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.

Takeaways From the IUCN Peatland Conference

Between Monday the 7th and Thursday the 10th of December, the IUCN Peatland Program hosted their 10th annual conference in partnership with the Welsh Peatland Sustainable Management Scheme (SMS) Project. For the first time, the event was virtual and focussed on ‘From Strategy to Action’. The conference was open to all and saw approximately 560 registered delegates. 23 inspiring sessions were held across the four themed days: 1. UK and international updates; 2. Science: informing strategy and action; 3. A day of virtual field trips; 4. Finance, funding, learning and training. Speakers and attendees shared questions, opinions, thoughts, and suggestions across a wide range of stimulating topics. Crucially, the digital platform was smooth, efficient, and inviting. I made boundless use of the Q&A section on the site; asking numerous questions which were all politely and very well answered. Whilst I would have relished being at the scene, the virtual platform gave me confidence to ask more, and potentially controversial questions. I delved into attendees’ inboxes, interacted and recorded names of influential characters in my domain; an extremely useful feature of this online format.

Turning focus onto the academic aspect of the conference, I was overwhelmed with information. This was my first attendance to a conference representing my PhD program, and in the first two days, I felt pressured to absorb as much information as possible. As I talked more with the delegates, my confidence grew; individuals comforted me on the ‘realistic takeaways’ from attending a meet like this, and I began to thoroughly enjoy the learning environment.

For those who are interested in peatlands, sadly missed the conference, or are simply intrigued, here are my ‘takeaways’ from the IUCN Peatland Conference day by day:

Day 1) UK and international updates:

  • Positive changes are being made within peatland restoration, both internationally and globally – funding is increasing, policies are developing, and the delivery of action is growing.
  • As a community, we are building a strong case for COP-26 in Glasgow; we could see peatland restoration at the forefront of positive climate mitigation.
  • There are however some improvements which need to be addressed:
    • A more strategic approach to policy – the correct actions for the correct locations, and advances in monitoring and reporting.
    • ‘Trade offs’ need balancing when developing new policies.

Day 2) Science: informing strategy and action:

  • ClimateXchange suggested further improvements into informing strategy and action:
    • Evidence based policy.
    • Frame the challenge (and how to).
    • Co-production.
    • Action based.
  • ‘Make everyone a scientist’ was a significant discussion point – standardising the monitoring of peatland restoration could enable more evidence-based policy and practice.
  • Remote sensing can be used to better classify peatland types by comprehensively mapping features and habitats.
    • Though further data input and time will increase its applicability.
  • Martin Evans confirmed a shift towards ecosystem ecology – microbial behaviour can be utilised to demonstrate structure and function – this is something that I have a keen interest in!

Day 3) A day of virtual fieldtrips:

  • First discussions of Brexit – mixed responses from the speakers:
    • Increased flexibility for paludiculture.
    • Major worries about funding.
  • Aims of the project determine the restoration practice – For example, a site at Blaen-y-coed, Wales saw restoration activities which mitigate sediment loss. Whilst the EU-LIFE funded Moors for the Future Partnership, England implemented revegetation and damming to manipulate the site into an active carbon sink.
  • We cannot forget about heritage!

Day 4) Finance, funding, learning and training:

  • The Peatland Code is a promising tool in validating the selling of carbon credits on the carbon market.
    • Works best for large scale projects.
    • Harder to account for within small projects.
    • Lacks some specific measurements (CH4 and forest – > peatland projects).
    • Would work more effectively if Peatland Code validation was incorporated into an ecosystem services package?!
  • Government legislation is needed to ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to the financing and funding of peatland restoration – this would strengthen the importance of peatlands at COP-26.
  • There are different practices being used across Europe – one methodology which ‘stood out’ to me was the GEST-SET, used by the IPCC and INTEREG.

