The UK’s green spaces play an important role in population wellbeing, with their outstanding natural beauty collectively drawing in more than 90 million visitors a year. But our countryside also has the potential to contribute to the health of the planet.
There are currently 15 national parks in the United Kingdom under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 in England and Wales, and the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000. Together, they are home to nearly half a million people, and support thriving local economies and industry.
Perhaps most importantly, they are also an enormous resource for the green agenda, with the potential to make a significant contribution to delivering carbon reductions and green growth, at a fraction of the cost of engineered solutions.
Legislators are already on board. The government’s target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 was given a major boost recently with the unveiling of the £40 million Green Recovery Challenge Fund; highlights include the creation of new national parks, and net-zero initiatives, triggered by the desire for an eco-friendly recovery from Covid-19.
The N8 Research Partnership is helping drive this momentum forwards having recently proposed our Net Zero North research programme to the government, focused on how the natural environment, among other pathways, can support the UK’s net zero aspirations.
In November, we convened an online webinar to explore the idea further alongside park authorities and funding experts from both public and private sectors.
Hosted by Professor Sue Hartley, Vice-President for Research at the University of Sheffield, each of our guest panellists discussed the huge potential of current and future nature-based solutions and why, with buy-in from funding partners and researchers, the UK’s national parks are poised to lead the way in delivering a net-zero carbon future.
Professor Janet Haddock-Fraser is the Chair of the Peak District Climate Change Task Force. She began our webinar by explaining the importance of proper parks management in combatting the climate crisis.
“Healthy peatland is a natural flood risk manager,” said Janet, “acting like a sponge to stop flooding downstream, as well as reducing the risk of wildfires and bringing a biodiversity boost. If we’d had healthier peaks, damage costs from the floods in Sheffield last year could have been lowered.”
However, Janet also explained that just as these natural assets could help us reach the net-zero goal, they could also be a carbon contributor.
“Decades of damage has seen the peatland degraded through land management practices that haven’t encouraged its long term sustainability. If it continues to erode then we can estimate almost 20 million tonnes of carbon will be released, so we’re making a lot of preventative efforts through land restoration.”
Janet then turned to the authority’s other strategies – and the importance of proper impact evaluation in green strategies.
“Together with the Forestry Commission, we’ve planted about 167 hectares of trees annually. It’s easy to see tree-planting as a solution to our carbon emission problems, however we don’t want to promote large scale plantations and single species planting. That goes against preserving the particular species and habitats for which we have a designated national park status.”
Janet concluded that nature-based options generated a multitude of benefits “beyond zero carbon. But as we don’t own a lot of the land we’re working with, communication with farmers and landowners is a major part of our role for implementation and ensuring they’re aware of conservation’s long-term benefits, as well as providing support advice for those short-term costs.”
Collaboration between authority leaders was seen as similarly crucial. “It really is a team effort. We need to work together – whether universities, councils, volunteers and businesses – and protect the beauty and benefit of the park.”
For Naomi Conway, our next speaker, this point was especially poignant given her role as Development Director for the National Parks Partnership in creating effective communication channels between the UK’s “family” of national parks, and the private sector.
Naomi looked towards tackling that challenge in one, clear way. “I asked the 15 chief executives of the national parks what their collective issues were and the clear message I got was a shared desire to help in the fight against climate change. They recognised that they have the expertise in large scale nature protection, and felt this could be used to help push the green agenda forward.”
From this, her next challenge presented itself: “how could I package that desire for prospective funders?”
She started with a proposal. “I asked the parks to send me their restoration projects, each of which had to have positive sustainable impacts around things like biodiversity, water quality, reduced flood risk and recreational improvements.”
Grouped under the title ‘Net Zero with Nature’, she received back a range of projects, from a temperate rainforest in Exmoor National Park, to restoring hedgerows in Snowdonia.
“It really demonstrated the wide range of landscapes the parks have, and the expertise of those working in those kind of environments. In total, there were around 30,000 hectares of restoration and habitat; which included 12,000 hectares of peatland restoration, and over 10,660 hectares of habitat restoration. Put together, that’s an area larger than Birmingham.”
One of the most impressive projects this task unveiled was the Great North Bog. This project covers 92% of the upland peat in England, crossing five national parks and storing about 400 million tonnes of carbon. Described as the ‘Amazon’ of England, it also provides 15 million properties with water in the local area.
So what about the carbon impact?
“Carbon is not everything”, said Naomi. “Reassuringly, companies are still interested in seeing the positive outcomes of this type of work, such as biodiversity, volunteering, and wellbeing outcomes.”
Having established that the interest is there, Naomi proposes that now is the perfect time for companies to be getting on board. “Early adopters can show commitment to the work and locate sustainable income streams in this type of work.”
The money problem
Our final speaker, Richard Fitton, Associate Director at Environmental Finance, has a decade’s experience in corporate finance. He has seen first-hand the difficulty in engaging the traditional finance sector with the climate crisis.
Richard told us that attracting finance in the first instance meant choosing project designs that show investment return, alongside environmental impact. “Typically, conservation projects require upfront expenditures, so things like grants can be useful in reducing the risk for commercial investors. But we can’t rely on philanthropy.”
Business models do exist for funding streams. “An example,” said Richard, “is carbon credits. Say a developer has built over land with biodiversity value – they will need to deliver mitigation onsite, or else account for the damage through a third party. Buying carbon credits means the developer can offset their carbon by investing in another green project – creating a self-fulfilling economy for future projects to make use of.”
One of the issues identified for these grants was accessibility, and the need for equivalent resources for less-established natural solutions.
“There do remain difficulties in ensuring these codes have a nation-wide application,” Richard noted. “For example, not all peatland landscapes are covered by the code so there are currently fewer incentives for corporates to make use of that resource.”
However, Richard pointed to market opportunities, such as coastal habitats, marine, tidal – all of which currently lack mechanisms for income generation, noting that “there is room to push for further support and open up income generation.”
Financial analysis reveals, however that at the end of the day, project revenue is the real tool for investor buy-in. “One of the most important tools we use to assess a project is a cash flow forecast which basically weighs up the revenue of the project over time,” said Richard. “If those returns are more than the total cost of the project, then it’s bankable.”
All of our speakers showed enthusiasm for the UK’s current and future role in the adoption and development of nature-based solutions. Amongst the challenges highlighted, opportunities were also identified to fully maximise the benefits of the UK’s natural resources.
Through an effective channel of local authorities, funders, advisors and campaigners; we can encourage companies to invest in the green industrial revolution, and carry out the research needed to maximise our country’s largest natural resource.
As Naomi Conway commented, “It’s challenging to unlock significant funding from the private sectors, however, there is a lot of potential and interest for companies to come on the journey with us.”
If you would like to find out more about the Net Zero North programme, please visit www.n8research.org.uk/net-zero-north/.
To get involved, please contact the N8 team: www.n8research.org.uk/about-us/contact-us
You can also watch a recording of the webinar, plus download copies of the speaker presentations here: www.n8research.org.uk/webinar-nature-based-interventions/