Natural England: Habitat restoration key to reaching net zero

Peatlands, native woodlands, saltmarsh and seagrass meadows have an integral role in helping the UK reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the nature regular has said.

In a new study, published today, Natural England has assessed the impact of various natural landscapes in the UK and their capacity for helping the country reach net zero.

Reviewing the carbon storage impact from England’s native woodlands, saltmarshes, seagrass meadows, grasslands, heathlands and peatlands as well as other habitats, the report is the “most comprehensive report to date” on carbon storage and sequestration, it says. 

Researchers found that peatlands and native woodlands are habitats which have the greatest capacity to store carbon, but that many others, including coastal and marine habitats such as saltmarsh and seagrass meadows also have a significant role to play in helping the UK hit net zero by 2050.

Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said: “By combining different policies and strategies on land and at sea, then major climate related benefits can be achieved. Woodland creation incentives, peatland recovery, action on farms, re-naturalisation of the coast and landscape-scale nature recovery projects can all contribute.

“The climate change and nature emergencies are two sides of the same coin and with this kind of information the UK can lead in showing how we can go low carbon and high nature at the same time.”

Woodlands have high rates of carbon sequestration, but this level is dependent on the species, age and location of the trees. New native woodlands can support biodiversity while absorbing carbon and old woodlands can become substantial carbon stores, with a hectare of native woodland sequestering the equivalent carbon emissions every year as flying from London to Rome 13 times

Orchards and hedgerows are also effective at storing significant amounts of carbon, but due to  their smaller area regular trimming, are limited in their amount of carbon gain. However with “sensitive management”, this can increase while also providing benefits for wildlife.

The report also found that saltmarshes can be highly effective at storing carbon, as well as help coasts to adapt to future climate change. The restoration of seagrass meadows has the potential to capture carbon from the atmosphere in its vegetation, and simultaneously trap carbon from sediments. One hectare of saltmarsh buries the carbon equivalent of an average car’s annual carbon emissions.

Peatlands have the largest capacity for carbon storage. When healthy, they absorb carbon slowly, but continue indefinitely. Soils can be over ten metres deep, “holding huge carbon stocks that have developed over many millennia”, according to the report. Carbon held in the deep peat soils of fens and raised bogs holds eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest.

Meanwhile, heathlands and grasslands store more carbon than modern agricultural landscapes but less than peatlands, saltmarsh and old woodlands. 

The report argues that “protecting these old, established habitats is important for biodiversity, as well the carbon stocks they hold, as both may have taken centuries to accumulate”.

Dr Ruth Gregg, senior specialist for climate change at Natural England, and lead author of the report, said: “Our natural and wild places will play a crucial role in tackling the climate crisis. 

“This study gives the most complete picture of the impact of habitats around us in delivering carbon storage and sequestration. As well as highlighting the well-known importance of carbon stores such as peatland and woodland, we now have a much better understanding of the full impact of other habitats such as hedgerows and saltmarshes, and how we should manage these going forward. 

“Not only do our habitats capture carbon, but they provide many other benefits for biodiversity and the wellbeing of society. For habitat creation and restoration to achieve its full potential in helping the UK achieve net zero by 2050 we need to act now, basing decisions on robust science and taking a strategic approach. This report will support Natural England, the government, and environmental organisations across the country to do just that.”

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “This fantastic research demonstrates the critical role that restoring nature has in beating climate change, but quality and variety are essential. 

“So, government must prioritise native, broadleaf woodland over large commercial plantations. It should end burning on, and extraction of, peatlands, the UK’s biggest carbon store. It should also focus new payments to farmers and other land managers on genuinely transformative actions, such as promoting agroforestry or the creation of new wildlife habitats across whole landscapes.”

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