The situation with climate change is so tight that, if we want to achieve the Paris target of 1.5 Celsius average global temperature (and we must), we need to bring land management into the frame of action, and do so urgently.
Peatlands in the UK leak huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – 16 million tonnes of CO2e every year, the same as half the national GHG savings we make. This is because, overall, they’re in really poor condition, with bare peat eroding and losing carbon to both streams and sky. On blanket bogs, this is relatively easy to fix, by restoring habitat.
But the biggest carbon loss from peatlands in England comes from our agricultural peat soils, and this presents a much trickier problem. Perhaps because agriculture began on the arid soils of the Middle East, we’ve come to believe that the only route to productive land is to drain it. So we’ve drained peatlands for farming, across eastern England, in the south west, in the north west. With an even more pronounced impact than in the uplands – four metres of soil gone in East Anglia, clearly shown by the Holme Fen post.
The Holme Fen post - the top was level with the ground in 1851
Which is where swamp farming comes in. We need to keep productive, economic use on much of our farmed peatlands, but we need to do this in more appropriate ways. Grow useful crops on wet soils, keeping the carbon locked up in the soil, and indeed keeping the very soil in its place, halting the long-running erosion. Such agriculture is widespread globally, and known as paludiculture – from the Latin palus meaning swamp.
I’ve been at a conference looking at the different things we might grow on re-wetted soils in the UK, and thinking about how we might make this shift. Practical research, trials and economic assessments are well advanced in Germany. We heard of 75 potential crop species, with products ranging from food to medicines, insulation and biomass, fodder and construction materials. Horticulture is in the mix too, a popular activity on peat soils. And peat extraction companies were also present, interested in growing Sphagnum moss as a replacement for peat in composts.
A lot of opportunity, yet no-one is pretending this is going to be easy. Establishing new markets is just as important as establishing new crops. So the promising signals from the Committee on Climate Change recommending sustainable soil use by 2030, and from early stakeholder discussions on Defra’s England Peat Strategy, need to be matched with similar interest from the business and market development sectors of Government. With this, we could be well on the way to the greener post-Brexit Britain our politicians are talking up - and adding a crucial piece of the jigsaw towards the UK meeting our global climate change responsibilities.
Many thanks to Natural England and Cumbria Wildlife Trust for an inspiring event, hopefully a truly ground breaking one: paludiculture, swamp farming in Britain, just might have been started here.
From John Lanchbery RSPB Climate Change Principal Policy Officer
For the last two weeks I have been at the UN climate talks in Bonn – known in the jargon as COP 23. It is the first COP with a small island country as president: Fiji. Unfortunately the meeting could not be held in Fiji simply because it is too small to house the tens of thousands of people who come to these meetings nowadays and it is a very long way to go for the rest of the World. The RSPB (Sarah Nelson and I) have been here with BirdLife Partners Siteri from Nature Fiji, David from SEO in Spain, Ed from the BirdLife Secretariat (who is from New Zealand) and a lot of people from NABU, our German Partner, led by Olaf their President.
The venue was centred on the old West German Parliament building down by the Rhine, surrounded by a huge new conference centre with vast conference rooms which was, in turn, surrounded by enormous tented camps in which countries had their national “pavilions” and where lectures and other events are held.
In spite of a great deal of activity on the fringes, progress in the main event (the UN climate talks!) was disappointingly slow. Since the highly successful Paris COP two years ago, nations have meant to be preparing for the first formal meeting of the Paris Agreement at the end of next year – ironically to be held in the small coal-mining town of Catowice in the Silesian coal fields of southern Poland. Yet countries are nowhere near finishing the work mandated by their heads of government in Paris - in spite of twenty five heads of government being here in Bonn, including Chancellor Merkel and President Macron.
In Catowice, nations will review where we are in terms of limiting warming to 1.5C in light of a new report by the UN’s climate science body – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC will inevitably find that we are miles off course and that countries will need to strengthen their emission reduction targets dramatically. To do this, countries will need to use the rule book on carbon reporting and accounting, which is what they should have been preparing here but have not. 2018 looks like being a pretty intensive year.
On the more positive side. The mood here has been good – helped a lot by Fiji being a happy and inclusive president. Also, America has engaged constructively – with the same core bunch of people who came for the Obama Administration. They working on the basis that they comply with the latest instructions given to them by the Administration and the most recent instructions were from Obama. Having said that, the “US minister” who is definitely from the Trump Administration was also conciliatory in her speech. Surprising but good.
