Landscape Decisions Programme network – Written evidence (NSD0014)
The Landscape Decisions Programme is a network of 60 multi-disciplinary research projects working in conjunction with multiple stakeholder organisations, our projects are addressing the challenge of delivering better, evidence-based decisions for UK landscapes, as such, we feel that we are well positioned to offer evidence to the Committee.
1. What is the potential scale of the contribution that nature-based solutions can make to decarbonisation in the UK?
Tree dominated ecosystems may sequester most carbon, and in the UK there has been a strong emphasis on tree planting. However, there are other important ecosystems.
Urban areas are relevant for Nature Based Solutions (NBS) in the UK, and have a large potential, particularly in per capita terms. Urban areas contain 82.9% of the UK population but provide a limited set of regulating and provisioning services. Greening cities via NBS solutions could have multiple benefits (e.g. carbon sequestration, air filtration, cooling, noise mitigation). For example, trees in urban areas in the US sequester an estimated at 25.6 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. (https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/jrnl/2013/nrs_2013_nowak_001.pdf).
Peatlands hold ⅓ of global soil carbon, despite only covering ~4% of the global land mass. Hence the restoration of carbon-rich peatlands presents a significant mitigation choice. By international standards, the UK has large areas of peatlands, ~10% of the UK land area, but 80% are degraded. So, restoring the damaged or degraded peatland will have a significant impact.
Agricultural land is a major source of emissions, but represents an opportunity for increased sequestration, (e.g via tree planting in pastureland and hedgerows e.g. see Hall 2018 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2018.08.009).
That said, it is widely considered (e.g. as part of the mitigation hierarchy) that avoidance of emissions should be prioritised over mitigation (i.e via sequestration), although net-zero carbon goals will require a combination of approaches.
NBS hold the potential to absorb and store very large amounts of carbon, and are reasonably cheap to undertake - e.g. £2.5 billion worth of social, economic and environmental benefits will be generated from The Northern Forest project (The Woodland Trust, 2020). Often the highest short-term economic costs associated NBS are the opportunity costs of locking land into high-carbon capture use long-term. For example, the English bogs and fens contain 584 Mt C or ~5 years of total countrywide CO2 emissions (Natural England, 2010), and it has been calculated that in many restoration scenarios, even with low ‘shadow prices’ for carbon, the costs of restoration will often outweigh the opportunity costs lost.
2. What major scientific uncertainties persist in understanding the effects of nature-based solutions and affect their inclusion in carbon accounting, and how can these uncertainties be addressed?
Without a comprehensive understanding of the temporality of ecosystem dynamics, any intervention (e.g., the one aiming to facilitate carbon sequestration) risks being inefficient or failing. Recent research has revealed that ecosystems are usually in a transient state that may last for a long time (so called “long transients”), and ecosystem models can establish the hierarchy of relevant timescales and suggest optimum timing and duration of NBS.
A major problem in assessing NBS activities is their potential reversibility and non-permanence of carbon stocks as a result of human activities, with the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, disturbances (e.g. fires or disease), or environmental change, including climate change, threatening the resilience of carbon stocks.
Concern over the reversibility of biological storage mechanisms and the (often) extensive timescales and land requirements needed for NBS has led to growing interest in non-biological storage options. These include storing CO2 in geological reservoirs (e.g. ex-mines) and chemically capturing atmospheric carbon via mineralisation. However, underground storage is not without risk of reversibility (e.g. leakage due to ground tremors) and is equally limited by physical capacity. Many of these techniques are still in the early stages of development, the wider environmental impacts of such actions are not fully understood, and there are also major questions about the likely social acceptability (see Thomas et al, 2019) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2019.110908
The ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Peatland Programme https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/ is an ideal body to work on the evidence base as they are a coalition of partnership organisations.
Carbon sequestration in the ocean can be affected by increases in water temperature, which may significantly disrupt (and, ultimately, stop completely) phytoplankton photosynthesis. Should this happen, carbon sequestration by the ocean will be reduced.
