Bright Blue – Written evidence (NSD0012)

 

Bright Blue welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Science and Technology Committee’s (Lords) request for written evidence, particularly regarding the role of nature-based solutions in mitigating climate change. Specifically, considering how protecting, managing, and restoring natural ecosystems can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while providing co-benefits to people and nature.

 

In February 2020 Bright Blue published a report titled Global green giant? A policy story. The report highlights the benefits of conservation of nature and provides recommendations on how to improve the UKs conservation efforts.

 

5. How should implementation of nature-based solutions be integrated with other government policies for landscapes and seascapes, for example, agricultural, forestry, and land-use planning policies?

 

 

Trees act as a shelter for wildlife, prevent soil erosion, increase soil fertility, purify our waterways, combat air pollution, provide timber, alleviate flood risk, deliver benefits for human mental health, and increase biodiversity.[1] The ability of trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, once all available cost-effective decarbonisation technologies have been deployed, also makes them one of the most effective tools in deeper decarbonisation.

 

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has suggested that afforestation efforts must double in the 2020s, and triple in the 2030s (to 27,000 hectares) in order to keep emission reductions on target with the UK’s growing population.[2] The CCC cite the population growth forecast of an additional nine million people by 2050 as a need to combat increasing emissions.[3]

 

In response, in their 2019 election manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to invest an additional £640 million in nature-based solutions as part of their newly unveiled Nature for Climate fund.[4] Through this, they aim to plant 30 million trees a year by 2025.[5]

 

However, predicted population growth rates can change over time, as can economic growth and its associated levels of emissions – particularly through future technologies which cannot be accounted for presently.

 

 

 

The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible for expanding, protecting, and promoting woodlands. The Forestry Commission does not have a programme to engage young people in afforestation and conservation.

 

The Government’s afforestation targets are an opportunity to engage young people in conservation. Currently, there are 3,448 state secondary schools in the UK.[6] Given the next generation will be the custodians of our environment, it is important that more young people are involved in learning about and conducting conservation.

 

 

 

Any insect that visits flowers can be considered a pollinator.[7] Pollinators facilitate the reproduction of plants. When pollinators eat pollen or nectar from a plant, pollen often sticks to their bodies, which in effect causes pollinators to spread the pollen when they travel to other plants.

 

The number of pollinators in the UK has been declining dramatically in recent decades.[8] Comparing indicators from 2016 with 1980 highlights a 31% decline in pollinators.[9] Long-term, only 14% of pollinator species have increased, whilst 44% have become less widespread.[10]

 

Declining pollinator populations is concerning, not least because they are essential to biodiversity and high-quality food yield.[11]

 

There are a number of possible causes of declining pollinator populations. Possible causes include loss of habitat (flowering crops and nesting sites), biodiversity loss (through monocultural crops, larger fields, predation, less wildflower-rich grassland and less hedgerows), the use of agrochemicals and diseases.

 

However, there is a deficit of conclusive evidence about the extent of each of these causes, and whether any interactions exist between these causes.[12] Further research is needed for a greater understanding of the troubling decline in pollinators.[13] The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is currently undertaking a major study which monitors the abundance of pollinators and how their populations are changing across Britain.[14]

 

The findings of this study could be reflected in the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) – the post-CAP rural payments system which the UK Government is introducing which will better reward farmers, land managers and land owners for environmental services and benefits. For example, farmers could be rewarded for pollinator-friendly practices such as reducing chemical use or increasing agroforestry and the planting of wildflowers.

 

 

 

The Government has outlined its intention for the reintroduction of lost species as part of its 25 Year Environment Plan. It has previously pledged to develop ‘Nature Recovery Networks’ (NRNs) for wildlife restoration.[15] Specifically, 500,000 hectares of wildlife habitats were due to be set aside for an NRN.[16]

 

NRNs identify where habitats and ecosystems are located, then links them via ‘eco-corridors’.[17] The aim is that all ecosystems will be linked together through an NRN. For example, waterways could be fenced off from livestock to allow fauna to re-establish itself along the riverbank. These waterways would then form eco-corridors as part of the NRN. Motorway wildlife crossings are another example of how an NRN can operate; they remove motorways as a barrier for wildlife between ecosystems.

