By Evan Bowen-Jones, Chief Executive at Kent Wildlife Trust
Nature Based Solutions (NBS) are potentially a game-changer for wildlife conservation. Prior to the current pandemic, individuals, businesses, and – dare I say it – politicians seemed to finally be waking up to the real potential that nature has to add to our collective societal resilience to increasingly severe flooding as well as long-term risks like climate change.
In doing so, a window of opportunity was opening to do something about the two major existential threats humanity faces: the climate and nature crises. We all hope that this is still going to be the case post-Covid-19, but if we play it right there’s a huge opportunity to create a more socially and ecologically sustainable economic system if we seize this moment and move away from business as usual – the so-called Green Recovery.
However, these two heavily inter-linked crises have the potential to make the impacts of Covid -19 on people look like a minor blip. Climate Change already gives the current pandemic a run for its money in terms of estimated annual deaths, and going past key ecological tipping points will unleash much more devastating consequences.
Climate Change is confirmed as a major factor driving the sixth mass extinction that we are living in. It drives local extinctions of animals like bumblebees (cold weather species that are wrapped in permanent furry coats making them vulnerable to overheating); it is driving species northwards and upwards into thin air and across landscapes made untraversable by man-made barriers. It is making our oceans more acid – something that will eventually (if not reversed) mean the end of coral reefs and fish stocks. It is now also suspected of being a factor in global insect declines including something called “nutrient dilution” – where plants grow faster but provide less nutrition for things that eat them like grasshoppers or caterpillars.
This is why we, at Kent Wildlife Trust, must continue to be ambitious in what we strive for. Our local projects can help solve global problems. Kent Wildlife Trust – like other Wildlife Trusts – is brilliantly positioned to deliver Nature Based Solutions which can address both the nature and climate crises. We have the local contacts, networks, and knowledge that more centralised national NGOs often lack.
Besides, we are not wedded to one particular solution, e.g. planting trees. Coastal wetlands lock up almost as much carbon as woodlands, whilst restoring soils (and soil biodiversity) via nature-friendly farming can do similar, as can allowing sea grass beds to regenerate. We could probably lock up more carbon in the sea than on land if we made our paper marine parks into real marine protected areas.
We work with farmers and woodland owners. We already manage a suite of coastal and inland sites. All these sustain bio-abundance and biodiversity as well as keeping carbon locked up and out of the atmosphere. In fact, initial estimates suggest that we lock up 32000 tonnes of CO2/yr via our current landholdings (approx. 4000 ha including about 1500 ha of woodland; 1000 ha of grassland; 1000 ha of intertidal habitat; and 500 ha of heath, bog, fenland and other habitats). Our Wilder Kent vision is all about increasing the land we manage and own i.e. doing more of the same.
What’s key, is to effectively market our ‘solution’ in terms of selling what we’re already doing for the climate to enable us to do more. Our work in protecting and restoring natural habitats has never been more relevant to society. As society begins to truly “value” nature, we hope to engage new audiences and investors to allow us to restore additional habitat whilst covering our long-term costs.
Tree planting is being promoted as one of the main ways to lock up the excess carbon that we’re putting into the atmosphere. However, this ignores various important subtleties. Commercial forestry is driven by short-term economics. Not being specific about what type of tree planting we’re talking about and where, unfortunately, opens the doors to repeating past mistakes such as planting trees on peat – which happened in the flow country in the 1980s.
This dries the peat out and actually causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere. Wet peatlands perform natural flood and drought management functions and keep vast amounts of carbon locked up, limiting climate change. But forestry is based on short-term production of fuel/timber; forest management impacts the soil which often holds more “woodland carbon” than the trees.
Even woodland established with the best intent, if planted in the wrong place or managed in the wrong way, can be detrimental to existing biodiversity. A recent example of the ‘green rush’ resulted in a SSSI quality grassland being covered in plastic-sleeved saplings. And, of course, planted woodlands take generations to reach the biological complexity of ancient woodlands (even if they’re left alone to do so). This is all self-evident. But, people on the commercial forestry side suggest “you can’t have it both ways” and the climate crisis trumps the nature crisis.
