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

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Nature-based solutions in the UK

1.Faster growing trees sequester carbon more quickly, but surviving, old growth, mixed woodlands are large stores of carbon. The scale of the contribution that fast growing, commercial, forestry can make to net zero by 2050 is significant, but it depends on how harvested wood is used. (Paragraph 26)

2.We recommend that a life-cycle analysis be undertaken to calculate the carbon benefits of tree-planting. The fate of the carbon must be monitored beyond harvesting: it is not enough to plant a tree and consider that carbon “sequestered”. When deciding which trees to plant, the Forestry Commission must consider factors including resilience to climate change, disease, the risk of fire and potential release of carbon, carbon storage potential, including in the soils, and biodiversity benefits. (Paragraph 27)

3.We recommend that the Government sets a target for emissions reductions from the agriculture, forestry and other land use sector in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendations and interim targets. (Paragraph 61)

4.We recommend that, as part of the agricultural transition, research and development is conducted on farms to better understand carbon emissions from farms and the practices that can reduce them. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs should fund on-farm research projects and it should monitor them to ensure research is conducted to an appropriate standard. This could be funded through tax credits and grants. The Department should investigate and address any regulatory barriers to conducting this research and development. (Paragraph 62)

5.We recommend that the Forestry Commission should keep its policy on tree-planting on peaty soils under review. The policy may need to be strengthened if evidence about the net carbon balance of planting shows that it is negative. (Paragraph 63)

6.There are large gaps in the evidence pertaining to carbon sequestration and storage in marine habitats. Saltmarshes and seagrasses are better understood, but uncertainties remain. The understanding of other habitats for nature-based solutions, such as, kelp forests, shelf sediments and algae, is less mature. (Paragraph 72)

7.We recommend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs supports research that focuses on establishing the current and historical extent of marine habitats, their carbon sequestration rates, and their long-term potential for carbon storage. (Paragraph 73)

8.We recommend that a blue carbon mapping exercise for the UK exclusive economic zone be undertaken, learning from the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum. This should involve collaboration between Natural England, the Crown Estate, the Marine Management Organisation, academics, and other relevant public bodies. (Paragraph 74)

9.We recommend that the Marine Management Organisation establishes research programmes to investigate the cause of the decline of marine habitats, such as seagrasses, and the potential effects of eliminating bottom trawling on carbon sequestration in the marine environment. (Paragraph 75)

10.While it is important that gaps in the evidence base are filled, the gaps should not act as a barrier to the large-scale adoption of nature-based solutions. The exact impact of nature-based solutions will be known only after they have been tried and monitored in the long-term, but evidence already indicates a positive impact. Given the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises, there is no time to waste. The fact that it is not possible to quantify exactly the carbon loss due to marine shelf sediment disturbance, or to other activities, should not prevent the protection of these habitats. (Paragraph 80)

11.We recommend that, where there are gaps in the evidence, policy should adopt a precautionary approach, weighted in favour of nature. (Paragraph 81)

12.There is uncertainty about the long-term sequestration potential of nature-based solutions across habitats. Nature-based solutions that are not resilient to adverse weather, human activity, a changing climate, or pests and disease risk being ineffective and releasing any carbon they sequester. Monitoring will allow lessons to be learned from schemes that succeed, and from those that fail. (Paragraph 82)

13.Monitoring technologies such as Earth Observation are potentially important. However, they cannot substitute for direct measurements on the ground. Uncertainties have direct implications for policy. They are greater for ecosystems that are less well-understood than woodlands and peatlands. Emissions factors are useful for estimating the contribution of habitats to greenhouse gas emissions across the UK. But nature-based solutions are inherently local and must be understood on a local level. (Paragraph 83)

14.We recommend that long-term research and monitoring be supported and overseen by the relevant departments and their public bodies, including Natural England and UK Research and Innovation, to ensure schemes are resilient and deliver as promised. The research and monitoring programmes should support direct and indirect measurements of greenhouse gas fluxes on a range of representative sites for key habitats in the UK to address uncertainties concerning the timescale and duration of carbon storage and sequestration for all habitats. (Paragraph 84)

