Land and Climate Change

Well, it’s official. According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), how we use our land is one of the most significant contributors to global warming – clocking up almost a quarter of all emissions - and we need to start tackling it now if we’re to have a chance of keeping global temperatures within the 1.5 degrees that scientists have agreed is safe.

It may not be stated explicitly in the IPCC report, but it’s blindingly obvious that the things we need to do to stop climate change are pretty much the same ones to stop the cataclysmic decline of nature and start bringing it back into recovery.

The report highlights a number of things we can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

  • First, we need to stop destroying pristine habitats such as forests and peatlands and converting them to farmland, because these natural ecosystems store much more carbon and are far more efficient at recycling it from the atmosphere than the bland and impoverished monocultures we replace them with. 
  • Secondly, we’ve got to start restoring habitat and putting back some of what we’ve lost, because just protecting the fragments that remain won’t get us there. 
  • Then we’ve got to look at how we farm and find more climate friendly ways of managing the soil. 
  • And finally, we need to look at what we eat and how wisely we use the food produced. 
Bluebells at Lady Wood

Photo credit, Dave Chamberlain

The problem with reports like the IPCC’s is that it’s all too easy to lose any sense of perspective and hope when looking at such massive problems operating over a planetary scale.  But it’s more digestible if we look at how the implications could play out in Devon. 

Thankfully in south west England we’re not destroying acres of forest every minute like in certain parts of the world, but some of our wildlife losses are surprisingly recent.  Culm grassland, something of a Devon speciality, has declined by 90% since 1950, and much of this was lost in the mid to late 1980s.  But what’s even more telling is the state of what we have left.  Take our SSSIs.  These are our most important national habitats and along with European designation receive the highest levels of protection.  But only 30% of Devon’s 211 SSSIs are in favourable* condition.  Locally designated Wildlife Sites fare little better at 34%, and a number are reported as damaged or destroyed each year.    

If you want an even more shocking statistic, look at the SSSIs in our protected landscapes.  Dartmoor’s SSSIs are the most extensive in the region, holding the UK’s most southerly peat bogs and some of our finest upland oak woods.  Peat bogs are our largest store of carbon as well as a unique wildlife habitat.  Here the proportion in favourable condition reduces to a paltry 16%, because the bogs are so widely and badly degraded.  And what’s worse is that we’ve been going backwards - this figure is lower than ten years ago.  So, the first challenge has got to be to protect our wildlife sites properly and to manage them for recovery, rather than for profit or convenience.

Restoring wildlife at this scale needs a serious plan, and that’s exactly what we’re arguing for in the new Environment Act.

Photo credit, Nicholas Watt

The second challenge is to start putting wildlife back.  There is no official figure for how much new wildlife habitat is needed, but the government has set a target of 500,000 hectares (ha) in the next 25 years, coupled with 180,000ha of new forest.  If we divide that between English counties in an area basis, that’s nearly 26,000 ha of new wildlife habitat and over 9,000 ha of new woodland in Devon. Add those together and you get an area five times the size of Plymouth or fifteen times the size of Exeter.  Compare that with the amount of habitat that’s been created over the last 25 years and we’ve got a small revolution on our hands.

Restoring wildlife at this scale needs a serious plan, and that’s exactly what we’re arguing for in the new Environment Act.  A Nature Recovery Network would map all our existing wildlife habitat, set targets for increasing their size (many of them are tiny fragments) identify corridors between these sites (many are isolated) and point us to the best new places for restoring or creating new areas for wildlife.  These might be on some of the poorer soils, on the fringes of our uplands and national parks, on the steep sides of river valleys, on the edge of cities and along our coasts.  It’s an amazing goal that would transform the county and bring people flocking to see its natural wonders.  We should set our sights on it right now.