3. What frameworks already exist for the regulation and financing of nature-based solutions?
NBS are often undertaken by owners of large estates, including charitable organisations such as the National Trust, but also through actions involving smaller scale private landowners, public bodies (e.g. Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage), local authorities, and other non-governmental organisations (e.g. John Muir Trust, RSPB and Woodland Trust (see Wyne-Jones et al 2020 https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26937284). Many adoptions have resulted in significant benefits in relation to climate change adaption, including moderating risks associated with flooding, soil erosion, landslips and high temperature events (Seddon et al 2020 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2019.0120; Puttock et al., 2017, Science of The Total Environment Volume 576, 430-443). They contribute to climate change mitigation through heightened carbon sequestration, and increase adaptive capacities through encouraging increased biodiversity. Concerns have been expressed about negative impacts on habitats and species associated with some implementations of NBS (see Stringer et al. 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/mam.12068), the financing and public acceptance of the scaling up of such solutions; and the evidence base concerning their longer term benefits and application into different ecological and social contexts (Seddon et al 2020).
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?
NBS are likely to be a key element of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) for England, the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme in Scotland and equivalent schemes in other areas of the UK. In addition, some farmers are engaging in moving towards net-zero (including using NBS to achieve this). For example, the Farm Carbon Toolkit (active since 2012) is a farmer-led organisation that provides and supports farmers in using a free carbon footprint calculator, which has been voluntarily used by over 2000 farms.
Although there is evidence of some engagement with NBS, engagements are often conditioned by their need to make a profit. Financial incentives for NBS are likely to be gain support amongst farmers (e.g. as evidenced by the set aside scheme and CAP). There is also evidence of resistance linked to potential loss of autonomy in decision making; challenges to prevailing, and strongly held, senses of identity about the character of farming and what makes a 'good farmer'; and impacts on the farm livelihoods and the farm succession. There are concerns that the promotion of 'rewilding' and 'farming for public goods', alongside an aged farming population, may induce exits from farming, alongside land ownership concentration and a growth of 'financialised' land owning fuelled by governmental financial support for nature-based solutions. Such developments raise questions about the formation of heightened social inequities through NBS, as well as potential public resistance to their development.
There are many implementations of NBS that involve engagements with stakeholders and local communities, although the nature of these engagements varies considerably. Often taking form of 'consultations' to gauge level of public acceptance of proposed action, although proposals also often emerge from members of local communities and NGOs. Such proposals are often driven from a value interest in NBS, which require translation into action through engagement with stakeholders who have resources (e.g. land, expertise) and capacities to enact proposed solutions. NBS often requires incorporation of local and past knowledges, and hence strong community and stakeholder engagement is required for successful implementation (Short et al. 2018 https://doi.org/10.1002/ldr.3205). Although such engagements are likely to add to the complexity of implementing NBS, and slow down their employment, it has been argued that extensive engagements not only improve their effectiveness but also increase awareness and literacy about over climate change mitigation and adaptation and have wider social and cultural benefits linked to social capital and cohesion formation (Short et al 2020).
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?
NBS are important for creating landscapes that are both high in carbon sequestration and help increase biodiversity. For instance, NBS has been proposed to increase biodiversity, and climate resilience and minimise environmental impacts, eg through reduced flood risks (Svenning, 2016 https://www.pnas.org/content/113/4/898) (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/esp.3919) (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hyp.14017)
However, we must be mindful of which land uses are being replaced and ensure that landscapes are balanced. Maintaining high biodiversity within the landscape can only occur if a rich mosaic of appropriate and harmonious habitats are maintained and can remain connected. This must be kept in mind when aiming to simultaneously satisfy carbon capture and biodiversity agendas. Instead, shifting our focus to finding complimentary carbon-capture land-uses may provide a better balance of results. For instance, combining a new woodland with an adjacent carbon capture meadow will maintain carbon capture on two different timescales. It creates a habitat mosaic, connectivity and improves landscape permeability for multiple species with different habitat preferences.
NBS should be a key element in the environmental land management and agri-environmental schemes. They are an important way to incentivise NBS, providing financial support for management interventions that provides ecosystem services and livelihoods for people locally. However, it is also important that incentives for NBS extend beyond the individual farmer to encompass the multiplicity of land users and connect to wider land development controls linked to land use planning. There would, for example, seem to be scope for connecting nature-based solutions to policy mechanisms such as biodiversity offsetting, in order to maximise the benefits that such schemes might deliver.
9 September 2021