Restoring nature-rich habitats in Northern Ireland helps offset UK carbon emissions


Tuesday 9 June 2020

  • The RSPB has identified how much carbon is being stored in areas important for wildlife,
  • In NI this equates to 0.03 Gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of stored carbon, which is equivalent to around 15 years’ worth of NI’s total carbon emissions
  • Much of these areas are in poor condition and unprotected, however restoration could lead to higher levels of carbon storage, as well as removal from the atmosphere
  • Restoring these areas to good condition could offset nearly a third of the UKs agricultural emissions every year

Restoring the UK’s important habitats for nature could help lock away 14 million tonnes of CO2e per year, nearly a third our annual agricultural emissions, according to a new study led by RSPB scientists.

The UK has recently committed to ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 under the 2008 Climate Change . In order to reach this target, all sectors must commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as removing gases from the atmosphere. Northern Ireland has a role to play in helping the UK achieve Net zero by 2050, central to this will be the development of an NI Climate Act with specific reduction targets here.

In a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, experts calculated the contribution made to achieving this net zero target by analysing how much carbon was already stored in important areas for conservation, and how much more could be sequestered away each year if those areas were restored.

Dr Rob Field, lead author of the paper said: "Currently our nature-rich lands are already doing an excellent job; they hold a massive store of 0.5 Gigatonnes of carbon, around 30% of our land-based store on just 20% of its area, as well as locking away net 8.7 million tonnes CO2e every year.

“However, this store and processes are at risk because many of these important habitats are in poor condition, and two thirds lack any form of protection.”

The scientists focused on two priority habitats - peatland and heath - to give a conservative figure of what could be achieved if they were restored to a good condition. Peatlands are one of the UK’s most valuable habitats as they play a vital role in supporting unique plants and rare wildlife. However, their current degraded status from drainage or conversion to farmland, means that they are haemorrhaging carbon at an alarming rate – losing around 3 million tonnes CO2e a year.

Restoring both important habitats to a good condition will not only be beneficial for nature but will also lock a total of 14.6 million tonnes CO2e a year, nearly 32% of the annual emissions from agriculture (45.6 million tonnes CO2e per year).

RSPB NI Policy Officer Phil Carson commented: “This study demonstrates the immense value that restoring nature rich areas in Northern Ireland can have in the fight against climate breakdown. As we focus our efforts to move towards a low carbon future, it’s vital that funding is allocated towards delivering restoration at scale. An NI Climate Act focusing on the delivery of Nature Based Solutions must play a key role in making this a reality”

The investment of €120,000 in a large-scale peatland restoration project on the Garron Plateau in North Antrim since 2018, is just a start on what is required to have a chance of achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions. The re-activation of Northern Ireland’s largest single area of blanket bog by blocking a large network of over 1,000 existing drains has re-activated almost 500 hectares of peatland to store carbon, prevented carbon loss and improved the natural filtration of water that is used by 12,000 local homes and businesses.”

Dr Field continued: "Studying peatland and heath is just the tip of the iceberg, and if we were to consider other habitats, such as woodland or semi-natural grasslands, the figure would be higher. This study shows the importance of looking after our natural places especially as we consider where funding should be allocated to in achieving this net zero carbon future.”

Last Updated: Wednesday 1 July 2020

Tagged with: Country: Northern Ireland Topic: UKHQ Conservation Science Topic: Northern Ireland Topic: Heathland Topic: Science Topic: Northern Ireland