New report shows how we can kick start nature's recovery and absorb a third of UK's emissions

The Wildlife Trusts shows how investing in nature would reap big dividends in tackling climate crisis.

This week saw the the Wildlife Trusts publish a report ‘Let nature help – how nature’s recovery is essential for tackling the climate crisis’. Drawing on the latest research, the report shows how a variety of natural landscapes in the UK can store carbon and could absorb a third of UK emissions if degraded habitats were expertly restored, and makes the case for addressing both the climate and nature emergencies together, head on.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling on the Government, industry and local authorities to step-up investment in nature’s recovery and climate change mitigation by:

  • Restoring a wide range of land habitats such as grasslands, peatlands and wetlands to store carbon, and identify, map and protect a wide array of ecosystems and restore them locally as part of a national Nature Recovery Network.
  • Restoring nature at sea by introducing effective management for our network of Marine Protected Areas and by designating a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas, thus bringing our oceans back to health and enable them to function properly and absorb CO2 emissions.

Restoring nature also delivers many other benefits. Better natural habitats reduce the risk of flooding, help prevent coastal erosion, improve people’s health and ensure thriving ecosystems which provide the pollinators, soils, food and water which sustain us. Nature is, itself, at risk from climate change – yet its potential to store carbon means it can help us address the climate catastrophe.

The Wildlife Trusts believe that improving nature’s ability to store carbon cannot be at the expense of reducing emissions in other ways – but it is part of the solution. People can consider making sustainable lifestyle choices and Government policy needs to ensure that we significantly reduce emissions in every part of our lives – from leisure and food production to manufacturing and transport.

Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts says:

“We cannot tackle the climate crisis without similar ambition to meet the nature crisis head on – the two are inseparable. The climate crisis is driving nature’s decline while the loss of wildlife and habitats leaves us ill-equipped to reduce our emissions and adapt to change. It makes no sense to continue destroying natural habitats when they could help us – nature’s fantastic ability to trap carbon safely and provide other important benefits is proven.

“Efforts to cut our emissions must be matched with determined action to fix broken ecosystems so they can help stabilise our climate. Restoring nature in the UK needs to be given top priority – we’re calling on the Government, industry and local authorities to step-up investment urgently.”

Georgia Stokes, CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust says:

“If we are to be successful we need to change the way we think about nature. Our nature reserves and green spaces provide vital homes for wildlife but they are so much more than that. They are the life support function for our lives, our communities and our local businesses. Restoring nature at a massive scale also happens to be our best hope of storing carbon to mitigate against the effects of the global climate crisis.

Somerset Wildlife Trust’s grassland nature reserves for example cover 252 hectares, capable of storing 554 tonnes of carbon per year.  Our peatland reserves, such as Westhay Moor are currently already storing a huge amount of carbon, so it is vital that we keep them wet and healthy allowing them to continue providing this carbon sink, and, given 75% of Somerset is farmed, there is a huge opportunity to ensure that hedgerows and field margins are also making an even greater contribution.

As we recover from the Coronavirus Pandemic, with many of us having relied on nature for our physical and mental wellbeing, we must take time to reset. Somerset Wildlife Trust have worked with many partners to develop a blueprint for a nature based recovery and deliver Somerset’s Nature Recovery Network involving communities across the county, and embedding a Green Recovery in our decision making processes - but there is much more we need to do.”

Read ‘Let nature help – how nature’s recovery is essential for tackling the climate crisis’ HERE.

Round-leaved Sundew on Sphagnum Moss at Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve

 Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Westhay Moor NNR, Somerset - Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Editors Notes

‘Let nature help’ draws on the latest research. For full bibliography please see this page:

‘Let nature help – how nature’s recovery is essential for tackling the climate crisis’ outlines key habitats that will store carbon if restored:

  • The UK’s peatland soils store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but are heavily degraded and release the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Restored peatlands can capture more carbon, reduce flooding, clean our water, and allow wildlife to thrive.
  • A hectare of seagrass may store two tonnes of CO2 a year and hold it for centuries, while providing nursery habitat for young fish. But we have lost half our seagrass meadows since 1985. Reducing water pollution and replanting would bring them back to health. Well-managed Marine Protected Areas are vital for nature’s recovery at sea.
  • A hectare of saltmarsh can capture two tonnes of carbon a year and lock it into sediments for centuries, but we are losing nearly 100 hectares of saltmarsh a year. Coastal realignment could restore much of it, and reduce flooding and erosion.
  • Wetlands can accumulate carbon for centuries, but in some areas of the UK we have lost over 90% of our wetland habitat. Restored wetlands provide rich habitat, clean water naturally and reduce flood risk downstream. Less drainage and over-abstraction, the return of beavers and naturalising rivers will lock up more carbon.
  • Oceans absorb 20-35% of human-made CO2 emissions every year. Carbon is incorporated into the tissues of plants and animals, and later into mud and sediment. Human activities release this carbon and also impact populations of marine animals. Introducing Marine Spatial Planning would integrate all activities to avoid unintentional harms and maximise benefits.
  • UK grasslands store 2 billion tonnes of carbon, but this is vulnerable to disturbance. Between 1990-2006, arable conversion of grasslands released 14 million tonnes of CO2. We can restore species-rich grasslands to lock up carbon and support abundant wildlife
  • About 1 billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in UK woodlands, mostly in the soils. Planting more woods could lock up more carbon, but this must be carefully planned to maximise benefits and avoid harming other habitats. We need to protect our existing woodland and help it to expand and join up and we’re calling for 40% more hedgerows to help reach net zero by 2050.

On land, 66% of carbon in nature-rich areas is outside protected sites. We need to identify, map and protect these ecosystems, and restore them locally as part of a national Nature Recovery Network. We also need to incentivise farmers and other land managers to improve their land for nature and contribute to this network. At sea, we need effective marine planning, and an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas.

Healthy ecosystems on land and at sea can absorb vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it away as carbon. However, human activities such as intensive arable farming, overgrazing, overfishing and irresponsible development release this stored carbon and drive nature’s decline. As a first step, we urgently need to protect important ecosystems so their carbon isn’t released and they can continue to absorb CO2. We also need to put nature into recovery across a third of land and sea, so the natural world can cope with the climate change that is already happening and contribute effectively to stabilising it. Doing this across a mosaic of connected habitats will also deliver countless other benefits:

  • Flood prevention
  • Coastal defences
  • Healthier lives
  • Natural resilience

Recent context