Mark Lynas: Could leaving nature to its own devices be the key to meeting the UK’s climate goals?
Rewilding Britain is calling for vast swathes of land to be restored to nature, we get the lowdown from environmental researcher Mark Lynas.
The UK government’s official climate advisors recently reported that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions must fall to zero by 2050 in order to tackle the growing threat of manmade climate change.
However, it seems unlikely that we will be able to reach this target by simply burning less fossil fuel and cutting down on international travel. So what else can be done?
Environmental charity Rewilding Britain thinks that the answer is to let large areas of the country return to their pre-agricultural state to restore natural carbon sequestering environments such as peat bogs, heaths and salt marshes.
In this episode of the Science Focus Podcast BBC Science Focus commissioning editor Jason Goodyer talks to environmental researcher Mark Lynas about the potential beneficial effects of rewilding.
We now have more than 75 episodes of the Science Focus Podcast, each of which is still well worth a listen. Here are a few that you might find interesting:
- Can science explain everything? – Michael Blastland
- What if the Earth’s magnetic field died? – Jim Al-Khalili
- How can we save our planet? – Sir David Attenborough
- Are we facing an insect apocalypse? – Brad Lister
- Air pollution is killing us, here's how you can stop it – Gary Fuller
- There is no Plan B for planet Earth – Lord Martin Rees
Read the edited interview from BBC Science Focus Magazine
What exactly is rewilding?
Rewilding is different from traditional nature conservation, where you have a nature reserve or one particular bird or plant that you’re trying to preserve.
What rewilding tries to do is bring back the wild over a larger area.
To bring back nature in a more self-willed way, where ecosystems can begin to rejuvenate and restore the land so that species can more or less design their own ecosystems, rather than having humans defining every aspect of what should be a natural environment.
Are some landscapes more suitable than others?
In the Rewilding Britain report there was a lot of talk about the UK’s unique ecosystems – particularly upland areas, the peat bogs or blanket bogs, which have been heavily degraded through draining, burning and overgrazing by sheep.
These are huge areas of carbon draped across the tops of many upland areas that haven’t been managed properly.
These areas need to be rewetted so that the peat-forming vegetation can return.
We need to get most of the grazing animals off them, so that the plants can grow, and let the bogs return to doing their thing, which is removing carbon from the atmosphere.
What scale do we need to do this on to make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions?
We quantified it at about six million hectares.
These were just indicative figures, but if we did that we could sequester about 10 per cent of the UK’s emissions.
Remember: we don’t just have to cut emissions to net zero; we also have to reabsorb the accumulated carbon that is already up there if we’re going to meet the climate change targets of 2°C or 1.5°C.
How do you get that carbon back out of the atmosphere?
Well, allowing rewilded ecosystems to begin to sequester carbon again is one of the options.
How do the farmers and other landowners feel about this?
The thing about farming is that it’s a business.
The point of the Rewilding Britain report is that we’re recognising that farmers need to be supported when we’re looking at ecological restoration and carbon sequestration.
These aren’t things that you can expect farmers to do for free and still make money.
There are business opportunities with diversification and ecotourism and so on, but you’ve always got to think about how farmers make a living.
If you’re talking about livestock farmers and you’re asking them to reduce stocking density, how do they continue to make a profit?
The point of the report is to look at how we can restructure farming subsidies. Pretty much all upland farming (and a good deal of farming elsewhere) is supported by subsidies, which are paid by land area anyway.
That doesn’t support environmental objectives.
We need to restructure these subsidies so that they not only support the environment, but also support farmers as they move towards more ecological types of land use, including rewilding.
How will that differ to current subsidies?
All farmers, pretty much, who have got substantial amounts of land will take up the subsidies because the hectarage payments are quite high.
You get what’s called basic payment and its hundreds of pounds per hectare under the European Union’s common agricultural policy.
Brexit, if it goes ahead, presents us with an opportunity: the UK will be leaving the common agricultural policy and, therefore, can design a new and more sustainable system for agricultural subsidies, which we’re suggesting focuses hectarage payments on carbon sequestration.
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For example, if you’re allowing a forest to regenerate on this grassland, how much carbon is it going to sequester?
If you rewet this peat bog and then let it return to absorbing carbon, how many tonnes is it going to absorb per hectare?
Put a price on that and you can pay the farmer accordingly.
Can animals play a role in this?
Absolutely, you don’t have an ecosystem composed solely of plants.
Certain species are considered keystone species, beavers are a good example of that.
They are ecosystem engineers – they cut down trees along the edges of streams and build dams, they create new areas of wetland producing a habitat for lots of other species, such as fish and dragonflies.
Beavers are an all-round good thing: they can improve the quality of the habitat and encourage it to sequester more carbon.
Of course you need predator species as well – lynx, perhaps, and osprey, goshawks…
A lot of species that would be present in a wilder, more natural habitat within the UK biome are not there and we should encourage them to return.
Wild boar is another example, they’re beginning to come back in some areas but they were extirpated several hundred years ago.
The more species you get in an ecosystem, the more natural the food chain can become.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.