Issue 13

THE ROLE OF NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS IN COMBATTING THE CLIMATE CRISIS

By Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive, John Muir Trust

Our oceans absorb 25 per cent of all carbon released into the atmosphere, while our terrestrial ecosystems store three times more carbon than currently exist in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Few people today would dispute the global scientific consensus that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, impacting on billions of people and ecosystems worldwide.

Policy debate on reducing carbon emissions generally tends to focus on the quest for technical solutions that can reduce and eventually replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy. While that is clearly a key objective in the drive to combat global warming, there is growing recognition that natural solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation should receive more attention.

As the Director General of the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Inger Andersen recently expressed it, “Far from being merely a victim of climate change, healthy ecosystems can be a powerful ally, boosting our climate resilience, and helping us adapt to and mitigate the effects of a changing climate.”

Our oceans absorb 25 per cent of all carbon released into the atmosphere, while our terrestrial ecosystems store three times more carbon than currently exist in the Earth’s atmosphere. If we continue to exploit nature on a gargantuan scale, more of that carbon will be released into the atmosphere and climate change will accelerate. Conversely, we can move in the opposite direction by restoring some of our damaged ecosystems, which would reduce greenhouse emissions and slow down global warming. This is good for us and the species we share the planet with.

Scotland is especially well-placed to make a significant contribution to nature-based solutions to climate change. We have five times more peatlands per square kilometre than the European continental average. Scotland’s peat soils store almost 25 times as much carbon as all other plant life in the UK.

Research conducted by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme concluded: “A loss of only 5 per cent of UK peat carbon would equate to the total annual UK greenhouse gas emissions.” As much as 50 per cent of Scotland’s 20,000 square kilometres of peatland has been damaged to varying degrees as a consequence of burning, draining, grazing and planting of commercial forestry.

In recent years we have begun to wake up to the significance of this great carbon store in our own backyard. Scotland’s first National Peatland Plan was launched last summer by the Scottish Government, which seeks to bring together land managers, scientists, NGOs and other parties in a drive to protect and restore peatland ecosystems. This sits in a UK context where the ambition of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme is to restore 1 million hectares of degraded peatland.

Yet there remains a disconnect between policy objectives being pursued by different branches of government. In recent years, peatlands have come under pressure from new threats, such as the proliferation of off-road vehicle tracks to serve sporting estates, and the spread of large-scale wind farms into the Highlands.

The 67-turbine Stronelairg wind farm, given the go-ahead in 2014 (and currently the subject of a legal challenge by the John Muir Trust), illuminates the complexity of the carbon problem. This massive development in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains, spread over an area the size of Inverness, would certainly help the Scottish Government meet its renewables targets. Yet the claims of the developer that it will make a contribution to carbon savings were not adequately challenged because there was no public inquiry to scrutinise the scheme, and some scientists are critical about the methodologies used to calculate carbon savings.

The proposal involves, for example, excavating about 650,000 cubic metres of stone – enough to build a Berlin-scale wall from the Pentland Firth to the English Channel – from a site which consists of 70 per cent wet blanket bog. A serious strategy to curb Scotland’s carbon emissions would include protection and, where required, restoration of the blanket bog that extends across a vast area of the Monadhliath Mountains.

Yet there remains a disconnect between policy objectives being pursued by different branches of government.

More recently, the Scottish Government has rejected a number of major wind farms on its recognised Wild Land Areas map, including on peatlands in the Flow Country and other parts of Sutherland. This is a hopeful sign of a more sophisticated approach to tackling climate change targets.

In Scotland we can do much more to explore nature-based solutions. Bringing back native woodlands to hillsides once teeming with life would have far-reaching benefits for people and wildlife. It could enrich the soil, prevent flooding, improve the quality of our rivers, and create the potential for sustainable human enterprises. It would also substantially increase our carbon reservoir, by up to 800 tonnes per hectare depending on the species. Young forests actually soak up carbon more rapidly than older remnants, and can in time provide carbon neutral sources of fuel.

Nature is not the only solution to the carbon crisis. We will always need to generate electricity and power transport, and that will require research, innovation and development of new technologies including the sensible use of Scotland’s renewable energy potential.

But nature is all around us, and managed with vision, can become a formidable force in the fight to protect our planet from the ravages of humanity.

Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive, John Muir Trust

By Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive, John Muir Trust

Issue 13

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