Net zero and nature-based intervention - new advice released

16th April 2020

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has released advice on using nature-based interventions to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The NCC advises the government on natural capital, such as forests, rivers, minerals and oceans. Set up in 2012, with a brief hiatus in 2015, the Committee is an independent body with expertise in ensuring and explaining the value of ‘natural wealth’.

The latest advice on reaching net zero through nature-based interventions, has 13 recommendations across three key areas. We have summarised these below and many are applicable to universities and colleges. The full guidance can be found here.

Integrating net zero into broader environmental policy

1. A joined up government response to climate change is needed: the current siloed approach, with several departments and other bodies involved but with no overall coordination, will fail to deliver the intended outcome and could even contribute to further degradation of the natural environment.

2. An integrated, holistic natural capital system-based approach which combines top down coordination with local delivery is critical in ensuring that targets and nature-based interventions are designed in a way that maximises the full range of ecosystem services – including mental health and wellbeing benefits – minimises costs, and properly considers trade-offs.

3. The government should urgently replace biodiversity net gain with environmental net gain, ensuring this applies to all nationally significant infrastructure and the marine environment. Delivery of net zero will become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, without environmental net gain – it is the only approach that considers the impact on the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, including biocarbon stocks.

4. Planning for infrastructure – including solar farms, wind turbines, buildings, railways and roads, all of which apply pressure on natural assets – should be fully joined up with any spatial planning for nature-based interventions. This will ensure that natural capital is fully embedded in infrastructure decisions.

Using nature-based interventions to deliver net zero

5. Nature based interventions can deliver carbon reductions at a fraction of the cost of engineered solutions and when delivered effectively can enhance the stocks of natural assets and the ecosystem services they provide. However, the use of nature-based interventions is not an alternative to a major systemic reduction of carbon emissions across all sectors. The government should develop a holistic strategy to reach net zero, which should include changes in energy, transport, housing, infrastructure, industry and land / sea use.

6. The price of carbon should factor for the ten natural capital based 25 YEP goals and externalities. This is the only way to make sure that the price of carbon is not valued above other services / public goods that nature provides.

7. The maintenance of biocarbon stocks held within natural assets such as soils is as, if not more, important than creating new stocks of biocarbon. The impact on both should be considered.

8. Nature based interventions should be designed in a way that fully considers both the mitigation of GHG and adaptation / resilience to future climates.

9. Government should prioritise evaluating / undertaking spatial planning for the following five nature-based interventions:
  • Maintaining and increasing tree cover
  • Maintaining and increasing soil carbon (including peatland restoration)
  • Improving wildlife / biodiversity,
  • Managing freshwaters and wetlands and
  • Sea use changes
Addressing gaps in the evidence base

10. Significant evidence gaps related to understanding the impact of nature-based interventions should be urgently filled. Priority should be given to developing a comprehensive baseline of natural capital assets, as advised by the NCC. Without the baseline data it will be impossible to determine whether initiatives such as the government’s new £640m ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ earmarked for tree planting and peat restoration will deliver the required environmental improvements.

11. The government should work with experts to significantly improve natural capital system modelling capability, including the full range of ecosystem services and assessing the carbon lifecycle of any approach. Designing interventions on the basis of least cost and without undertaking robust system wide scenario analysis is likely to result in perverse outcomes including increased GHG emissions.

12. Monitoring programmes for soils and marine in particular are inadequate. The government should urgently allocate funding to develop metrics given the important role of soil management in meeting net zero, and the need to understand the capacity of the marine environment in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

13. The impact delivering net zero has on international carbon consumption should be evaluated. There is little point in achieving net zero in the UK if it pushes GHG emissions abroad and as a result damages the natural environment in other countries.

The Committee has published several incredibly useful guides and workbooks, such as ‘How to do it: a natural capital workbook’.
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