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How the UK can harness nature’s power to help fight climate change
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How the UK can harness nature’s power to help fight climate change

A river flanked by green banks


At the annual gathering of world leaders, COP26The UN climate summit in Glasgow took place against the backdrop of flooded homes, closed roads, and cancelled trains across the UK. extreme weather. These conditions serve as a stark reminder of the fact that we must drastically reduce our dependence on foreign aid. carbon emissionsWe must also begin adapting our lives to a climate that is already irreversibly shifting.

Yet the UK’s third climate change risk assessment report warns of a growing “adaptation gap” between the risks the country faces and the action it’s taking, while the Environment Agency states bluntly that the UK must “adapt or die”.

Climate adaptation is difficult because conventional engineering solutions are becoming increasingly unaffordable, and therefore unsustainable. We can’t keep on building higher sea walls, extracting more groundwater from our land’s depleted resources to irrigate crops, or installing energy-guzzling air conditioning to fight heat.

Instead, nature-based solutions that reintegrate aspects of the natural world into our environment can help sustainably, affordably tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, while supporting local economies and improving people’s wellbeing.

For example, restoring saltmarshesIt can help communities at risk of coastal flooding and erosion while also providing vital habitats. wading birds.

Further inland: planting woodlandsFloods can be managed by intercepting rainfall and restoring natural curves to artificially straightened rivers. Floodplain wetlands can also be created to slow down floods. At Eddleston WaterThese initiatives helped reduce flood peak levels by 30% in a river valley in Scotland. 500 properties were protected from flooding.

A river flanked by green banks
Eddleston Water, where floodplains were restored to help protect downstream houses.
Jim Barton. CC BY

Peatland degradationAnother threat to landscapes is the invasive species, Peatlands with good health not only store large amounts carbon but also provide high-quality drinking waters that require little treatment. The peat becomes brown when it dries out and erodes into streams.

The Garron PlateauPeat degradation has contaminated water supplies in Northern Ireland for 12,000 people. Peatland mosses can regrow by blocking drainage channels and grazing sheep less on peatland. This reduces water treatment costs and lowers carbon emissions.

Techniques like adding organic matter to the soil can improve soil health, resilience to heatwaves, floods, and pests. And in urban areas, adding “green infrastructure” like parks and green roofs (roofs covered in vegetation) can help to cool cities and absorb water, preventing flooding in heavy rain.


Our researchIt was clear that governments could be missing out on opportunities to develop nature-based solutions. So in a recent review, commissioned WWF RSPB, we asked people working with nature-based solutions about the challenges they faced – to understand how we might better build these solutions into landscapes.

A person in peatland
The restoration of peatland can help protect water supplies and store large amounts of carbon.
Ben Hall. Author provided

We found that despite growing awareness of the role nature-based solutions play in climate adaptation, there is still a lack of policy support. For example: agroforestryPlanting trees in the midst of crops or on grazing land can help protect livestock and crops from extreme weather. Yet it’s not covered by woodland planting grants and farmers aren’t trained in it, meaning that it’s rarely practised in the UK. Even outside of England, green walls and roofs can be added to buildings. London, also lacks widespread policy support – so these are rarely installed by developers.

Surprisingly, we found that some projects were not adhering to regulations to limit damaging activities like mineral extraction. Small charity-led projects trying to restore seagrass beds in coastal waters – to protect against floods and support fish – can face licensing fees of thousands of pounds from the Marine Management OrganisationEven though they only support the local ecosystem,

We also found out that it is necessary to set higher standards in order to ensure that solutions based on nature are able to reap the full benefits of their existence. Sustainable drainage systemsThey are an example of this. A connected network of ponds, wetlands, and rainwater capture systems that clean and filter urban water before it is released into the environment to help prevent flooding are key examples of good drainage systems. overloading sewers.

A grassy space with a path through it
Woodberry Down’s sustainable drainage system collects and treats stormwater, while creating beautiful spaces.

However, the standards for sustainable drainage in England are based on how much rainwater is collected. Many new drainage systems use underground tanks and pipes to collect rainwater, rather than creating beautiful outdoor spaces that allow wildlife to thrive. New standardsThe Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has drafted a plan to bring England up to the same high standards as Wales.

Similarly, when building developers are asked to boost sustainability by adding green roofs, the default option is often to unroll a cheap, thin, pre-grown vegetation mat that doesn’t offer much insulation and may not survive a dry summer.

Biodiverse green roof at the David Attenborough building in Cambridge
Urban wildlife can be encouraged by cultivating roof habitats.
Dusty Gedge, Green Infrastructure Consultancy. Author provided

The opposite is true for the Green Roof OrganisationThe, a trade association not-for-profit, encourages wildflowers and wildlife-friendly features, such as logs or piles stones. These thick, high-quality green roofs can cool buildings by as much as 20℃ and absorb up to half of the annual rainfall, while providing habitat for insects and birds.

Balancing act

It’s important to be careful when using techniques that could alter the balance of local ecosystems. For example, planting certain tree species in the “wrong place” can do more harm than good. Non-native tree species usually don’t help wildlife flourish. Trees can dry out carbon-rich soils and deplete local water supplies. They can also crowd out native grasslands, which are dependent on them.

Also, converting cropland in the UK to woodland could lead to loss of food production and drive deforestation abroad to make room for new farmland. Unless we free up spaceReduce meat consumption and reduce food waste

To unlock the self-regulating power of our planet’s environment, nature-based solutions need to go mainstream. To make this happen, governments must provide more funding for nature-based solutions and develop more supportive policies that follow our recommendations. our review: Helping people create resilient, healthier landscapes that reduce the impact of climate change

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here to help you understand the climate news and stories. More.

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