15.The Government’s focus has been mostly on large-scale land sparing approaches, such as large-scale tree planting and peatland restoration, for which the evidence base is strongest, rather than land sharing approaches and improved management of ecosystems. Land sparing is likely to sequester more carbon than land sharing, but it may entail more trade-offs. (Paragraph 85)

16.We recommend that research programmes be established to fill uncertainty gaps in the impact of land sharing techniques, including hedgerow planting, silvopasture and agroforestry and the effect of these practices on soil carbon storage and sequestration. (Paragraph 86)

17.Restoring nature is often more complex and costly than protecting it. Restored ecosystems may take a long time to recover biodiversity and carbon stores, if they ever do. Policy should not assume that it is possible to ‘recreate’ in another place the natural systems that are destroyed. (Paragraph 87)

18.We recommend that the Government makes it a priority to protect the natural ecosystems that remain wherever this is possible to ensure the significant stores of carbon in these habitats are not emitted. (Paragraph 88)

Supporting nature-based solutions at scale in the UK

19.The Government’s pledges for nature restoration are welcome and are largely consistent with the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). But some of its pledges are not aligned with those from the CCC. The pledges are undermined by a lack of clarity on the meaning of terms such as “protected areas” or “engagement with low-carbon farming practices.” (Paragraph 92)

20.We recommend that the Government follows the recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change in setting targets for nature-based solutions. Where it does not do so, it should provide an evidence-based explanation as to why not, and how it can still reach net zero. It should define terms in its pledges where definitions are contested; this applies particularly to the term “protected”. (Paragraph 93)

21.Collaboration between the delivery bodies is welcome and should be encouraged. But the Government’s targets for nature restoration demand a great deal of these bodies and their budgets are not adequate to meet the challenge. (Paragraph 101)

22.We recommend that the budgets of the delivery bodies be increased to allow them to support the Government’s ambitious targets. The delivery bodies should be encouraged to collaborate so that the multiple benefits of nature-based solutions are realised. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs should provide clarity over which responsibilities are delegated to each public delivery body for regulating and delivering nature-based solutions, especially for marine nature-based solutions. (Paragraph 102)

23.The transition from the Common Agricultural Policy to Environmental Land Management schemes will require long-term changes to land use, but funding is not yet guaranteed in the long term. (Paragraph 110)

24.We recommend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provides urgent clarity about the nature of Environmental Land Management schemes and which activities they will subsidise. Funding should be assured in return for a long-term commitment to good practice. The new schemes that are introduced should be based on proper and transparent evidence. They must have defined metrics to evaluate success or failure so that they can be adapted to evolving evidence. It must be clear how these schemes will interact with wider agricultural and environmental policies. (Paragraph 111)

25.The transition to Environmental Land Management schemes demands a lot from land managers and farmers. Some of them feel that they do not have sufficient support. Poor communication and a failure to convince land-managers of the benefits of the change will lead to a transition that fails. Maintaining flexibility in Environmental Land Management schemes to permit land sharing approaches could help to address the lack of engagement and reluctance from land managers. (Paragraph 114)

26.We recommend that the Government improves communication with land managers. Land sparing approaches will have to play a significant role in reaching net zero targets, but land-sharing approaches should be included in Environmental Land Management schemes where possible, and where evidence suggests they deliver carbon benefits. This will make the transition to providing “public money for public goods” easier and more acceptable for land managers. (Paragraph 115)

27.We welcome that the Government recognises the existence of gaps in the skills and knowledge needed to carry out nature restoration, but we are concerned that plans to address the gaps lack urgency. (Paragraph 121)

28.We recommend that the Government establishes ambitious skills and training programmes for land managers, authorities developing Local Nature Recovery Strategies and public delivery bodies. Training in surveying, monitoring and verifying, carbon accountancy, forestry, ecology, and planning and carrying out nature-based solutions needs to be expanded urgently. The Department for Education and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy must allocate some of their funding to this effort to make schemes accessible to land managers and provide sufficient skilled personnel to meet targets. (Paragraph 122)

29.Land managers cannot assess the best actions to take without assistance. While the Committee welcomes the Government’s commitment to making its schemes easier to access, and providing support to third-party advisors through the Future Farming Resilience Fund, it is difficult to see how widespread engagement with schemes will be achieved without a significant expansion in advisory services and support. (Paragraph 123)