Devon is never going to be one huge nature reserve, nor should it.  Sustainable farming to produce healthy local food is vital.  Our beautiful county has some of the finest agricultural land, but much of it is very intensively managed.  Drive across mid Devon or South Hams and you’ll see field after field of the same intense green, one or two species of highly competitive grass growing on a supercharged diet of fertiliser, practically devoid of insect or bird life.  And across the country the number of so-called “mega farms” is on the rise.  These have over 1,000 beef cattle or 125,000 broiler chickens.  The intensive livestock industry is among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. These are farms producing millions of tonnes of silage every year, much of which ends up in rivers or the atmosphere rather than soaking into the soil. 

Cutting down or eliminating the use of agrochemicals, which are decimating insect populations from Russia to Brazil and guzzling carbon in their production, could make our farmland far more pollinator friendly too.

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

As much as 20% of all the World’s carbon emissions since the industrial revolution are thought to have come from carbon lost to the soil, and soil erosion alone is thought to cost UK farmers £9 million annually.  Just look at the colour of the Exe or any of Devon’s major rivers after heavy rainfall and you’ll know where much of it goes.

Topsoil is possibly the greatest concentration of life anywhere.  Just one gramme of it contains up to a billion bacteria.  As well as the vast legions of micro-organisms, healthy soil supports insects, plants, and the birds and mammals that feed off them.  We can start to recover this soil carbon by managing farmland better.  Planting hedges and leaving field margins provides habitat and reduces soil erosion. Cover crops and agroforestry avoid leaving bare earth exposed to the elements and create a more diverse vegetation structure for wildlife.  Minimum tillage, which shins the plough, helps the soil to regain its structure, and rotational grazing reduces soil compaction and allows vegetation to recover.  Cutting down or eliminating the use of agrochemicals, which are decimating insect populations from Russia to Brazil and guzzling carbon in their production, could make our farmland far more pollinator friendly too.

Finally, let’s look at ourselves.  We are healthier and better fed than a century ago without a doubt.  But each of us consumes far more, our food travels much longer distances and we eat a lot more meat.  According to ‘Shrink That Footprint’, meat lovers produce 3.3 tonnes of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) of greenhouse gas emissions annually, twice the figure of a vegetarian or vegan diet. And we’re incredibly wasteful.  According to a recent study by ‘WRAP’, UK households binned £13 billion worth of food in 2015 that could have been eaten, and the figure is on the rise.   This cost the average UK household £470 and generated 19 million tonnes of greenhouse gases.  That’s the equivalent of taking one in four cars off UK roads.

So, to tackle our land’s contribution to climate change we need far better wildlife protection, a completely different scale of ambition for wildlife recreation and a total rethink on how we produce and consume our food.  No small job then! When faced with such a daunting task, it’s tempting to point the finger elsewhere. Isn’t most of the forest being lost in the tropics? Isn’t the entire UK population and all its emissions only a tiny part of the global picture? Is there really much point in us doing anything in the face of China, America and India?

All this change will be difficult and costly at times without a doubt. But what would Devon look like if we succeed?

Here’s a few reasons why I believe we shouldn’t be tempted down this route of excuses and avoidance.  First, despite our relative decline in the World’s rankings, we are still the sixth biggest economy and we have one of the highest levels of emissions per person.  The decisions we take have a lot of influence globally.  

Secondly, it could be argued that we started all this with the industrial revolution.  So why don’t we head the charge once again and drive a new, better way of managing the World’s resources, with the UK being at the vanguard of a new, deeper green revolution.  Here’s an opportunity for us to be leaders, not followers. 

Finally, all this change will be difficult and costly at times without a doubt.  But what would Devon look like if we succeed?  Vibrant farmland, uplands restored, green cities, wild coastal fringes.  Who wouldn’t want to live, work and spend their holidays here?  And to know that our planet is safer and we’re all healthier as an added bonus in this new carbon rich landscape.  What are we waiting for?


*Natural England’s objective is to achieve ‘favourable condition’ status for all SSSIs. Favourable condition means that the SSSI’s habitats and features are in a healthy state and are being conserved by appropriate management.