 

NRNs also facilitate climate adaptation by allowing wildlife to relocate from their habitats, which are changing due to climate change. Furthermore, they facilitate carbon capture through fauna restoration and afforestation, improve water quality by keeping livestock out of waterways, increase biodiversity through rewilding, and they can reduce the impact of flooding.[18]

 

However, the Government’s plan for an NRN says little about the role that NRNs could play in improving biodiversity in urban areas. The Government has only detailed plans to build an NRN rurally, stating it could be made to “extend into towns and cities” without providing any concrete goals.[19]

 

In light of dwindling pollinator populations, urban areas offer opportunities for suitable, connected habitats to boost pollinator numbers. This is being done in Oslo, Norway, where a ‘bee highway’ has been built through the centre of the city. Moreover, in London, a seven-mile-long wildflower corridor is being planted to provide habitat for insects.[20] By extending NRNs into urban areas, it also allows them to be more accessible to people and improve air quality.

 

 

 

Green Belts are designated pieces of land that surround urban areas which restrict development. Their purpose is to constrain urban sprawl as well as prevent the merger of towns, protect the countryside, and preserve the natural environment.[21]

 

Presently, 12.5% of England’s land area is classified as Green Belt land.[22] This has decreased by 0.3% in the period of 2017 to 2018.[23] As the population grows and demand for housing increases along with it, there have been calls for Green Belt land to be opened up for development. However, there are concerns about the environmental impact on Green Belt land if it was to be opened up to developers.

 

Unbeknownst to many, most privately owned Green Belt land is intensively farmed, therefore having a negative environmental value.[24] Green Belt land which is low-quality – that is, land which has already been built on, been left derelict, or brownfield areas within the Green Belt – should be declassified and development permitted.[25] After declassifying low-quality land and developing one million homes, only 3.9% of the Green Belt would be developed.[26] With the rise in eco-homes, development is no longer synonymous with environmental degradation, particularly if it is accompanied by the planting of more trees or the creation of nature trails.

 

The Environment Bill will introduce a legal obligation on developers to ensure that there is a biodiversity gain when compared to pre-development levels. Defra has stipulated that this biodiversity gain would be set at a 10% increase in habitat value for wildlife.[27] So development with at least this level of net biodiversity gain could both improve biodiversity and increase the housing supply, as well as increasing the number of people living close to the Green Belt.

 

 

 

By funding research and development (R&D) in agriculture, there is the potential to create more innovative farming techniques which have less environmental impact than conventional methods.

 

‘Precision farming’ is an example of an alternative farming practice that has both greater environmental sustainability and increased productivity than conventional farming practices.[28] Precision farming aims to measure soil fertility, more effectively manage pest control, and provide better insights for making land management decisions.[29] For example, it includes better and up-to-date monitoring of weather forecasts and irrigation patterns in order to apply an appropriate level of irrigation, so as to avoid over-application or under-application of water to crops. Precision farming depends on both appropriate technology and the gathering and analysis of data. Technology such as GPS guidance of machinery and variable fertilizer rates according to the inherent fertility measured for individual areas of soil are now commonplace, and there is more to be achieved.

 

Following this, revolutionary change is in the offing with robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Small agricultural robots will replace most large machinery in the future, with data-gathering and non-chemical weed control models already in the prototype stage. The environmental benefits of low soil impact, high-precision, chemical-free technology will be dramatic. By greatly increasing efficiency and productivity while reducing or removing the environmental impacts of conventional farming, robotics and AI are likely to lead to 'land-saving' and the return of more marginal land to wildlife conservation.

