Solving the climate crisis is impossible without looking after nature

Solving the climate crisis is impossible without looking after nature

This month the international conference on climate change, COP26, starts. For two weeks, the World’s leaders will huddle together to discuss once again how to tackle what is possibly the greatest threat facing humanity. But this time it’s different...

This week has seen exceptionally large tides.  Looking out over the glassy sea surface shimmering in the autumn sunshine, this bay that I am so familiar with feels like a totally different place.  Rocky reefs, normally hidden at low tide, stick up incongruously.  The walk to the lapping water takes us over unfamiliar, strangely patterned sand and past rocks that are usually no more than dark shadows looming beneath the surface, sprouting waving heads of bladderwrack hair.  The water is behaving strangely too.  The river that empties here creates a lively chaos of currents as its spewing contents collide with the swell rolling in from the Atlantic.  And although the sea appears unnaturally calm, every now and then a surprisingly large wave heaves up and crashes across the sand. 

This almost magical moment of ultra-low tide prompts me to explore as many corners of the beach as I can – the new rock pools, the extraordinary, striped and lustrous rock formations.  It’s as if fleetingly, the sea has revealed some secrets for us to seek out and enjoy if we have the curiosity and energy to do so.  But all too quickly the moment passes, the waters flood back and the rising tide reclaims its territory.

This month the international conference on climate change, COP26, starts.  These multi-national get-togethers are driven by political timetables rather than astronomical ones, but there is more than a passing similarity.  For two weeks, the World’s leaders will huddle together to discuss once again how to tackle what is possibly the greatest threat facing humanity.  But this time it’s different, not least because it is the UK who will be chairing proceedings. It will be a moment to grasp but, like the exceptional tide, it will quickly be gone and could all too easily be consigned to the somewhat indifferent history of climate conferences unless political leaders raise their game.

Sign reading climate justice now


The threats that climate change poses are much the same, if considerably more real and urgent, as they were a decade ago.  Two things have changed though.  First, public support for environmental action is at an all-time high, especially here in the UK.  And secondly, our understanding of what we need to do to tackle the problem, and in particular the crucial role played by nature, has changed. We now know that solving the climate crisis is impossible without looking after nature, especially as some of the trends linked to warming are locked in for millennia.   We know the true extent to which some habitats draw a much as 37% of carbon out of the atmosphere and can store store it, but only if only we look after it properly

So what do we need governments across the world to commit to? 

  • First, they must put a stop to all destruction of natural habitats, especially ones such as woodland, salt marsh and peat bogs that are particularly good at storing and sequestering carbon.  No ifs, no buts.  Salt marsh is vital for many sea birds and coastal protection as well as helping tackle carbon emissions, but here in the UK we are losing 100 hectares of it a year.  Sea grass, where fish spawn and seahorses dance, is every bit as important for carbon, but we’ve lost half of it since 1985.  And as I write, Portsmouth City Council is trying to push through a development that would destroy 27 hectares of mudflats to build new houses.  This is despite the area having the highest possible level of legal protection due to its abundance of rare wading birds, fish and a range of algae that help purify the water.  This cannot be acceptable in the 21st century.
  • Next, we have got to start managing what we have a whole lot better.  The Dartmoor uplands cover around 23,000 hectares, and much of this is peatland.  But less than one sixth of these internationally important wetlands are in good condition, and the majority are emitting carbon rather than sequestering it.  We have over grazed, burnt and in the past dug up peatland to such an extent that it is a shadow of what it could be.  And as these accumulations of plant material that have built up over thousands of years start to erode, gullies form where water pours down slope, cutting ever deeper into the remaining peat, leaving black sided islands that stand high and dry, slowly oxidising and losing their carbon to the atmosphere.  Healthy, intact peatlands are magical places, full of strange plants like the sundew and rare birds like the dunlin, not to mention myriad insects.  Peatlands are good for wildlife and good for carbon. 
  • Thirdly, we need to start putting back much of what has been lost.  We need 30% of our land and seas in recovery for wildlife.  This means doubling at least what we have here in Devon, and a lot more than that across large tracts of the UK.  We mustn’t confuse landscape protection with wildlife protection.  Our two National Parks and five AONBs are sadly no better for wildlife than the surrounding countryside.   We know that marine habitat can recover surprisingly quickly if we let them.  So let’s create a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas, and stop all bottom dredging, trawling and other destructive practices within them.  Damaged peatlands are being restored on parts of Dartmoor now.  But we need to increase the scale of the work dramatically – let’s see 100% of upland peat restored by 2050.  And it’s great to see the widespread interest in tree planting, but at 13% woodland cover we’re still one of the least forested countries in Europe.  Let’s increase this to 18%.  That’s still a whole lot less than Spain, France, Germany, Turkey or Italy.
mackerel catch

 Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

This dramatic transformation of our landscape and seascape will be controversial and there are strong voices opposing it.  So it’s worth looking at some of the arguments on the other side.  First it is often claimed that more nature means less productive land, and therefore less food.  Not true.  Much of the land we are talking about restoring nature on is poor quality farmland and only cultivated because of subsidies in the first place.  Our uplands in particular are used incredibly inefficiently.  New technology allows us to grow food in different ways, taking up less land, using fewer resources and reducing pollution.  We need to embrace these new techniques and look forward, not backwards.

A second and related argument is that food will become a lot more expensive if we put more land to nature.  Not necessarily.  To start with, fluctuations in food prices are governed by many factors, and the cost of producing agricultural commodities is typically only a small part of the price we pay for food products in the supermarket.  But that aside, there is a huge hidden price to pay for intensive farming and fishing that dominates most of our land and seas.  A case in point is the pollution of our rivers – in the UK water companies spend £billions every year purifying river water that is defiled with agrochemicals, slurry and other pollutants, and it’s a price that ultimately the water customer (i.e. each of us) bears.  Cheap food should not and need not cost the Earth.   

A third argument is that this change will put farmers, fishing interests and others out of business.  Again, this need not be the case.  Allowing some areas of the sea to remain undisturbed helps to build fish stocks.  Some of the best catches are found around the edges of areas kept free of fishing.  And while the current move away from the EU funded subsidy system is undoubtedly challenging for most farms, there are new schemes emerging that will reward land managers to protect and enhance our natural capital instead of giving them financial incentives to erode it – a travesty that has plagued our countryside for half a century.

None of this is to make light of the scale of the challenge we face or the difficulties that some industries will experience in facing up to the change needed.  That is why we need more than just high-level commitments from governments attending the COP26 conference.  We need action plans, setting out a route map, providing incentives to drive the right kind of behaviour, enacting and enforcing laws to prevent the worst.  Making this happen will come at a price without doubt – The Wildlife Trusts and others are calling £billions to be spent supporting land managers to make the changes needed.  But this doesn’t have to be new money - globally, an astounding $540 billion is spent subsidising agriculture, and the UN estimates that 90% of these subsidies are harmful to both the planet and people.  Rethinking how we spend government funds alone would be a massive step forward.

It’s always hard to know where to start when faced with such a monumental task.  Perhaps we should start with ourselves. After all, every decision we take helps to drive change and there is a point when if enough of us make the transformation then the rest of society starts to shift too.  We’ve started to see that with the growth in vegan and vegetarian diets – one of the most effective things any of us can do to reduce carbon emissions.  A 2019 study by the University of Oxford found that shifting to a vegan diet would reduce our carbon footprint by 73%, and that if everyone stopped eating meat we would need 75% less land for agriculture.

But we can also remind our MPs that we expect big things from COP26.  We can remind them of the threats we face, the consequences for people as well as nature of not taking action and that the solutions are out there if only we have the political will to embrace them.  We can remind them that there are many of us, and that we are watching.

What is Cop26?

COP26 is where world leaders come together to talk about climate change and how to tackle it. Find out what The Wildlife Trusts want to see at COP26 and what commitments could look like for the UK.

Take a look

Things you can do about climate change

There are simple and easy things that we can all do to reduce our carbon footprint, adapt to climate change and make a big difference to the natural world.

Take action

Attend our free live online event from COP26

We'll be coming to you live from COP26 on Sun 7 Nov at 7pm with a very special episode of our Wild LIVE series. We'll be joined by a fantastic panel of climate and nature experts and activists as they discuss why in order to deal with the climate crisis we must bring back nature on an ambitious scale. 

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