Natural Climate Solutions

, 24 June 2019
Natural Climate Solutions
© Alan Price

By Fran Southgate

Living Landscapes Advisor

Can we really avert Climate Crisis ?

The reaching of an imminent climate cliff edge across the world is well documented, and thanks to the voices of youth climate activists and others such as Greta Thunberg, this message is being heard by millions. The unseasonable weather this month has also brought it into focus.

The point of no return, global warming of 1.5 °C, is highly likely to be reached in 10 years or so. Documentaries such as the BBC series, Earth from Space, show in stark visual imagery, what this might look like. If the planet warms further than 1.5°, much that we know could change, and the risk of environmental disasters and displacement for hundreds of millions of people, as well as biodiversity loss and species extinctions will rise significantly. It is, an incredibly daunting thought, even for a seasoned conservationist.

To have any chance of averting this global crisis, we need urgent action to de-carbonise human activities, and to lock up much more carbon from the atmosphere. This will take a huge commitment from individuals, communities, businesses and governments, who all need to take responsibility for their individual carbon generating activities.  

There are opportunities for us to avert the worst of this crisis, if we act now. Recent estimates suggest that roughly one third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed between now and 2030 can be provided by carbon drawdown through Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) – otherwise known as ecological restoration. Effectively we have a good chance of preventing climate breakdown by restoring our natural life support systems – which sounds like very good common sense to me.

A recent analysis identifies cost-effective NCS which can be implemented immediately, and which can provide 37% of the greenhouse gas mitigation required to ensure a 66% chance of stabilising global warming to below 2°C between now and 2030. In fact, the total potential of NCS could actually be much higher, as this research did not consider marine ecosystems. This doesn’t mean that we don’t still need to de-carbonise our economies, or that NCS are a substitute for a radical reduction in emissions, but NCS have major advantages over alternative emissions strategies and can also deliver broader ecological and social benefits.

There is considerable overlap between the most effective Natural Climate Solutions identified so far, and the priorities of the global ecology, conservation and rewilding movements. There is one major forerunner in the race to radically reduce global warming, because of the size and potential areas in question. This is reforesting and the protection of existing forest. The reforesting of large areas of deforested land, particularly rainforest, is one of the biggest beacons of hope. We don’t have any rainforest in Sussex, but we do protect large areas of (ancient) woodland through our Nature Reserve Network, and we plant large areas of trees through Natural Flood Management projects.

Coming a close second place in the carbon sequestration tables, are vegetated coastal habitats, such as mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass beds. Carbon can be sequestered 40 times faster per hectare in these environments than in tropical forests, and these ecosystems can be restored quickly through coastal re-alignment schemes such as our own Rye Harbour scheme.

Much less is known about potential sources and sinks of marine carbon – although we know that our seas play a huge role in carbon sequestration. It is estimated in the Northwest European continental shelf, that the top 10 cm of sediments contain between 6bn and 19bn tonnes of carbon. We know that in 2002, around 2 billion hectares, (75%,) of the world’s continental shelves were trawled every year, releasing vast amounts of carbon, and that this figure is likely to be much higher today. Our Living Seas programme, which campaigns hard for Marine Conservation Zones and sustainable harvesting of marine resources, is helping conserve these carbon sinks.

Soils are another massive carbon sink, and in particular, peat. Though peat covers only 3% of the world’s land, it stores one-third of all soil carbon. The carbon it contains is highly vulnerable to loss through deforestation, building and drainage, drying, burning, conversion to agriculture and industrial extraction. So, the restoration of peatlands, mires and fens offers huge opportunities for locking up carbon. Sussex Wildlife Trust protects small areas of peatland on our Nature Reserves, we work with hundreds of landowners across Sussex, to help them manage their soils more sustainably, and we protect and restore, wetlands and wetland soils through our Living Landscapes work.

The other main methods of limiting global warming, many of which we also deliver are :-

  • Natural forest management
  • Conservation agriculture
  • Legumes in pasture
  • Optimal intensity grazing
  • Natural solutions to mitigation
  • Improved plantations
  • And Trees in croplands

... and all of these can be delivered in a way which supports local communities and land rights, livelihood security, wellbeing and equity.

So far NCS have attracted limited funding directed towards climate crisis mitigation, and not a great deal more political attention. We hope that you will join us in asking for much greater Government support to restore our natural ecosystems in order to help limit the climate crisis. And we are grateful for the support that you already give us to help us deliver some of these Natural Climate Solutions.

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