 

So too with vertical farming, which involves producing foods (fruit, vegetables and herbs) in stacked trays in an enclosed, possibly high-rise building using a combination of reflected natural light and artificial lighting. Vertical farming has the potential to increase crop yield five times over when compared to traditional farming methods, as well as reducing pesticide use and environmental impact due to its enclosed environment.[30] By dramatically reducing the land area occupied per unit of production and by offering the ability to move food production into urban centres, vertical farming could also play a role in returning land to wildlife.

 

Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) is a practical innovation for improving quantitative traits in living organisms. MAS works by selecting a trait of interest (such as DNA variation) which is linked to a positive outcome (such as disease resistance) and using this to inform the selective breeding process of a living organism. Notably, MAS has missed out on UK R&D funding in the shadow of further research into genetic modification techniques.[31]

 

These are just some examples of new ways of farming that can have a lower biodiversity impact.

 

The Government does currently provide funding for agricultural equipment and technology, for instance through the Countryside Productivity Small Grants Scheme.[32] However, proportionally, the UK’s public and private expenditure on R&D is comparatively lower than the OECD’s. Total R&D spending measured as a percentage of GDP in the UK was 1.66% in 2017, compared to 2.37% in the OECD.[33] The Government has set a target of R&D expenditure equating to 2.7% of GDP by 2027.[34]

 

If a private sector firm demonstrates that it has invested in and undertaken R&D, they are eligible for a tax credit from HMRC, receiving either a cash payment or reduction in corporation tax. In the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto, there was a pledge to increase the tax credit rate for R&D to 13% in a bid to increase R&D.[35]

 

In 2017, less than 1% of tax credits claimed for R&D were from UK small-medium sized businesses in the agriculture sector.[36] One of the reasons for such a low claim rate from the agricultural sector is due to farmers not being aware of the R&D tax credit, and not clear on what constitutes R&D.[37]

 

 

 

Neonicotinoids are used as a form of pest control in agriculture. They resemble nicotine in structure. Their use as a pesticide has a proven harmful effect on pollinating species such as bees, reducing pollination rates.[38] In the interest of addressing dwindling pollinator populations, the EU banned their use in 2018, which the UK supported.[39]

 

In November 2017 Bright Blue Published a report titled A greener, more pleasant land: a new market-based commissioning scheme for rural payments. The report included recognising ecosystem service for enhancing the country’s natural environment.

 

 

4. Who are the key stakeholders for the implementation of nature-based solutions in the UK? How can stakeholders’ expertise and concerns inform the incentives and requirements for implementing nature-based solutions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Bright Blue

Bright Blue is an independent think tank for liberal conservatism. The Daily Telegraph has called us “The modernising wing of the Tory party” and the influential Conservative Home website has described us as “A deep intellectual gene pool for the Conservative Party’s future”.

 

Our work is guided by seven research themes: bountiful economy; clean environment; good lives; rewarding work; empowering government; just institutions; and connected communities. We were shortlisted as the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 UK social policy think tank of the year and UK environment and energy think tank of the year in the prestigious annual Prospect Magazine awards.

 

8 September 2021

 


[1] Tree People, “Top 22 benefits of trees”, https://www.treepeople.org/tree-benefits (2019).

[2] Damian Carrington, “Tree planting in the UK must double to tackle climate change” https:// www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/15/tree-planting-double-uk-climate-change (2018)

[3] Committee on Climate Change, “Land use: reducing emissions and preparing for climate change”, https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Land-use-Reducing-emissions-and-preparingfor-climate-change-CCC-2018-1.pdf (2018), 22.

[4] The Conservative and Unionist Party, “Get Brexit done. Unleash Britain’s potential”, https:// assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_ Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf, (2019), 43.

[5] BBC, “General election 2019: Tories and Lib Dems in rival tree-planting pledges”, https://www. bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50440867 (2019).

[6] Department for Education, “Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019”, https://

assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/812539/

Schools_Pupils_and_their_Characteristics_2019_Main_Text.pdf (2019), 5.

[7] Royal Horticultural Society, “Pollinators: decline in numbers”, https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/ profile?pid=528 (2019).

