Failure to consider the wider environmental impacts of nature-based interventions risks increasing global warming and damaging the environment, warns a new report from the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), featuring research from Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
Nature-based interventions, such as tree planting, peatland restoration, and marine habitat protection, can help to reduce the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and meet the government’s net zero greenhouse gasses target. However, the new NCC report - Advice on using nature based interventions to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - from the UK Government’s independent advisors, which includes PML’s Professor Melanie Austen, highlights the significant risks of using natural interventions in sole pursuit of the net zero target, irrespective of the impact on the wider natural environment.
Interventions need to be designed with an eye to wider effects in order to avoid causing further degradation of natural assets or even increased global greenhouse emissions. For example, boggy peatland soils lock up vast quantities of carbon, but planting trees here can dry these soils out leading them to emit more greenhouse gas than would be captured by those trees.
The report suggests that such a narrow focus would repeat previous failures of land use policy and could overlook the significant wider benefits our natural assets provide, including mental health and wellbeing benefits from access to nature.
The NCC recommended the government using nature-based interventions as part of an integrated, holistic approach to improving the whole environment, in line with the UK Government's 25 Year Environment Plan.
Research by PML's Professor Nicola Beaumont, Acting Head of Science for Sea & Society, was used in the report's section on 'Nature based interventions - sea use changes'.
Professor Beaumont said: “The path to Net Zero is going to require immense institutional, societal and environmental transitions. These transitions will certainly have both positive and negative secondary consequences. In our urgency to meet Net Zero there is a real risk that we may exchange one environmental crisis for another.
"The report references the potential negative impacts of tree planting but there are also other potential negative impacts. For example, a key action on the path to Net Zero is the growth in renewable energy, necessitating expansive land and marine use change. Given land and sea use change is one of the greatest drivers of environmental degradation, in this case there is a real risk that solving the carbon problem will be at the expense of creating a host of other environmental problems, including biodiversity loss.
"It is critical that we take a holistic perspective to ensure optimal solutions for Net Zero are found that ideally maximise wider environmental co-benefits, rather than causing environmental damage. The Natural Capital approach will help us to achieve this aim as it enables the consequences of our Net Zero related actions to be more transparently considered.
"Decisions need to be made with care and thought if we are to avoid unwanted secondary consequences on the path to Net Zero, and this NCC report is an important step towards this."
Summary of report recommendations:
1. An integrated, holistic natural capital system based approach which combines top down coordination with local delivery is critical in ensuring that environmental targets and nature-based interventions are designed in a way that maximises the full range of ecosystem services – including mental health and wellbeing benefits – minimises costs, and properly considers trade-offs.
2. The Committee recommends the Government should “urgently” replace what it sees as the limited policy of requiring that building and infrastructure development delivers ‘biodiversity net gain’ with the wider requirement of delivering ‘environmental net gain’. This would mean that the environmental damage caused by development has to be more than compensated for in ways that consider improvements for wildlife, carbon storage, the water environment, access to greenspace and outdoor recreation. This would ensure improvement efforts apply to all nationally significant infrastructure and the marine environment, otherwise it will be “incredibly difficult, if not impossible” to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
3. The report says planning for infrastructure – including solar farms, wind turbines, buildings, railways and roads, all of which apply pressure on natural assets – should be fully joined up with any spatial planning for nature-based interventions.
4. It also recommends the Government should develop a “holistic” strategy to reach net zero, which should include changes in energy, transport, housing, infrastructure, industry and land and sea use.
5. Priority should be given to evaluating managing and increasing tree cover, maintaining and increasing soil carbon, including peatland restoration, improving wildlife and biodiversity, managing freshwaters and wetlands and sea use changes.
6. The NCC have previously urged Ministers to develop a comprehensive baseline of natural capital assets in order to determine whether initiatives such as Government’s new £640m ‘Nature for the Climate Fund’ earmarked for tree planting and peat restoration will deliver the required environmental improvements.