This conveniently fails to recognise that bio-diverse woodlands are also better from a climate perspective. They are more resilient to drought, pests, and other challenges that come with climate change. Consequently, they have a better chance of keeping carbon locked up stably for longer. However, natural woodland is created by processes, and contains elements, that are difficult for commercial foresters to tolerate, e.g. large herbivores, dead wood and bare ground plus scrub – all reduce commercial viability.
If we want to increase forest cover to lock up carbon in woodland – or any other habitat – to drive down atmospheric carbon to avert climate and ecological disaster then we need to make our mechanisms low cost, resilient, and high on secondary benefits. The way to do it is by using natural regeneration. In many cases this is basically going to be wilding “Knepp style”, also known as letting nature reclaim low grade farmland by allowing dormant seedbanks and natural processes to re-establish thanks to low intensity, extensive, multi species grazing. This is something that we can do. It has massive benefits for wildlife.
Kent Wildlife Trust has, therefore, been putting a lot of time and effort – over the pandemic lockdown period – into developing a prototype carbon “portal”, that sets out our prospective multi-habitat carbon offer. Our USP is pretty strong and we hope to get up and running with a well thought out product fairly soon.
At the moment the beta version allows for both “donation credits” that individuals can buy if they want to compensate for the carbon they use when, for example, going on holiday (these contribute to ongoing management costs to keep the carbon that we’ve already locked up in our reserves safe). And, separate “investor credits” that will enable companies to fund Kent Wildlife Trust in buying new landholdings and working with other landowners to lock more carbon up whilst improving its wildlife value by ‘wilding it’. These credits will be set at a premium and only made available to companies that have already minimised their carbon footprints.
There is still a lot to do to get up and running. It is complicated stuff and needs to be well thought out. The website is only the front-facing bit of a scheme that we hope to roll out at regional scale with other Wildlife Trusts across the southeast, as a minimum starting point. What we’re essentially aiming to create is a gold standard for locally-delivered, UK-based, natural carbon offsetting that results in tangible action on the ground.
Companies buying into such a scheme will pay more per ‘carbon credit’ than if they go through “tick box” carbon offsetting schemes, but if they invest through us they will know that the carbon being secured has wildlife benefit here, and will be able to visit the area that they’ve invested in (rather than trusting in something tokenistic being delivered on the other side of the world with all its political complexities and potential for negative side effects).
Meanwhile, Kent Wildlife Trust, and other Trusts, are looking long and hard at how we minimise our own carbon footprints, including in terms of both office-based operations and land management. This is a process that will take time, and in the meantime many of the potential “donation credits” will, probably, help enable us to mitigate our own impact whilst we work on reducing our own emissions. Again, this is all work in progress, but it’s an important bit of the picture if we’re going to be able to credibly and ethically sell carbon offsets to other businesses. Nobody is perfect, and every business out there can reduce their impact on climate and biodiversity.
The Wildlife Trusts are also looking at other Nature Based Solutions above and beyond carbon with and products such as nitrate-offsetting to improve water quality being trialled by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust on the Solent as we speak. Indeed, Biodiversity Net Gain can be seen as one of a suite of NBS tools all of which could result in a properly funded Nature Recovery Network.
What’s clear is that altogether, Nature Based Solutions are an incredible opportunity for wildlife, and the climate.
We can do our bit locally to help address some of the big global problems of our time. It is complicated but it is doable. We’ll only learn by doing, Kent Wildlife Trust, therefore, aims to launch its carbon offering before the end of the year and then improve on it as we go along. We mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, there is’s no time to waste.
So, we have plenty to do during these strange times, even if working on it feels very odd indeed – particularly when, in my case, I’m home-schooling a five-year-old a couple of minutes after chairing an intense session on “carbon additionality” with our Trustees.
Covid-19 has been massively challenging for all of us; it is also both a reminder that we’re pushing at our ecological limits and a clear signal that we can do things both differently and better. Nature Based Solutions provide a chance to do so – right here in Kent – and we must grasp it.