30.We recommend that the Government provides additional support as a matter of urgency for land managers, in the form of a dedicated advisory service, to help them engage with Environmental Land Management Schemes. The advisory service should be delivered in collaboration with public delivery bodies and should help land managers through the application process. It should help farms to identify the most appropriate actions to take, the support they need and can expect, and the likely environmental impact of their actions. (Paragraph 124)

31.Tenancy contracts impede the implementation of nature-based solutions. More flexibility in these contracts is needed for the Government’s schemes to be a success. (Paragraph 127)

32.We recommend that the Government urgently addresses the barriers tenant farmers face to engage with the Environmental Land Management Schemes. This could include mechanisms for landlords and tenants to negotiate arrangements that allow them to share the costs and benefits of improvements. (Paragraph 128)

33.We recommend that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs supports the domestic industry for seeds and saplings and only imports bio-secure seeds and saplings where necessary, and with stringent phytosanitary safeguards. (Paragraph 130)

34.Monetising co-benefits would make nature-based solutions projects more financially attractive for landholders and investors. Some ecosystem restoration projects will not be viable unless their wider benefits for the environment and for society, including for biodiversity and flood risk mitigation, are valued. Financing projects based on multiple benefits will make more projects viable, but requires central coordination to match buyers and sellers. (Paragraph 140)

35.We recommend, although it will be complex, that the co-benefits of projects under the Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code should be quantified, and that payments for other ecosystem services should be included within current and future carbon codes. This should be facilitated by the Government bodies that manage each carbon code. (Paragraph 141)

36.There is a lack of agreed standards for projects and ecosystems other than large-scale tree-planting and peatland restoration. Some beneficial land use practices, such as improved management of working forests or agricultural peatlands, that sequester carbon or prevent it from being emitted are excluded from the Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code. (Paragraph 144)

37.We recommend that the Woodland Carbon Code, the Peatland Code, and greenhouse gas regulations, incentivise means of actively restoring ecosystems. These practices would prevent additional emissions from ecosystems that would otherwise degrade, even if they did not sequester carbon. (Paragraph 145)

38.Offsets cannot be a substitute for reducing emissions. But the drive towards net zero emissions is an opportunity to direct significant private finance to nature recovery in the UK in the form of offsets. The role of carbon credits in net zero declarations remains unclear. Schemes like the Science-based Targets Initiative provide good standards but remain voluntary. (Paragraph 149)

39.We recommend that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy must provide clarity about what companies must do to claim net zero emissions. Regulations should include a limited, defined role for high-quality offsets, such as the 10% limit in the Science Based Targets Initiative, alongside incentives to ensure emissions are reduced to the full extent possible at the same time. (Paragraph 150)

40.The market can incentivise investment in nature-based solutions. But the rush to develop new markets, with bottom-up initiatives, risks creating inconsistently regulated offsetting markets that do not deliver benefits to nature. Existing carbon markets are also complex. (Paragraph 157)

41.We recommend that the Government provides clear regulatory standards for emerging carbon markets to ensure that any offsets that are claimed are genuine. The Government should make carbon codes easier to use by acting as, or sponsoring, a central broker. Buyers and sellers should be able to aggregate multiple projects and combine public and private funding. (Paragraph 158)

42.Reaching the net zero emissions target will require managing trade-offs in land use. There is no guarantee that a voluntary or market-driven approach will create local schemes that will achieve the national climate and nature targets. (Paragraph 164)

43.We recommend that the Government develops an overall land use strategy. This should outline how nature-based solutions will contribute to net zero emissions, how they will be integrated with other policies and how trade-offs in land use will be managed. The Government needs to describe how the UK’s land can deliver the multiple services demanded of it without offshoring emissions. The Government should work with large landowners, including land and marine managers such as the Ministry of Defence and the Crown Estate, to achieve its objectives. (Paragraph 165)

44.The Government’s plans are ambitious and have much potential, but there is a clear and present danger that they will not be achieved. There are multiple risks of failure, including a lack of certainty about the science of carbon sequestration in nature-based solutions, a lack of skills and engagement, and a lack of policy coordination, which require urgent actions to address. Failure to deliver risks the livelihoods of farmers, damaging the agricultural sector, undermining the net zero agenda, and risks undermining the UK’s biodiversity-recovery. (Paragraph 166)

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