Another positive thing was that us Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been pushing hard on what we call “natural solutions” to climate change. For a few years now we have been banging on about the dangers of the so-called negative emissions technologies used in almost all climate scenario models to go to 1.5C. We have now turned positive by proposing natural solutions instead: conserving and enhancing natural carbon sinks and reservoirs, such as forests and peatlands. We have always said this but we now have far more science-based numbers to back us up, thanks most recently to a paper in the Proceedings of American Academies of Science, led by the Nature Conservancy in the USA. Some of us have worked up a Climate Action Network position on the subject which, if successful, will represent 1,200 NGOs Worldwide, including not just the big environmental groups but the development groups too.
I gave talks at a lot of events mainly, but not exclusively, on natural solutions. These included two talks with the Convention on Biodiversity and IUCN, one with the Convention on Migratory Species (with Ed and Sebastian from NABU on planning for renewables), one with WWF and WCS of forests (Trillion Trees), one with Climate Action Network International and one on the harm done to Caribbean UK Overseas Territories by hurricane Irma (written entirely by Lyndon John our Caribbean UKOTs officer base in St Lucia).
Onwards and upwards.
UNFCCC COP kicked off this week. John Lanchbery our Principal Policy Officer reports on the activities from the first couple of days….
The climate COP in Bonn started as all COPs do for environment and development groups - with a six-hour strategy session on Sunday afternoon. We had a very good turnout for the session on agriculture, forestry and other land use – getting on for 50 people which must be a record. My co-chair (Teresa from Action Aid) and I were delighted.
On Monday, as the Fijian COP started, Siteri from Nature Fiji arrived looking very much the Pacific Islander complete with a Jacaranda flower in her hair. (Nature Fiji is the Fijian BirdLife Partner.) This is Siteria’s first COP and we were delighted to be able to help facilitate her to attend – her presence not only increases our impact as BirdLife at this meeting but also helps build the capacity of our smaller BirdLife partners - a vital tool in helping us to achieve our International ambitions. I briefed Siteri on how COPs work, insofar as one can outline such a complex process.
We then went to our first side event on nature-based solutions to climate change run by the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), the IUCN and other wildlife folk. I gave a talk on how we should conserve and enhance natural sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases to help reach the Paris Agreement goal (such as preserving areas of tropical rainforest, like Gola Rainforest) rather than using suspect and often downright dodgy geo-engineering “solutions” such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage. It predictably went down well with the IUCN and especially the CBD, who have been concerned about the dangers of geo-engineering for many years.
Spent a quiet but very long evening writing a Climate Action Network (CAN) position on nature-based solutions which I am doing with Christoph Thies from Greenpeace Germany who follows both the climate talks and the CBD. We will present out thoughts to the rest of CAN on Wednesday afternoon. Producing joint positions to present to Governments, which provide a clear and consistent message from all of the key NGOs, really helps us achieve the most impact.
Up in pitch darkness on Tuesday for the daily CAN coordination meeting and then off to a huge tented camp down by the Rhine where most side events are being held. (A side event is anything that is not part of the formal UN process). Siteri joined me there, complete with the Jacaranda flower, and we went to our RSPB side event in the UK Government Pavilion.
Our event was on building climate resilience in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) following Hurricane Irma. It went down very well. I can say that because Lyndon John, the RSPB’s UKOTs officer in St Lucia, wrote all of it. We had some good questions, especially from a Mexican lady on the extent to which small island states can cope with emergencies. Siteri chipped in with experiences in Fiji of their recent cyclone – having someone at the event who had been personally been affected by such extreme weather events, really helped bring the importance of this issue to life.
Had a late lunch and moved on to the WWF Pavilion, for our Trillion Trees event with WWF and WCS. I was on a panel with a very nice bloke from Tanzania, two Columbians and a German, who is sponsoring Trillion Trees. I did natural solutions to climate change again but with a slightly different spin. Again, all went well with a full house and lots of questions.
Finished the day in the Fijian Pavilion with Siteri drinking cassava wine from coconut shells - as is traditional in Germany.
Do follow our blogs as negotiations progress and we will keep you updated on how we get on….