The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science describes nature-based solutions to climate change as a collection of approaches that offer the potential to reduce and remove emissions. They do this by “enhancing the ability of ecosystems” to sequester carbon dioxide (by capturing, removing and storing carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere), or by “reversing the degradation of an ecosystem” so that it no longer emits greenhouse gas emissions.

Nature-based solutions can include protecting landscapes to limit the impact of deforestation; restoring ecosystems, such as drained peatlands, so that they sequester carbon; and improving management practices of agricultural land to ensure that emissions are reduced and sequestration is maximised.

In July 2021, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry examining the role of nature-based solutions in mitigating the impact of climate change. It sought to understand:

  • the potential of nature-based solutions in achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the UK
  • how such solutions could fit into the UK’s land use, forestry and agricultural planning
  • how policy could support the implementation of best-practice techniques to deliver nature-based solutions at scale

The committee published its findings in its report ‘Nature-based solutions: Rhetoric or reality?’, on 27 January 2022.

The chair of the committee, Baroness Brown of Cambridge (Crossbench), is scheduled to lead a debate on the report in the House of Lords on 9 February 2023.

1. What were the committee’s findings?

In its report, the committee noted that the government had “ambitious” plans for nature-based solutions. However, the committee said that its evidence had suggested that the plans were at “severe risk of failure”. It attributed this to seven reasons:

  • Firstly, the committee reported that there were “significant scientific uncertainties” about how much carbon is stored in habitats; how much can be sequestered by different habitats in the future; and for how long it would remain stored. Therefore, it argued that further research was “urgently needed” to reduce such uncertainties for all habitats, particularly for farmland and marine environments.
  • Secondly, the committee stated that the UK did not have the required skills to deliver nature-based solutions at scale. It noted that the government had acknowledged this but that there had been no formal assessment of the skills needed. Similarly, the committee had found that there was no route to providing training in the timescales required for transition from the common agricultural policy to environmental land management schemes over the next decade.
  • Thirdly, it argued that there was “huge uncertainty” surrounding the details behind policies that would incentivise nature-based solutions. For example, the committee noted that the government had previously said “in broad terms” that environmental land management schemes would be a central mechanism for subsidising farmers and other landowners to deliver such solutions, but the details of how this would work had not been developed.
  • Fourthly, the committee stated that more funding was required in several key areas. This included in research, ranging from more practical field monitoring and trials with farmers to areas such as soil and marine carbon sequestration.
  • Fifthly, it said that those responsible for farming in the UK needed to be fully engaged with nature-based solutions, as approximately 72% of the UK’s land is farmed.
  • Sixthly, the committee reported that the government had hoped that private finance would fund nature-based solutions by creating markets for carbon credits that could be used to offset residual emissions. However, the committee argued that these markets would only deliver the desired results if they were properly regulated and verified to prevent inaccurate claims of offsetting.
  • Lastly, the committee said that it did not hear evidence that the government had an effective plan for resolving the “many competing demands” on land, such as producing food, materials and providing space for both nature and housing.

Therefore, the committee concluded that although the government’s ambitions for nature-based solutions were “admirable”, there was a “clear and present danger” that the ambitions would not be achieved. The committee argued that this could “undermine the target of net zero by 2050, as well as the agricultural sector”.

2. What recommendations did the committee make?

The committee made several recommendations to tackle the issues raised in its report. This included the following:

  • Increase the budgets of public bodies (such as Natural England and the Environment Agency) to allow the delivery of nature-based solutions and support the government’s “ambitious” environmental targets.
  • Establish “ambitious” skills and training programmes for land managers, delivery bodies and authorities tasked with developing local nature recovery strategies (LNRS). This included “urgently” expanding training in surveying, monitoring and verifying, carbon accountancy, forestry, ecology and planning and carrying out nature-based solutions.
  • Provide additional support “as a matter of urgency”, in the form of a dedicated advisory service, to farmers and land managers to help them engage with environmental land management schemes, which should be delivered in collaboration with public delivery bodies.
  • Provide clarity about what companies must do to claim net zero emissions.
  • Develop an overall land use strategy which outlines how nature-based solutions contribute to net zero emissions, how they will be integrated with other policies, and how trade-offs in land use will be managed.

3. How did the government respond?

The Boris Johnson government published its response to the committee on 21 April 2022. In its response, the government said that it had welcomed the “challenges and risks raised by the committee” and was taking action to address them and the risks to the delivery of these plans, including:

