Impressions of the British Ecological Society (BES) Nature-based-Solutions (NbS) for Climate Change Conference

Yesterday (12/05/2021), the BES hosted their NbS for climate change conference (found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZudWbxUKHI&t=5615s), alongside the launch of their landmark report on NbS for climate change in the UK (found here: https://bit.ly/3eDXvBe). The conference was Hosted by Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, Chair of the Environment Audit Committee of the House of Commons and presented by broadcaster and journalist Tom Heap. Four lead authors of the report represented the potential of different habitats and ecosystems as NbS; expressing their collective recommendations of the report and later answering challenging questions by the audience.

Tom Heap initiated the conference by giving an overview of the importance of NbS: “There is no doubt that NbS play a crucial role in addressing the planetary crises seen today”. The BES define NbS as an ‘ally’ in responding to the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. For example, NbS include peatland restoration, marine habitat restoration, and tree planting. NbS assist (us) in different ways, locking in carbon, reducing flood risk, and improving urban environments; promoting a better quality of life. The corresponding NbS report is the first to offer a complete assessment of the potential of NbS in the UK, in the hope of guiding policy development on NbS in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Rick Stafford from Bournemouth University was the first lead author to speak, representing the Marine chapter of the report. Similarly to the terrestrial world, marine vegetated habitats sequester carbon through photosynthesis and store massive amounts of carbon in sediments. One fact which really ‘stuck in mind’ was that sea grasses are twenty times more efficient at burying carbon than trees. This reminded me of a comparable figure in relation to peaty soils, that 80% of the carbon stored in a forest is actually within the soil layer. Sadly, the UK has lost up to 92% of its sea grass, and other carbon sequestering ecosystems such as salt marshes are being lost at a rate of 1-2% per year. With UK waters representing three times the land area of the UK, there is massive potential for marine ecosystems to act as a credited NbS. Rick noted that there are major gaps in research, but the restoration of marine habitats through re-planting grasses and kelp and managing the slopes of saltmarshes would see immense benefits. For example, increased carbon sequestration, reduced intensity (damage) from storm surges, and diverse marine species return.

David Coomes from the University of Cambridge spoke on behalf of the Woodlands chapter. The value, both economically and environmentally of trees has been recognised for decades, and more recently, the social benefits of woodlands have been estimated at twelve times more than market price. Yet, the UK still struggles to maintain significant woodland cover. Currently, the UK has one of the lowest woodland covers in Europe, with only 12% of land representing woods. Even though cover is minimal, woodlands are sequestering 4.6% of the UK’s annual Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. Tree planting is an affordable NbS to solve the twin crises; recognised by the UK’s Forestry Commission who are committed to plant 30,000 ha of forest per year. The problem with this NbS is where the trees should be planted and what species to select. David outlined four recommendations to successfully utilise woodlands as a NbS: 1) Protect and enhance our existing ancient woodlands – create networks linking ancient and old woodlands using diverse, native species; 2) Generate realistic carbon storage projections; 3) Plant in the correct location – avoid any peat soils (shallow and certainly deep); 4) Investigate the efficiency of using trees (woody biomass) as fuel for power stations – David states this is not appropriate.

Lisa Norton from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology presented an overview of the Grasslands chapter. The UK’s grasslands extend over 40% of the UK land area and include habitats such as Moorland, Neutral and Improved grassland, and Calcareous grassland. Grasslands are home to a vast number of species and contain high levels of nutrients, making them prime land for agriculture. Furthermore, the top 15cm soil layer of a grassland acts as an efficient carbon store and with the ‘right’ vegetation, can sequester carbon overtime. Neutral grasslands are the most efficient grassland at storing carbon, estimated at 68.6 t/ha. However, challenging the degradation figure for marine habitats, 97% of species rich grasslands have been lost in the UK. Research suggest many grasslands now act as an overall GHG source due to fertiliser application, drainage, and intense ploughing. Though hope is not lost, as a NbS, grasslands can be effectively restored to massively reduce GHG emissions, and even switch them from a carbon source to sink. Lisa reiterates that we need to work with farmers to retain areas of permanent grassland, reduce ploughing, include more leys, manage grazing, incorporate a diverse tree-set on arable land (low carbon content), and potentially convert arable land to grasslands.

