Andy Atkins, CEO, A Rocha UK
Climate and nature have long been treated as completely separate issues yet there is a clear link between the changing climate and the huge loss of biodiversity and species. Churches have a calling to be concerned with both people and the wider environment - wild nature, habitats, ‘natural systems’ which sustain us. First, because Christians have a mandate to protect Creation, and environmental degradation flies in the face of that responsibility. Second, because human-caused climate disruption affects the most poor and vulnerable globally - it’s a justice issue.
The UK government, which will host the critical UN climate negotiations in Glasgow this November, has chosen ‘nature-based solutions’ as one of its five priorities. This is significant – it is the first time ‘nature’ has been up there with emissions reductions and climate finance in the international negotiations. What’s behind this is that scientists and economists are realising that restoring certain types of nature could provide a major component of national and international strategies to combat climate change. Activities like restoring wetlands, forests, grasslands, underwater kelp forests, as well as changing farming and fishing practices, could all make a major contribution to ‘sequestering’ carbon – extracting it from the atmosphere and locking it safely away.
We’re not just talking about the Amazon basin or Great Barrier Reef: there is huge scope in the UK. Take kelp forest as an example. It grows naturally around many parts of our coastline. It provides habitat and food for a large number of marine species and it is up to 20 times more effective at sequestering carbon than land-based forests. There used to be 177 km² of kelp off the coast of Sussex alone, but by 2018 this had diminished to just 6 km² thanks to harmful fishing practices among other things. Now a project between West Sussex County Council and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) is working to restore it, creating habitat for up to 1000 marine species.
Or look at simple farmland. A 2,000-acre estate in West Sussex is looking at a scheme to change the way they do arable farming. This would involve using a mixture of ‘heritage’ wheat, new sowing systems and nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover under the wheat crops. A survey of the estate recently found that the retention of soil organic matter from their creative cropping systems had the potential to sequester over 23,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The Church - denominations and local churches - has a role to play in rolling out ‘nature based solutions’. For example, it owns a significant area of land in the UK. Managed in the right way, this could make an important contribution to nature recovery and addressing climate change, with thousands of local churches and their churchyards plus major farm and urban estates run as investments, all playing their part.
This is an exciting opportunity for the Church. For humanity to survive in the long term we need to address both the climate and biodiversity loss emergencies. Identifying and supporting ‘win-wins’ which work for both, whether in the church yard or at the national and global scale, obviously makes sense. In addition, it may help to engage more Christians in action on climate change to approach it through the lens of nature - which is much more tangible and visible right there in our garden, local park or churchyard.
However, one note of caution is due: must avoid the existence and attraction of nature based solutions becoming an excuse for avoiding other necessary action which some politicians and businesses have long resisted. In April the International Energy Association reported that the world now needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% in the next decade, to keep to the 2015 Paris Accord’s aim to avoid more than a 1.5 degree temperature rise above the pre-industrial average. Burning fossil fuel is still the greatest single source of greenhouse gas emissions.
So, as exciting and helpful as nature based solutions to absorbing carbon are, it must remain the overriding priority for societies and politicians to get our economies off fossil fuels and renewable energy, whilst also getting these nature based solutions underway.