The role of nature in tackling climate change is becoming an integral part of Government policies on mitigation and adaptation. 

Nature-based solutions (NbS) to climate change are not a new concept but were previously thought to have minimal impact. Many saw solutions aimed at removing emissions as a distraction from addressing the root causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Greater understanding of how GHGs are absorbed and cycled through the natural environment has changed this. The UK’s net zero target includes provisions for some GHG emissions to remain if they can be offset by removal from the atmosphere. 

This Insight sets out what is meant by NbS in the context of climate change. It also looks at ongoing efforts to integrate them into climate change policies. 

What are nature-based solutions? 

NbS to climate change that address emissions fall into two categories: 

  • Avoided emissions, where natural ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, grasslands or agricultural land are protected from activities that release additional GHGs or reduce their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. For example, drainage of a peat bog for agricultural use. 
  • Negative emissions can include technological and natural solutions. Within NbS they are changes in land use or habitat restoration that result in increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the UK this could be restoration of a peat bog, tree planting (or afforestation) or changing to agricultural practices to increase natural carbon storage. 

These solutions can also play a role in climate change adaptation by protecting ecosystems, increasing resilience. An example would be flood protection through managed realignment of coastal wetlands. 

A separate Insight on climate change solutions: The role of technology addresses the role of technology. 

Why the current focus on nature-based solutions? 

In 2019 the UK legislated for a net-zero emissions target by 2050

Prior to this, the UK Government advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), published its advice on meeting this target. It identified an “opportunity to define a better land strategy that responds fully to the challenge of climate change”. The CCC recommended that a new land use policy “should promote transformational land uses, rewarding landowners for public goods”, benefiting existing habitats and creating new ones. 

The CCC estimated that policies such as increasing forest cover from 13% to 19% and restoring 55-70% of peatlands could contribute to cutting total UK projected emissions by 4-8% (20-40 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) by 2050. The transformation proposed by the CCC for land use change is significant and would shift a fifth of agricultural land to alternative uses 

The scale of afforestation proposed was of concern to some, should it lead to extended tree plantations with limited habitat benefits

Linking to biodiversity loss 

Biodiversity loss (loss of variety of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms that make up the natural world) is an ongoing issue both nationally and internationally.

Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) said in 2019: “we cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.” 

The UK Government commissioned a Review of the Economics of Biodiversity in 2019, assessing the risks of global biodiversity loss and examining ways to enhance biodiversity and economic prosperity. Its April 2020 interim report identified NbS as an essential part of the package of measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change, while providing benefits for biodiversity. 

Rewilding is an approach to reversing biodiversity loss which has gained attention for its potential role in addressing climate change. Its supporters suggest it is a low cost, low intervention approach with multiple benefits. Several projects are ongoing in the UK. Some farmers think rewilding can be beneficial. Others are concerned about its impact on land management and food production

Policies for nature-based solutions 

The Government’s 25-year Environment Plan for England in 2018 made a commitment to take a ‘natural capital approach’ to environmental protection. It included proposals for a nature recovery network, tree planting, an England Peatland Strategy, and creating financial incentives through the Agriculture Bill for natural carbon storage. 

Others have also made proposals; the farming industry set out its approach for achieving net-zero by 2040 in September 2019. The Government’s environmental bodies set out their approach to land use change in January 2020, with a focus on woodland creation, restoring peatlands, supporting farmers and working with nature. 

Funding for projects, through a Nature for Climate fund, was announced in the April 2020 budget. 

An international approach 

Internationally, 2020 was seen as a crucial year. Both the Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the Convention on Biological Diversity were due to take place. NbS to climate change are recognised as a cross-cutting issue for both processes. 

This was recognised by the UK Government, which stated it wants to ensure both conferences and outcomes “worked together to deliver step change nationally and internationally.” 

With both conferences postponed until 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus of the international community on climate change may shift to next year, but NbS are expected to remain high on the agenda. 

Further Reading 

About the author: Elena Ares is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in nature, fisheries and marine conservation.