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

A river flanked by green banks


At the annual gathering of world leaders, COP26The UN climate summit was held in Glasgow against a backdrop that included flooded homes and closed roads as well as cancelled trains across the UK. extreme weather. These conditions are a stark reminder to us that our ability to dramatically reduce our dependency on others is also reflected in these conditions. carbon emissionsWe must also adapt 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 complicated by the fact that traditional engineering solutions are rapidly becoming more expensive and less sustainable. 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 were implemented in a river valley of Scotland to reduce flood peaks by 30% and protect 500 properties downstream from any damage.

A river flanked by green banks
Eddleston Water: Restoring floodplains helped to protect houses downstream.
Jim Barton. CC BY

Peatland degradationAnother threat to landscapes is the invasive species, Peatlands that are healthy not only store large amounts of carbon, but also provide good-quality drinking water that needs little treatment. Peat can erode into streams and turn the water brown as it dries.

On the Garron Plateau12,000 people in Northern Ireland were affected by peat degradation. However, by reducing the number grazing sheep on peatland, and blocking drainage channels to keep it wet, peatland moses were able to regrow, reducing water treatment costs as well as lowering 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 researchThis showed how governments can miss 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
Restoring peatland is a great way to conserve water and store huge amounts carbon.
Ben Hall. Author provided

We found that policy support is lacking despite increasing recognition of the importance of nature-based solutions in climate adaptation. For example: agroforestryIt can protect livestock and crops from extreme weather by planting trees on grazing or among crops. 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. And green walls and roofs can be added to buildings, especially outside of England. London, also lacks widespread policy support – so these are rarely installed by developers.

Surprised to discover that some projects struggled with regulations to control harmful 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 that higher standards are necessary to ensure that nature-based solutions offer their full benefits. Sustainable drainage systemsThey are an example of this. Good drainage systems include a network of wetlands or ponds that capture rainwater from urban areas, clean it, and then release it into the environment. 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 drafted the legislation that would bring England up-to-date with the high standards set in 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 contrast is the Green Roof OrganisationThe, a trade association not-for-profit, encourages planting wildflowers, as well as wildlife-friendly features, such logs or piles. 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, deplete local waters supplies, or crowd native grasslands and species that depend 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 your meat intake and reduce food waste

To unlock the self-regulating power of our planet’s environment, nature-based solutions need to go mainstream. Governments must provide more funding and create more supportive policies in the same direction as we recommend. our review: Helping people create resilient, healthy landscapes that mitigate the effects of climate change

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