The UK government and big business are aiming for net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. Regenerating and restoring nature is a key part of this strategy. But what does the natural environment have to do about emissions?
“It took nine minutes to flood the whole house. Every room downstairs,” said David Horne, a resident in Churchtown, Lancashire.
The village was devastated by flooding in 2015/16. Roads turned into brown rivers. Fields turned into lakes. The night was filled with water by fire engines.
Now, thanks to the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF), a new government-supported, privately-funded scheme, Flood prevention measures that are nature-based will be installed around the area to reduce flood risk. These measures will also reduce the UK’s carbon emissions. But how can we do this?
“The Wyre [area] has had problems with flooding for the last hundred years,” says Thomas Myerscough, general manager at Wyre Rivers Trust. However, flooding has been more common since 2015. “Churchtown flooded four times in nine days during Storm Desmond,” he adds.
The local residents then built the Churchtown Flood Action GroupTo place the village at the heart of regional water management policies.
“Every year [the floods were] increasing,” says former chair Siriol Hogg. “We documented each one and we documented each response that we had. We bound it neatly and sent it off via our MP to ministers and the Environment Agency to say, ‘we need help.’”
Nature can actually absorb carbon and store it long-term
The funding was not provided by government at the time. So the group raised £100,000 themselves and hired a local firm to build a clay-and-brick embankment that would prevent the water from reaching Churchtown.
Their efforts earned them a place in the hall of fame. Flood and Coast Excellence Award in June – just as the development phase of the new NEIRF-supportedProject started in the local area to address flooding issues.
Wyre Natural flood Management scheme was one the around 80 projects that received money under the programme. This program was designed to increase private sector investment into nature-based solutions.
United Utilities and The Rivers Trust started it. Triodos Bank was the first to start it. £1.5m project will install nature-based measures along the river’s catchment area in an attempt to reduce flooding near at-risk communities like Churchtown.
“We’re using natural processes to start altering the landscape and slow the water down,” says Myerscough, who will help implement the plans. The measures include semi-porous barriers and leaky dams that hold excess water for 12 to 18hrs.
Bunds will be installed by the team. (Hedges that act as natural dikes)To intercept surface flow and create new pools or scrapes to hold water, and re-wet the peat. To allow more water to penetrate the soil, intensively-farmed grassland is being transformed into rough pasture. In 2025, the work is expected to be completed.
These measures not only reduce flood risks but also sequester carbon. Peatland can store more carbon per hectare than any other UK habitat. according to Natural England – and can do so indefinitely – while lakes and wetland habitats can act as long-term carbon sinks, storing CO2 within their sediment.
“The Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund is ultimately a pot of money to help provide what is often a very difficult type of funding to raise,” says Tom Dyke, corporate finance manager at Triodos Bank UK.
“Many organisations, not just in the nature restoration space, struggle to secure funding for all the work required to get to a position where development funding can be raised. This is a critical step at the early stages of a project, so it can get to a position where work on the ground can start, its operations are up and running, and it’s delivering its impact,” he adds.
We’re starting to see species responding to the work that we’re doing
An estimated 500,000 people are still in need of assistance. funding gap of £56bnIf the government wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, it must be able to do so. Triodos Bank is working to address this issue by developing and scaling up investable business models that can be replicated across the UK. This includes selling ecosystem services – flood risk reduction, carbon sequestration or improving water quality, for example – to organisations that will benefit most from those interventions, such as insurance companies and water companies. Or funding A new visitor centre at Trees for Life’s Dundreggan estate in the Scottish Highlands, which will educate people about forest regeneration and the natural and cultural heritage of the area, while also providing a source of income to support further tree planting onsite.
The UK’s agricultural policy has shifted too. Pre-Brexit, the EU’s common agricultural policy paid farmers for the amount of land they used for grazing and cultivating. Since 2021, the government has taken a ‘public money for public good’ approach, and the new environmental land management scheme will pay landowners for delivering wider environmental benefits. This includes funding for sustainable agriculture, large-scale habitat restoration and local nature recovery.
“Net zero is the balance between the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere and the carbon that’s removed from the atmosphere,” says Dr. Ruth Gregg, a senior analyst for agriculture and land use at the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The independent body is the UK’s advisor for tackling the climate crisis.
“But we know that nature – in the form of trees and vegetation and our soils – can actually draw down that carbon and store it for the long term,” she adds.
Although not a silver bullet – the wider economy needs to reduce its emissions too – nature-based solutions are significant for both climate change mitigation and adaptation.
“Alongside the climate [benefits], nature can deliver biodiversity, water regulation, water security, our food security, our health,” says Gregg. “Nature underpins all of these different kinds of things.”
One restoration project is already showing positive results. RSPB HaweswaterA nature reserve is located in Cumbria next to the Haweswater Reservoir.
“It’s all very exciting,” says Lee Schofield, the senior site manager. Since 2011 the team has blocked moorland drains, restored valley mire and blanket bog, and ‘re-wiggled’ rivers.
Nature can provide biodiversity, water regulation, water safety, food security, and our health
“We put the meanders back into the Mardale Beck and salmon returned to the stretch of restored river pretty much immediately,” says Schofield. Soon, small birds such as tree pipits arrived at the newly-planted woodland, and red grouse began to feed on heather at higher altitudes after a reduction in grazing.
“We’re starting to see species responding to the work that we’re doing,” he adds.
ModellingThese interventions are expected to prevent 57,449 tons of CO2e emissions over the next 20 years. This is equivalent to taking 12,378 cars off roads for a year. This is because large areas of bog or peatland contain large carbon stores.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to nature conservation. Diverse strategies are needed to support the largest number of species and habitats. Action is required now.
“One of our criticisms in [the 2022 CCC] progress report was that the action on peat and trees in particular, aren’t hitting the trajectory that we would like them to hit in order to contribute to net zero,” says Gregg. “Every bit of delay means that we have to start looking for reductions in other parts of the economy – and that’s harder.”
Five more projects that work for nature
The Wildlife Trust for Northants, Cambs, and Beds is capturing carbon on 134ha of the Great FenIn Cambridgeshire. Peatland is being renovated so that it traps the greenhouse gases and creates natural flood defences.
Image: K B
Working with the AONB-Peat Partnership Raby EstatesInnovative ways are being used to restore peatland. New dams will be installed to reduce the flow of water from high moors. This will help stabilize the peat and store more carbon. The team will use both semi-permeable ‘weeping dams’ made from local stone as well as rolls of sheared sheep wool to slow waterways.
Image by Bernswaelz
The National Trust will plant new trees in at least 17% of the land it manages by 2050. The charity also had some of England’s largest landowners commit to the restoration and enlargement of their own natural resources, such as woodlands and peat bogs.
Image: Ben Griffiths
One of Five landscape-scale projects in EnglandThe purpose of the project is to stop wildlife loss and combat climate change. Cambridge Nature NetworkThrough new woodlands and meadow restoration, land reuse, and interlinking 9,200ha parkland, nature reserve, and farmland,
Image: Tony Hammond
Main image: Swindale Valley. Credit: Patrick Neaves/RSPB Haweswater
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