Restoring the natural environment could absorb as much as a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions

Article in The Guardian, 24 June 2020. Photo credit: Elmley Marshes Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. Photograph: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy

Restoring the natural environment could absorb as much as a third of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, making the government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 much easier to meet, according to green campaigners.

Returning degraded peatland and bog to its natural state, cultivating marine meadows of seagrass, restoring salt marshes and wetlands, and taking some grasslands out of cultivation, as well as planting more trees, all contribute to creating carbon sinks, which absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

New findings by the Wildlife Trusts suggest that these methods could store enough carbon to outweigh a substantial proportion of the UK’s existing greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so would also help to protect wildlife populations struggling on degraded land and amid intensive agriculture, and threatened at sea with a loss of habitat owing to overfishing.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, urged the government to restore degraded areas in order to tackle both the climate crisis and the collapse of wildlife populations and habitats around the UK.

“Nature in the UK is in a sorry state and important habitats are damaged and declining,” he said. “Efforts to cut our emissions must be matched with determined action to fix our broken ecosystems so they can help stabilise our climate. Restoring nature in the UK needs to be given top priority.”

The government’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 is under close scrutiny this week, as the first anniversary approaches of the pledge being signed into law. The government’s statutory climate advisers, the committee on climate change, will publish a progress report on Thursday on the government’s efforts to reach net zero, and call for a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

On Wednesday, the Institute for Public Policy Research will call for a Royal Commission on preparations for environmental breakdown. The thinktank will warn that climate breakdown, the poor state of the natural environment around the UK, pollution and our unsustainable use of natural resources – both from the UK and in the goods and services we import from abroad – were all contributing to a growing crisis that could overtake the country.

In its report, based on a year of research, the IPPR concluded that the UK stood on the brink of environmental breakdown. The authors drew parallels with the coronavirus pandemic and called for new legislation in the form of a sustainable economy act, which would set targets for cutting environmental damage. A minister should also be appointed to oversee the effort, the thinktank said.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, associate fellow at IPPR, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the UK was not adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The threats posed by the environmental crisis could also emerge quickly and could overwhelm our capacity to respond.”

The UK’s environment could also come under threat from post-Brexit trade agreements, warned the Aldersgate Group of sustainable business leaders in a new report. New trade deals must take into account the imperatives of the net zero target, as well as the government’s pledges not to dilute the UK’s environmental protections after Brexit, and the need for British businesses to avoid being undermined by foreign competitors that do not uphold such high standards, according to the report.

Farmers face particular concerns over trade deals with the US, as the government’s pledges that no chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef will be allowed into the UK do not extend to other animal welfare and food safety standards.

Ministers must ensure that as a minimum future trade deals should exclude any provisions that would create obstacles to the UK’s sovereign right to regulate in the public interest and to apply regulations to all participants in the UK market, the report found.