Nature-based solutions: rhetoric or reality? - The potential contribution of nature-based solutions to net zero in the UK Contents


The term “nature-based solutions” is used to mean working with the grain of nature to achieve a range of benefits, including enhanced biodiversity, flood alleviation, better livelihoods for local communities, and contributing to greenhouse gas reductions, either by storing carbon or by preventing its release. Our focus in this report is on the role of nature-based solutions in reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon, as part of the Government’s plan to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

Nature-based solutions are not a get out of jail free card. The primary aim must be to reduce carbon emissions from all sectors. However, they can, in principle, play an essential role in taking carbon out of the atmosphere to compensate for the UK’s “residual” emissions from the sectors where total elimination of carbon emissions will be impossible to achieve by 2050.

The Government has ambitious plans for nature-based solutions, but our evidence suggests that these plans are at severe risk of failure for the following reasons.

First, there are significant scientific uncertainties in how much carbon is stored in habitats now, how much can be sequestered by different habitats in the future, and for how long it will remain stored. More research is urgently needed to reduce these uncertainties for all habitats, but especially on farmland and for marine environments. Importantly, nature-based solutions are not just about tree planting. Carbon can be sequestered by many terrestrial and marine habitats and all have a role to play if the Government is to meet its net zero target. Some of these habitats are in poor condition and others are being exploited in ways that release rather than retain and store carbon. In many cases, it is hard to measure progress against environmental targets as a result of a lack of baseline data, or a lack of certainty in how these pledges are defined.

Second, the UK does not have the requisite skills to deliver nature-based solutions at scale. The Government acknowledges this but there has been no formal assessment of the skills needed, nor a route to providing training in the timescales required for a transition over the next decade. The skills deficits range from forestry, ecology, and peatland restoration, to advice for local authorities.

Third, there is huge uncertainty about the details of policies that will incentivise nature-based solutions. The Government has said in broad terms that Environmental Land Management schemes, the new agri-environment subsidy regime, will be a central mechanism for subsidising farmers and other landowners to deliver nature-based solutions, but the details of how these will work have not been developed. The Government says it will learn from schemes as they are piloted, which will be vital. But nature-based solutions must be deployed now, alongside measuring and monitoring their effects to establish best practice. Land-managers need some certainty if this is to happen.

Fourth, more funding is required in several key areas. Funding is needed for research: from practical field monitoring and trials with farmers, to basic science in areas like soil and marine carbon sequestration. Additional funding is needed to support an accelerated skills programme, and key public delivery bodies that will have to provide environmental research, advice and regulations are currently inadequately funded to meet the Government’s targets.

Fifth, those responsible for farming the UK’s land need to be fully engaged; around 72% of the UK’s land is farmed. They need a training and an advisory service to help them negotiate a new and complex funding landscape, and support to change farming methods where appropriate. Tenancy agreements may need to change to make shifts in land use possible. Furthermore, farmers need long term funding, and they need to be engaged in on-farm research. Nature-based solutions in support of net zero emissions will not work without the support of farmers and land managers.

Sixth, the Government hopes that private finance will help to fund nature-based solutions, by creating markets for carbon credits that can be used to offset residual emissions, as well as markets for other ecosystem services. However, these markets will only deliver the desired results if they are properly regulated and verified to prevent inaccurate claims of carbon offsetting. Carbon and nature credits must be for benefits that are additional, measurable, and permanent.

Seventh, the Government has not said how it will resolve the many competing demands on the land. Land is used to produce food and timber, to provide space for nature, to alleviate flood risk, to provide space for housing, infrastructure and other development, as well as to sequester and retain carbon. We did not hear evidence that the Government has an effective plan for reconciling these competing demands. Failure to do so risks relying on increased imports for food or timber and offshoring emissions and environmental degradation elsewhere.

In short, while the Government’s ambitions for nature-based solutions are admirable, there is a clear and present danger that they will not be achieved, and this could undermine the target of net zero by 2050, as well as the agricultural sector, with a failed transition.

We recommend that the Government, as a matter of urgency, invests in research, skills training, and delivery of nature-based solutions. At the same time, the Government needs to tell land managers how they will be paid for delivering nature-based solutions, to set out how competing demands on land will be balanced, and to facilitate private investment in high-quality nature-based solutions.

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