have the ability to draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

At Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, the RSPB is building on its 20 years of research and demonstrating the potential of more nature-friendly farming practices to create a farm that is profitable, rich in biodiversity, and helping mitigate climate change.

“A huge part of our work over the next few years will focus on carbon-friendly farming, while making sure that biodiversity still remains at the heart of our efforts,” says farm manager Georgie Bray.

The Farmland Bird Index at the site (a measure of change in the number of farmland breeding bird territories) is now between 2.5 to 3 times higher than the baseline set in 2000.

The RSPB wants to use Hope Farm’s success to influence agricultural practices across the UK, and show that carbon sequestration can be a crop produced from the land like any other.

“Most of our conservation interests across the UK are underpinned by agricultural activity to some degree,” says RSPB Scotland Area Manager Jack Fleming. “Farmers are welcome to visit and discuss what we do. They can translate elements to fit their own circumstances, confident that it’s been shown to work.”

Well-managed soils and landscapes also provide benefits beyond storing carbon.

Managing Rising Waters

One of the most significant impacts of climate change is an increase in storms and flooding. But the way we manage the land can help mitigate this risk, too.

If we get it right, the landscape can slow and store floodwaters. Get it wrong, and the rain rushes straight into our homes and businesses, washing away precious, carbon-storing topsoil along with it.

Because of this the RSPB is committed to finding ways to use the landscape to reduce the impact of flooding.

Coastal marshes play a huge role in protecting us from coastal flooding. Saltmarsh can also absorb carbon at a rate of up to 210g of carbon per m2 per year.

“The UK’s estuaries and coasts are incredibly valuable, as places to live, work, relax and play, and for the wealth of wildlife they support,” says Melanie Coath, who leads the RSPB’s nature-based solutions policy work in the UK. “They also support our fisheries and attract millions of visitors. It’s estimated that the value of the services provided by coastal habitats is £48bn.”

At Medmerry in West Sussex the RSPB worked with the Environment Agency as they undertook Europe’s largest-ever managed realignment of the open coast.

Flooding had long posed a serious threat to the nearby town of Selsey, as well as a main road and waste-water treatment works; and in 2008 floods caused over £5m of damage locally.

But since the work was completed in 2013, not only have the defences held back winter storm surges, the new habitats that were created have become a haven for wildlife, attracting green tourism and helping caravan parks extend their season.

The RSPB has also been creating a naturalised coastline at Wallasea Island in Essex, using three million tonnes of earth from the Crossrail project to raise the land and build an enormous wetland with mudflat, saltmarsh, saline lagoons and coastal grassland. It has been designed to provide valuable habitat for wildlife both now and under future higher sea levels.

This not only helps us manage rising sea levels, it also stores huge amounts of carbon and provides a home for wildlife – including a new island for nesting avocets. The mudflats, islands and saltmarsh cover 115 hectares. “You can now see a magical landscape of marshland, lagoons and sea,” says Melanie. “Wallasea is a wildlife-rich, carbon-rich habitat.”

In order to tackle the ecological and climate emergencies, we have to address both in tandem, and we all need to work together to do it. Investing in green projects is not just good for the environment. The COP26 Universities Network examined the findings of a paper in Oxford Review of Economic Policy , plus learnings from the 2008 financial crisis, and found that green projects create more jobs and deliver higher short-term returns per pound spent.

With the right input from governments, industry and lifestyle changes from all of us, we can increase natural habitat, rebuild the economy and help solve the climate crisis at the same time.

Taking Action

All carbon and nature-rich areas need to be mapped and we need initiatives to secure their protection. The Government must help turn around the poor ecological condition of these areas across the UK. Public funding for land management must reward the restoration of these areas to secure long-term benefits for carbon and nature.