‘Love our bogs’: UK should harness all its landscapes in fight for climate – report

·4 min read

Regenerating native woodland, restoring grassland and rewetting peatland must be priorities when tackling the “two defining crises of our age”, according to the first complete assessment of how UK nature-based solutions can combat the climate and biodiversity crises.

More than 100 ecologists examined how all kinds of landscapes – from urban to agricultural to coastal – could be enhanced to maximise carbon retention, biodiversity and human wellbeing. These nature-based solutions (NbS) must be implemented at scale to reap benefits, according to the 190-page peer-reviewed report, published by the British Ecological Society.

“When thinking of NbS, tree cover and woodland restoration tend to get the limelight, but, importantly, this report shows how an NbS approach can apply to a wide variety of ecosystems,” the researchers said. These efforts would need to be supported by a widespread reduction in emissions, and “strong government funding”, they added.

The policy recommendations were released ahead of two crucial UN summits – the biodiversity Cop15 and climate Cop26 conferences – later this year, where the next decade of environment targets will be agreed.

“At the moment, there is no way that we are absorbing all of our emissions, and we won’t be able to do it,” said lead author Prof Rick Stafford of Bournemouth University. “We need to do two things. One is to drastically cut the emissions that we have, and the second is to increase, manage and improve our nature-based solutions.”

The report singles out the following areas for action:

• Peatlands are the most carbon-dense terrestrial ecosystem, covering about 10% of UK land. However, most are degraded, which means they are turning from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. Estimates suggest UK peatlands could be emitting the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, half the amount released by the agricultural sector.

Rewetting and revegetating degraded peatland could stop these emissions and create biodiversity benefits for wildlife, including carnivorous plants, rare birds and insects. “If the UK is serious about cutting its carbon emissions, it must get serious about its peatlands. It is as simple as that,” said Dr Christian Dunn from Bangor University, lead author of the peatlands chapter. “We need to love our bogs and appreciate what they can do for us.”

• The UK government has committed to planting more than 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of woodland each year by 2025, and it’s important the right trees are planted in the right place, the report says. Afforestation should be done on low-quality grassland, as opposed to peatland or species-rich grasslands, and, where possible, woodlands should be allowed to naturally regenerate. Although monoculture plantations may sequester carbon they can be bad for biodiversity, and this should be taken into consideration.

There are 40,000 scraps of ancient woodland left across the UK and it is particularly important they are protected. There is opportunity to expand them by planting around the outskirts with native trees, or allowing natural colonisation where possible, increasing biodiversity and resilience to climate breakdown.

• In agricultural landscapes, planting native woods and hedgerows could reconnect habitats and fragments of ancient woodland. The resulting loss of grassland would reduce the UK’s capacity to produce meat and dairy, and therefore getting people to reduce overall meat consumption would also be part of the solution, the report says.

• Grassland is the most extensive habitat in the UK, covering 40% of the country, but only 2% is considered biodiverse and carbon-rich. Protecting and restoring semi-natural grasslands will have multiple benefits for biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

The way animals are farmed should also change. Stocking densities should be decreased and rotational, “mob”, or mixed grazing systems should be encouraged, using a variety of herbivores (such as sheep, cattle, horses and goats). This could increase diversity among grasses and sequester carbon, the report says. Creating more ponds, re-wiggling rivers, encouraging margins around fields, and creating space for agroforestry are also solutions.

Related: Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds

“What I see now is a real opportunity for mainstream agriculture, and grassland management, to change towards agro-ecological approaches,” said Dr Lisa Norton, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and lead author of the grasslands chapter. “So farmers are not just farming to produce food, they’re also farming for climate change mitigation and for enhancing biodiversity.”

• Restoring marine habitats such as salt marshes and seagrass will also contribute to climate crisis mitigation, increase biodiversity and improve protection from storms. Protecting freshwater ecosystems, heathlands and repopulating urban areas with trees will also help.

Prof Ken Norris from the Natural History Museum in London, who was not involved in the paper, said: “If the roof blows off your house, you get it fixed as quickly as possible because if you don’t, you and your family will experience all sorts of problems. This report tells us that nature is like the roof on all of our houses … This is a simple and powerful message.”

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