Finally, Christian Dunn from Bangor University represented the ‘star of the show’ chapter on Peatlands – a totally un-biased opinion on my behalf. Christian kicked off the presentation by stating: “If the UK is serious on tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, it needs to take peatlands seriously”. Whilst peatlands only cover ~10% of UK land cover, they store over 3 billion tons of carbon; three times more than the UK’s forests. The waterlogged conditions of a bog allow photosynthesising vegetation to remain in a semi-decomposed state when it expires, storing the processed carbon in the soil. Stored carbon in peatlands exists over glacial timescales in an an-oxic state, meaning when peat is extracted or damaged by exposure to oxygen, 1000’s of years’ worth of carbon sequestration is being lost to the atmosphere in the form of CO2. In the UK, only 20% of peatlands are in a ‘natural state’, leaving 80% damaged and degraded. It is estimated that damaged peatlands in the UK are emitting 23 million tons of carbon per year. Christian suggests two major steps which need to be taken to effectively accredit peatlands as a NbS: 1) Protect existing, intact peatlands; 2) Restore damaged peatlands to maximise their carbon sequestration potential. Restoration does not only improve carbon storage, it delivers those key ecosystem services intact peatlands provide, including drinking water, flood alleviation, and recreation. “Bogs are beautiful” Christian states, they provide habitat for a variety of rare bird, reptile, and fauna species; it should be encouraged that people go and visit these harmonious places to truly appreciate the benefits they provide to society. Peatland restoration is a rapidly emerging NbS and with that comes major gaps in understanding and consequently funding. Further projects need to address the most effective ways to re-wet and re-vegetate a bog with peat forming species. This will allow peatlands to become the forefront of policy agreements to reach the UK’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.    

The Q&A session brought some further, pressing points to the table to maximise NbS outputs and strive for addressing the biodiversity and climate crisis:

  • Using tree planting as a NbS is relatively restricted, forcing projects towards the uplands. Guidelines need to be in-place to avoid a ‘conflict of interest’, such as planting on peaty soils and ensuring renewable energy schemes do not ‘get in the way’ (or vice versa).
  • As a nation, we should eat less meat but also ensure our livestock is situated in the correct location – e.g. not on deep peat.
  • From a carbon perspective, seaweed farming has potential in the UK – this needs more research.
  • The UK needs to strengthen its protection of peatlands. There should be a ban on peat extraction and even planting trees on shallow peats – Christian Dunn added individuals can do their own bit by buying peat free compost.
  • We need to be realistic with peatland restoration extent. Stopping existing agricultural practices on peat soils would be too detrimental to the UK economy and increase the carbon footprint of the UK by sourcing food overseas. Instead, methods such as raising the Water Table Depth (WTD) in agricultural areas where practices are taking place on peat have been proven to reduce GHG emissions.
  • Using more timber in industry and infrastructure is a definite NbS – perhaps this could overtake the woodchip biomass burning in power stations?
  • The Carbon Code presents many gaps in knowledge. We need to undertake more projects to better our knowledge of, for example, deep soils to ‘pay’ for carbon storage and sequestration.
  • Lisa Norton expressed agri-environment schemes are the way forward when it comes to sustainable agriculture. 

Yadvinder Malhi, President Elect of the BES ‘rounded off’ the conference with an awe-inspiring message: “Nature is our ally in tackling climate change, and also in enhancing biodiversity and our own prosperity”.

This was one of my favourite conferences yet. It is fantastic to witness how in the six months of conducting my PhD, peatlands have become more widely recognised. I am also now starting to see how my own research will compliment gaps in the literature. My hope is that by COP-26 in November, peatlands can be the forefront of the discussions.

BES conference background image.

Published by Jack Brennand

PhD Student at the University of Cumbria.

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