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The Glasgow Climate Pact and the role of nature in the mitigation of climate breakdown

DATE

12/11/2021

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Why we must embrace nature in the fight against climate breakdown

In the past, we have looked to human-engineered solutions to natural disasters and issues associated with climate breakdown. Think flood walls, sea banks, dykes, culverts, even putting rivers underground – some of the best minds in the world have worked tirelessly to keep nature and natural processes at bay. But what we must consider is the evolutionary history of wildlife to stand up to the extreme conditions of the natural world and weather patterns and learn from this. As such, in recent years nature-based solutions (NBS) are increasingly recognised as a viable solution to the pressing issues facing both humans and wildlife throughout the world.

Tolworth Court Farm Today - Ancient Hedgerows and Meadows

The beaver is one of the best drivers of nature based solutions, as their damming behaviours can create wetland habitats, support biodiversity, store carbon and filter pollutants.

NBS can be defined as actions that utilise the power of nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human well-being and biodiversity. With proper implementation and planning, NBS’s could account for up to 37% of our global climate mitigation efforts (Griscom et al., 2017). We were delighted to attend several talks in the COP26 Blue Zone on NBS’s, with the take-home message being the necessity to embrace NBS while drastically and urgently reducing our fossil fuel consumption. However, after the initial excitement of seeing NBS’s included in the COP26 draft Agreement under section IV Mitigation, this was subsequently removed and replaced with the following:

Emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal, including through forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and by protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.

While the wording is not directly focused on the role of NBS’s, their principles are very much aligned with the revised text, emphasising the importance of natural ecosystems to mitigate climate breakdown.

One of the fascinating talks we attended on nature based solutions at COP26 was hosted by Kew Gardens and focussed on what made 'good nature-based solutions?'

How can rewilding boost nature based solutions?

The method of rewilding, whether in its purest, hands-off approach (i.e. Wolves in Yellowstone or Scotland’s rewilded Caledonian Forest) or even at the more managed, restoration end of the scale (think restoring peat bogs or planting up the grey in our cities), has a huge amount to offer us in the face of climate breakdown and wildlife loss. Reintroductions of animals such as beavers to our waterways could provide valuable ecosystem services in the form of pollutant extraction, flood prevention and wetland creation with subsequent carbon storage. In an era when floods are becoming increasingly frequent and severe, these ecosystem engineers are a nature-based solution to one of the biggest threats from climate breakdown to society.

Increasing tree cover through tree planting schemes have become somewhat of a buzzword in the world of conservation. While increased tree cover in our towns and cities has huge value in terms of reducing the city heat island effect, plantation expansion in more rural locations is somewhat less valuable in terms of combating climate breakdown. Under the Bonn Challenge, 43 countries across the tropics and subtropics have committed to reforesting up to 350 million hectares of forests. Analysis by Lewis et al (2019) has demonstrated that around half of this land will be designated as plantations, which due to frequent harvesting and clearing will release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere every 10–20 years. Issues such as this were voiced at many of the talks we attended at COP26. Experts in the field of NBS expressed concerns over the potential for countries to invest heavily in NBS such as afforestation to balance out the degradation or even destruction of natural ecosystems such as forests.

The humble jay is one of the best drivers of natural regeneration of forest cover in the UK!

Natural forests, in contrast, store carbon over a much longer period. By embracing natural forest regeneration, we will see increased carbon storage to aid the fight against climate breakdown. Encouraging findings from two new woodlands in lowland England planted predominantly by jays demonstrates the effectiveness of ‘passive rewilding’ to establish new oak woods. Incredibly, the spread of bramble seeds and other thorny shrub species by thrushes act as natural tree guards for oaks that grew from acorns buried underground by jays. The relative speed at which the woodlands grew is also encouraging, with the younger woodland establishing itself in just 24 years! Research by Friends of The Earth estimates that over a million acres of new woodland could be created in England alone by allowing existing forests to regenerate and spread. We hope research such as this will ensure any initiatives under the Glasgow Climate Pact will focus on natural regeneration where appropriate as a way to protect, restore and grow forests globally.

While forest regeneration stands to make a huge impact in terms of climate breakdown and supporting biodiversity, relatively less attention is focused on the restoration of river ecosystems and their benefits. Many of the modified rivers seen in our urban and rural areas have lost their ability to hold water under severe weather conditions such as drought and flooding. There are several different priorities associated with river restoration that will enable these ecosystems to cope with future climate conditions. This includes connecting watercourses with their original floodplains, which will enable them to manage both flood risk and drought conditions. Research by the AMBER river restoration project has evidenced that no single river in the UK, nor possibly in Europe, are free of any concrete structures that prevent them from flowing freely. By removing those that are no longer fit for purpose, or provide minimal benefit in terms of flood prevention, we can reinstate the natural flow of water, energy, nutrients, and animals.

Furthermore, riparian tree planting along the banks will provide shade, regulate water temperature, and create ecological corridors to support other species. There’s a whole host of river restoration projects occurring across the UK, but one of our favourite examples is that of the Quaggy in South East London, which after a community campaign was daylighted by the Environment Agency at Sutcliffe Park. The river was restored to its original meander, along with a floodplain, a lake, ponds, meadows, reed beds and trees. Today it is one of London’s finest wetland nature reserves, supporting a wealth of biodiversity including egrets, dragonflies, kingfishers, and plenty of wading birds. Adding to this, the reintroduction of lost species from river ecosystems, such as beavers or water voles (as with Citizen Zoo’s urban reintroduction projects) we can start to recreate functioning, resilient ecosystems that will benefit both humans and wildlife.

While the twin crises of climate breakdown and wildlife loss might instil many with a sense of doom, we hope this article will help to alleviate those fears. Across the world, we are beginning to embrace the power of the natural world to combat these crises. The Glasgow Climate Pact’s emphasis on nature being utilised to mitigate climate breakdown will only boost this movement further. Rewilding is one way to achieve this in both rural and urban settings and is increasingly considered essential to achieving climate goals. For example, major institutions like the United Nations have declared that we must rewild and restore an area equivalent to the size of China to meet targets set to protect the natural world and climate. The term itself is increasingly recognised amongst members of the public and those outside the industry. However, perhaps most encouragingly, it has gained popularity with younger generations, particularly in urban areas (Rewilding Europe, 2016). The movement itself has already achieved so much. Those not convinced of its efficacy only need to take a stroll through Knepp Wildland estate, where you will be taken to a landscape that in the UK feels ultimately remote, alien, captivating, exciting, but most of all inspirational. In the face of climate breakdown, rewilding principles stand as a beacon of hope and reason to be optimistic about the future of both wildlife and mankind.

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