The House of Lords has published a report examining the role of nature-based solutions (NBS) to support the UK’s net zero carbon targets. The report, Nature-based solutions: rhetoric or reality? The potential contribution of nature-based solutions to net zero in the UK, discusses in detail the current state of, and potential for use of NBS, in different land types across the UK, including forests, agriculture, marine, etc. It analyses the ability of current government policy to meet targets for emissions and nature restoration and finds them severely lacking.
The government plans are ambitious and have much potential, but there is a clear danger they will not be achieved.Nature-based solutions: rhetoric or reality? House of Lords report, 2022
It will come as little surprise that the main finding of the report is that current levels of clarity, funding and support from the government is the principal obstacle for the UK’s potential to implement and effectively use NBS to sequester carbon, support biodiversity, and so on. The report concluded that due to these, and other, factors, government plans to implement NBS to help reach net zero and biodiversity targets are at a serious risk of failure. The government has, in general, missed its targets for restoring and protecting nature. Pledges are undermined by a lack of clarity on terms such as “effectively protect” and this needs addressing.
Key areas of concern:
- The UK has a skills and knowledge deficit for implementing NBS, where landowners and land managers (from farmers to local urban authorities) do not understand or have not received clarity on the financial, practical and environmental policies and targets that will influence their decisions on choice of NBS, or whether to use them at all. The government does not have a clear strategy to address this skills gap. Fewer than a third of local authorities have ecological expertise in-house.
- Funding is seriously lacking. Natural England and the Environment Agency have both received cuts to their budgets at a time when they need a substantial budget increase. The budgets are not currently sufficient to meet NBS and zero carbon targets.
- As we move from the CAP to the Environmental Land Management Scheme, details of how the ELM will encourage people to use NBS are missing. Policy uncertainty is limiting the adoption of NBS. There has been poor communication from the government to land managers. The lack of transparency about UK land ownership means the government has found it hard to identify which stakeholders it needs to engage with.
- There is a risk from improperly regulated or verified carbon offsetting schemes, with a parallel risk of offshoring UK emissions by ceasing environmentally destructive practices in the UK but displacing them elsewhere.
- There are no clear plans to address competing demands on land, such as the need to sequester carbon, protect and restore biodiversity, and improve food security and yields.
The main recommendation from this report is that the government needs to invest in further research, skills training and the delivery of NBS. However, the report also points out that this cannot be done at the expense of implementing NBS now – we do not have the time to wait until people are trained.
To hit the 2030 targets on biodiversity, we cannot wait until 2028 to have people doing that work.Nature-based solutions: rhetoric or reality? House of Lords report, 2022
It is important that a lack of evidence does not lead to a lack of action. Where evidence gaps exist, the report recommends that policy should adopt a precautionary approach weighted in favour of nature.
For NBS to work, they need to be carefully designed, ecologically sensitive, and planned based on specific locations and future climate conditions. They should be designed and implemented in partnership with local communities and stakeholders. They are not a substitute for decarbonisation of the economy, and net zero will not be reached using NBS alone.
Specific points of interest:
- Trees. We should not overstate the potential contribution that tree planting can make to carbon sequestration. It is an important, but overall small, amount. Slower-growing trees will only make a negligible contribution to achieving net zero by 2050; for example, oak only begins to meaningfully sequester carbon once reaching the age of 20-25 years old. Species selection is also important for co-benefits – biodiversity is important and much greater in mixed deciduous woodland than monoculture plantation forestry (which has a negative impact on biodiversity). NBS must be resilient to future shocks, so attention should be paid to the threat of pests and diseases (e.g. ash dieback, oak processionary moth). However, there is a lack of capacity within the UK to meet demand, and importing trees, seeds and plants risks importing pathogens. In a forestry context, long-term carbon sequestration depends on the use of the wood once harvested. The report recommends life cycle assessments for forestry projects to ensure this is considered.
- Peatlands. Peatlands are the most carbon-dense terrestrial systems on the planet, and the UK is in the top 10 nations in the world in terms of peatland area. However, most of our peatlands are no longer forming new peat due to degradation. Peatland restoration will be a key part of net zero; however, government policies are patchy and refer to upland peat only.
- Agriculture. Land sparing is important for reducing agricultural emissions; we will need to take agricultural land out of production to achieve this. Currently, there are no formal targets for emissions reductions in the agricultural sector – a major gap. The main uncertainty for the use of NBS in agriculture is whether it will reduce yield; we do not want to increase our reliance on importing food from overseas. The evidence on whether NBS reduces yields is mixed. There is promising potential from the use of hedgerows and leys.
- Marine. The UK has one of the largest seagrass stocks in Europe; salt marshes are also important. There is a large research and evidence gap when it comes to marine carbon sequestration potential. However marine systems have numerous co-benefits beyond carbon sequestration. There are currently no specific targets for marine environment emissions.
- Urban. In urban areas, NBS are more about co-benefits than carbon, due to limited land availability. Potential lies in tree planting, green roofs, and ‘wild’ gardens and green spaces.
- Finance. Monetising co-benefits would make NBS products more financially attractive for landholders and investors. A variety of beneficial practices are not incentivised by either the Woodland Carbon Code or the Peatland Code. There is a lack of agreed standards for anything aside from large-scale tree planting or peatland restoration. There are also obvious concerns about using a market-based approach to fund NBS, as well as concerns about offshoring emissions.