[8] Gov UK, “Biodiversity and ecosystem services: pollination”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/829245/10_Status_of_pollinating_ insects_2019_rev.pdf (2016), 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, “The National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/ uploads/attachment_data/file/794706/national-pollinator-strategy.pdf (2014), 3.

[12] University of Leeds, “Possible causes of pollinator declines”, https://www.agriland.leeds.ac.uk/ about/causes.php (2019).

[13] Gov UK, “Biodiversity and ecosystem services: pollination”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/829245/10_Status_of_pollinating_ insects_2019_rev.pdf (2016), 3.

[14] UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, “PoMS home page”, https://www.ceh.ac.uk/our-science/ projects/pollinator-monitoring (2017).

[15] HM Gov, “A green future: Our 25 year plan to improve the environment”, https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-yearenvironment-plan.pdf (2018), 56.

[16] Ibid., 58.

[17] The Wildlife Trusts, “A nature recovery network to create a wilder future”, https://www. wildlifetrusts.org/nature-recovery-network (2019).

[18] The Wildlife Trusts, “A wilder Britain: Creating a nature recovery network to bring back wildlife to every neighbourhood”, https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/2018-06/Nature_recovery_ network_final.pdf (2018), 5.

[19] HM Gov, “A green future: Our 25 year plan to improve the environment”, (2018), 59.

[20] World Economic Forum, “London is planting a giant bee corridor to boost insect numbers”, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/london-is-planting-a-giant-bee-corridor/ (2019).

[21] inistry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, “Local planning authority Green Belt: England 2017/18”, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/file/788115/Green_Belt_Statistics_England_2017-18.pdf (2018), 2.

[22] Ibid., 1.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Professor Paul Cheshire, “Greenbelt myth is the driving force behind the housing crisis”, https:// blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/greenbelt-myth-is-the-driving-force-behind-housing-crisis/ (2013).

[25] Jacob Rees-Mogg and Radomir Tylecote, “Raising the roof: How to solve the United Kingdom’s housing crisis”, https://iea.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/CC70_Raising-the-roof_web.pdf?mc_ cid=75f7443831&mc_eid=7266a494cd (2019), 33.

[26] Ibid., 34.

[27] Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs, “Environment Bill summer policy statement: July 2019”, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/draft-environment-principlesand-governance-bill-2018/environment-bill-summer-policy-statement-july-2019#green-governance (2019).

[28] Tanja Folnovic, “Benefits of using precision farming: Producing more with less”, http://blog.agrivi. com/post/benefits-of-using-precision-farming-producing-more-with-less (2019).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Farming UK, “UK start-up aims to build over forty vertical farms”, https://www.farminguk.com/ news/uk-start-up-aims-to-build-over-forty-vertical-farms_54074.html, (2019).

[31] Soils Association, “GM 2.0: Gene editing and new plant breeding techniques”, https://www. soilassociation.org/media/15664/gm-20-policy-briefing.pdf (2018), 3.

[32] Gov UK, “£30 million commitment to help farmers boost productivity”, https://www.gov.uk/ government/news/30-million-commitment-to-help-farmers-boost-productivity (2018)

[33] OECD, “Gross domestic spending on R&D”, https://data.oecd.org/rd/gross-domestic-spendingon-r-d.htm (2018).

[34] UK Research and Innovation, “Increasing the UK’s investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP”, https://www.ukri.org/about-us/increasing-investment-in-r-d-to-2-4-of-gdp/ (2019).

[35] Conservative and Unionist Party, “Get Brexit done. Unleash Britain’s potential”, https://assetsglobal.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%20 2019%20Manifesto.pdf (2019), 34.

[36] Natwest, “R&D tax relief for innovative farmers”, https://www.natwestbusinesshub.com/content/ rd-tax-relief-for-innovative-farmers (2019).

[37] Ibid.

[38] European Food Safety Authority, “Neonicotinoids: risks to bees confirmed”, https://www.efsa. europa.eu/en/press/news/180228, 2018).

[39] Gov UK, “Further restrictions on neonicotinoids agreed”, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ further-restrictions-on-neonicotinoids-agreed (2018).