Briefly concluding my ‘takeaways’ from the IUCN Peatland Conference:

  • Pressure on COP-26 – this could see a huge, positive change in peatland restoration practice.
  • A standard methodology (which includes CH4 and N2O accounting) to peatland monitoring would provide a wealth of useful, valid data.
  • Remote sensing will become evermore useful and meaningful for peatland restoration – it should seriously be considered across all projects.
  • Government bodies should inject funding into peatland restoration post Brexit!

Research During a Pandemic

The pandemic first affected me back in March 2020, a pandemic which certainly needs no introduction. I was nearing the completion of my undergraduate dissertation data collection when I was sternly advised to no longer travel to my research site. This resulted in a significant gap in my data and forced me to use regression analysis tools to predict further values. At an already anxious and demanding period, this came as a further setback. Being dyslexic, it was difficult to sift through unrecognised literature, have my contact time with peers removed, and dyslexia support transferred to an online environment. I had to revert to coping strategies I’d developed before my diagnosis; printing, cutting, and sticking key information like I was back in primary school! I was devastated that I could not conduct my dissertation as I wanted.

At the beginning, university was a real struggle for me, moving away from home and being placed in a surreal environment, I felt the pressure to ensure that my university experience lived up to the ‘hype’ everybody had given it. This led to my imposter taking control; my inner perfectionist was compromised, and I became an anxious wreck, riddled with depression. In my concluding year, I finally started to feel that I was conquering university, and my thoughts were set on making the most out of every last second.

The Summer of 2020 came with some relief, though my next anxiety heightened adventure was looming. In late August, the advert for the PhD thesis: ‘The Restoration of Cumbrian Peatlands: Quantifying the Carbon Benefits of Different Restoration Approaches’ was published by the University of Cumbria. After a summer of panic, heartbreak, and feeling like I had lost my identity, I knew this project was my calling. Within hours of reading the proposed plan, I had started my research. At the time, I was on holiday in Devon with my partner and her family; not quite the Barcelona trip which was planned, nor the previously cancelled New York retreat, but pleasant nonetheless. I sacrificed day after day of the limited relief 2020 had delighted me with to research and prepare for the application, and later interview process. In all honesty, this would be my first EVER interview, on my own, and online. Being ‘nervous’ does not even come close to accurately describing my emotions that October morning. I dressed in a suit that I had bought for the occasion, and despite being sat in my childhood bedroom, I tried imagining that I was in the same room as the panel. It was utterly confusing, extraordinary, and something I felt that I could not be totally prepared for.

I was extremely proud of my performance in the interview, I kept it together and for a few seconds afterwards, I considered some positives about researching in the pandemic: Perhaps if it wasn’t for COVID-19 intruding my dissertation, I wouldn’t have developed those self-taught literature sifting tools in preparation for the PhD application. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the motivation to conduct my own research again, and perhaps I wouldn’t have grasped my dyslexia like I have; taking it from a disability to a superpower.

At present, I see two distinct sides of being a researcher during the pandemic; one side relates to how research is conducted. Whilst being out in the field is not an option, there’s still plenty of work which can be done. This side can adapt easily, and I find myself learning, reading, and writing more than ever before. It probably helps that I have started a PhD during the pandemic – ‘being born in captivity, I am unaware of what lies beyond the wall’. However, the other side, emotional and social wellbeing, is much more stubborn to change. It has been extremely difficult to adapt socially to the modern pandemic and I know this isn’t just something researchers are trying to overcome, but everyone across the globe.

Celebrating my 21st birthday alone in my university room was a low point; especially with my dissertation deadline breathing down my neck. It’s days like that which make the pandemic feel gloomy and unadaptable. We’re social creatures, even researchers! – and I don’t see humans ever being able to ‘adapt’ to this temporary social change. We therefore need to support each other. There’s a superstition that academic research should be conducted alone, but that’s simply not true.

Please talk, please debate and please discuss; whichever form of contact you feel comfortable with. Feel free to drop me a message on twitter – I’d be happy to talk about my own experiences, research prospects, or simply have a general chitchat.

We will get through this. It will all be OK.