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New major study shows importance of nature in hitting net zero

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Image of grass field with blue sky in backgroundThere has been coverage today of Natural England’s most comprehensive study to date on the impact that different UK habitats can have in taking carbon out of the atmosphere and helping us hit net zero by 2050.

The study looked at a wide range of the UK’s natural habitats, finding that woodlands have high rates of carbon sequestration – depending on the species, age and location. New native woodlands can support biodiversity at the same time as taking up carbon. Old woodlands can become substantial carbon stores, with a hectare of native woodland sequestering the equivalent CO2 each year as flying London to Rome 13 times. Carbon held in the deep peat soils of fens and raised bogs hold eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest.

An article in The Independent notes that healthy peatlands are the largest carbon stores, while woodlands also have high rates of carbon absorption. There’s further coverage by Press Association and on the front page of the Yorkshire Post, highlighting the critical impact of peatlands and woodlands in becoming carbon neutral, while Business Green highlights the benefits of restoring and protecting saltmarshes, heathlands and grasslands to both benefit biodiversity alongside achieving net zero.

The report was also the top story on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme this morning, and included an interview with Natural England’s principal climate change specialist Michael Morecroft in which he explains how the report will be used for future decision-making in environmental land management.

Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, said:

This research reveals the fundamental importance of conserving and enhancing our natural environment in meeting the climate change challenge. Taking carbon out of the atmosphere to be stored in ecosystems, including woods, peatlands and salt marshes, is a vital part of our journey to net zero, and if done in an integrated manner will help meet our ambitions for nature recovery and also climate change adaptation, such as reducing the risk of flooding.

By combining different policies and strategies on land and at sea, then major climate related benefits can be achieved. Woodland creation incentives, peatland recovery, action on farms, renaturalisation of the coast and landscape-scale nature recovery projects can all contribute. The climate change and nature emergencies are two sides of the same coin and with this kind of information the UK can lead in showing how we can go low carbon and high nature at the same time.

Dr Ruth Gregg, Senior Specialist for Climate Change at Natural England, and lead author of the report, said:

Our natural and wild places will play a crucial role in tackling the climate crisis. This study gives the most complete picture of the impact of habitats around us in delivering carbon storage and sequestration. As well as highlighting the well-known importance of carbon stores such as peatland and woodland, we now have a much better understanding of the full impact of other habitats such as hedgerows and saltmarshes, and how we should manage these going forward.

Not only do our habitats capture carbon, but they provide many other benefits for biodiversity and the wellbeing of society. For habitat creation and restoration to achieve its full potential in helping the UK achieve net zero by 2050 we need to act now, basing decisions on robust science and taking a strategic approach. This report will support Natural England, the government, and environmental organisations across the country to do just that.

Darren Moorcroft, CEO, Woodland Trust said:

The Woodland Trust’s State of Woods and Trees 2021 report provided new evidence for the substantial levels of carbon held in ancient woods, storing 36% of total UK woodland carbon, despite comprising only 25% of all woodland.

These carbon stores are expected to double over the next 100 years, demonstrating the importance of protecting and restoring these irreplaceable habitats. Acknowledging the significance of native woodlands and other valuable habitats as natural solutions to climate change and nature recovery is vital for tackling the climate crisis and we welcome this contribution from Natural England to the growing evidence base.

The research will provide an invaluable resource for government as part of its upcoming action plan for trees and woodlands, alongside a package of measures to promote the restoration of peatlands. It will also help environmental groups, local authorities and land managers as they work together to deliver biodiversity benefits and help the UK achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while increasing the economic benefits for society through nature, as recently set out in the Dasgupta Review.

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  1. Comment by Paula Saunderson posted on

    It is not nice to see such an emphasis of restoring the State of Nature for Human benefit, and the needs of Biodiversity and Wildlife Flora and Fauna being just an add on. Until you start to change the messages to make UK humans appreciate that every other non human species has just as much right to be on Planet Earth as the human has, then you wont change the behaviour or get rid of the open disrespect and lack of understanding there is towards the Natural Environment.

  2. Comment by Bethan Jones posted on

    Is this really a surprise? It is a shame that our government is still doing so little to improve environmentally friendly building and continuing to forge ahead with things like HS2 when the destruction of habitats is so clearly a major problem and the care and protection of habitats is so crucial to the world's health and so also to our health. All the money in the world wont save you if we can eat because we cant grow any food because we have destroyed the natural world. Lets try to stop focusing on cost and start realising the benefit of the investment. In the long term it will save us money and save us all. Its not difficult to work out...