  • Increasing the budgets of delivery bodies to allow them to support the government’s “ambitious” targets. The government said that the budgets and responsibilities of delivery bodies were reviewed annually during business planning rounds and shared with arm’s length bodies. The government also noted that its three-year spending review settlement, which secured a £1.4bn uplift by 2024/25 for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) group, gave it the “certainty with which to plan for the delivery of our ambitious outcomes”.
  • Establishing skills and training programmes for land managers, authorities developing LNRS and public delivery bodies. The government stated that the green jobs taskforce, launched in November 2020, advised the government, industry and the skills sector on how to realise the UK’s ambitions for green jobs. It also said that the taskforce had published its recommendations in July 2021, which helped inform the development of the ‘Net zero strategy’ (published in October 2021). Additionally, the government detailed other measures it had taken to invest in the skills needed to deliver nature-based solutions across England. This included investing £80mn in the green recovery challenge fund, to help the nature conservation sector retain and recruit skilled people throughout the Covid-19 pandemic by creating and retaining up to 2,500 jobs, and investing £10mn into the natural environment investment readiness fund to build capacity to deliver market-scale models for investment in nature-based solutions.
  • Providing additional support, in the form of a dedicated advisory service, to help land managers engage with environmental land management schemes. The government noted that it wanted environmental land management schemes to be “user friendly” and “easy to access and engage with”. Therefore, among several measures, it had developed the future farming resilience fund to provide free business support to farmers and land managers during the agriculture transition.
  • Providing clarity about what companies must do to claim net zero emissions. The government stated that to achieve “real climate, environmental and social benefits”, the voluntary carbon market must be used in addition to action to reduce direct emissions in line with science-based targets. Therefore, it said that it was supporting the voluntary carbon market integrity initiative to help develop “clear guidance” for businesses and other organisations to ensure that the use of voluntary carbon markets helped to deliver the “greatest benefits” for the climate, people and nature. The government said that the guidance is set out in the environmental reporting guidelines.
  • Developing an overall land use strategy. The government outlined that Defra was conducting analysis to help to support multifunctional land uses and inform the government of its approach to managing trade-offs. It stated that the need for a land use strategy would be “kept under review” as the work progressed in 2022.

4. What recent developments have there been?

4.1 Environmental land management schemes

In March 2021, the then government announced three new schemes that it stated would reward environmental land management under the agricultural transition plan. One of these launched in 2022, with the remaining two expected to launch in 2024:

  • Sustainable farming incentive (SFI). The scheme is comprised of a set of standards. Each standard would be based on a feature, such as grassland, containing a group of actions that a farmer needed to complete. The SFI began piloting in 2021, before launching in 2022.
  • Local nature recovery. The scheme pays farmers for actions that support local nature recovery and meet local environmental priorities, and it also involves collaboration between farmers. The government said the scheme would launch in 2024.
  • Landscape recovery. This government stated that this scheme would support landscape and ecosystem recovery through long-term projects, for example large-scale tree planting. In 2022, the scheme began piloting several projects. It is also estimated to launch in 2024.

Under the schemes, the government would pay farmers and landowners for sustainable farming practices, including reducing carbon emissions; creating and preserving habitats, such as hedgerows; and making landscape-scale environmental changes.

In January 2023, the government said that there were at least 39,000 instances of businesses accessing at least one of either the SFI or the landscape recovery schemes in 2021/22. The government also stated that at least 48,000 businesses had accessed one of the schemes in 2022/23.

4.2 Environmental targets

The Environment Act 2021 required the government to set at least one long-term target (spanning at least 15 years after the date it had been set) in each of four priority areas:

  • air quality
  • biodiversity
  • resource efficiency
  • water

It also required targets to be set for fine particulate matter and species abundance.

In March 2022, the then government ran a consultation on its proposed environmental targets, arguing that the targets had gone beyond the legal minimum that it was required to set. The government also consulted on additional proposals on biodiversity, marine and woodland cover. The consultation ran until June 2022.

The government published its response to the consultation in December 2022. In its response, the government said that several respondents had welcomed the setting of proposed targets and that many consultees viewed it as a “positive step” in protecting the environment. The government also acknowledged that there were differences of opinion between those representing the industries responsible for implementing the proposed targets and those with a “primary focus on environmental issues”. The response to the consultation also detailed the final environmental targets set out by the government, which included:

  • restoring or creating more than 500,000 hectares of a range of wildlife-rich habitats outside protected sites by 2042, compared with 2022 levels
  • ensuring that species abundance in 2042 is greater than in 2022, and at least 10% greater than in 2030

The government also introduced a target to reduce phosphorous loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2038 against a 2020 baseline. It argued that this target was framed to allow water companies to “make use of nature-based solutions” as part of the wastewater treatment process.

In its response to the consultation, the government stated that it would be laying statutory instruments setting out the final targets, which would proceed for approval by Parliament. It also noted that each long-term target would be accompanied by non-statutory interim targets, of up to five years in duration. The targets were set out in the ‘Environmental improvement plan’, published on 31 January 2023.

4.3 Nature-based solutions for climate grant

In July 2022, the government opened applications for a one-off ‘nature-based solutions for climate habitation creation grant’ for partnership-led pilot projects in England. Projects were required to achieve habitat creation and restoration at a landscape scale (an area of at least 500 hectares in size). Successful applicants would receive part of a £5mn pot from public funding. The programme’s aims were to:

  • learn how carbon accumulated in, and was released from, different habitats
  • show how private and public funding can combine to achieve economically viable and long-term environmental objectives
  • understand the benefits of considering nature-based solutions at the landscape scale
  • provide evidence to inform future grant schemes

The programme closed on 29 August 2022.

4.4 Environmental improvement plan

On 31 January 2023, the government published its ‘Environmental improvement plan’. The plan detailed the action that the government would take to halt and then reverse the decline in nature. The plan’s proposals covered how the government would:

  • create and restore at least 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats, starting with 70 new wildlife projects
  • deliver a “clean and plentiful” supply of water for people and nature in the future by enabling greater sources of supply; publishing a roadmap to “boost household water efficiency”; and tackling leaks
  • challenge councils to improve air quality more quickly and tackle key hotspots
  • incentivise farmers to adopt nature-friendly practices, which would “transform the management of 70% of our countryside”
  • boost green growth and create new jobs

5. Read more

Cover image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay.